Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hammer Time!: Red Faction: Guerrilla Review

Vindicated, at last! In February, I posted a rave review of the Resident Evil 5 demo, almost swallowing my tongue in my haste to yell out what a great game RE5 was going to be.

I was, um, wrong.

My anticipation of Red Faction: Guerrilla was more guarded. The Geo-Mod 2 tech looked promising, but would there be a game to back it up? Volition has a history of making gleefully anarchic fun out of gang warfare, yet still I hesitated. Smashing walls with a hammer can be fun for ten minutes in a demo, but will it stretch over 15 hours of gameplay?

Yes, yes and yes. Red Faction: Guerrilla, despite an almost total absence of plot, is a deeply gratifying shooter, a hell of a deal and a vindication of good design.

Make no mistake: You will buy Guerrilla for Geo-Mod 2, the proprietary destruction engine that makes almost everything in the game world vulnerable to the cunningly placed remote mine, rocket or sledgehammer blow. You won’t buy this game for its thoughtful plot, striking humanity or views on workers’ rights. Lens flare has more relevance to RF:G than story, and there isn’t much lens flare. Gamers looking for a deep, morally provocative game should take the next exit and buy Far Cry 2.

For those of us who aren’t annotating our copy of Heart of Darkness, pick up the sledgehammer and take a swing at the nearest wall. See that? It falls down. Hit a support beam, and everything it’s holding up falls down – walls the roof, other beams. And it falls down on people, ammunition, explosive barrels. Before you know it, everything around you is exploding into matchsticks. If you don’t love this, get an MRI.

Neat trick, sure, but does it factor into the gameplay? Wonderfully. Salvage is the currency of RF:G, and the only way to get salvage is by reducing vehicles or buildings to rubble. High-value targets – city halls, memorial bridges, fuel depots – yield a ton of salvage. Taking fire from an office complex? Knock out its supports and fold the entire building in half. Need to rescue a hostage? Blow a hole in the wall, grab them, and jump out (just be careful about that hole – more than one rescue attempt failed early because of careless demo jobs).

Throughout Guerrilla's 10-plus hours of gameplay, blowing shit up never gets old. With some of the more apocalyptic weapons, it may get easier and less engaging, but it never gets old. Geo-Mod 2 is easily the coolest engine since Source, and I can’t wait to see it used in future Volition titles.

That said, RF:G sacrifices looks for framerate. At no point are the graphics cringe inducing – and those 60 fps are always welcome – but in some areas, the terrain and textures are blasé. Oasis, one of Mars’ more terraformed areas, is particularly bad; the ground looks like dirty shag carpet.

While I didn’t buy Guerrilla for a rousing story, I expected at least a gesture; while the game’s manual does a good job of introducing the characters, their jobs and motivations, it pretty much leaves it at that. And that’s fine – but it doesn’t excuse the game’s lack of character. Saint’s Row 2 was positively loud with chatter, noise and attitude; Mars cars, for whatever reason, have no radio. You can only get your propaganda/news by standing near the radio kiosks, and if you can do that for more than two seconds without taking a swing, I tip my hat to you. The minimal effort it would have taken to let you enjoy propaganda talk radio whilst driving epitomizes the disappointing lack of effort put into fleshing out Mars. So far as we can tell, it’s just a dusty shithole with a ton of crap to blow up. While the occasional campaign mission imparts a rush of dire urgency – a mission where you evacuate a town from under a barrage of artillery shells comes to mind – there’s no story, no mood to be seen or felt. And it’s something the game wants.

Great engine, crap story, tons of fun. Really, Red Faction: Guerrilla isn’t going to inspire any games-as-art debates. Typical of Volition, it’s an action title that eschews high-mindedness in favor of a robust, complete and fulfilling experience. Guerrilla delivers the quality you expect of the developer while introducing an engine that will – I hope – change the way action titles approach in-game buildings. When there’s nothing to hide behind, you change your tactics quickly. Take heed, developers.