Sunday, 26 August 2012

Red Faction Armageddon (PS3) Review

The tragic disintegrating protagonist pandemic claims another victim.

Red Faction Armageddon Review

Red Faction is a D List scifi action game franchise with two important facets: Scenery deformation and disappointment. The original game was a First Person Shooter that was effectively a launch title for the Playstation 2 and featured the unique gameplay element of deformable scenery, allowing players to blast natural formations of rock (But no man made structures) with explosives and see real time damage. However, its story of Martian miners seeking freedom from an autocratic mega corporation was a hackneyed and laughably acted pastiche of Total Recall, to say nothing of its clunky and awkward gameplay. The sequel abandoned the Martian aesthetic and became an even more trite exercise, dropping even the scenery destruction and ending up as a totally run of the mill Halo would-be. The third game, Guerilla, was where things took a strong turn in the right direction. Abandoning much of the pre-existing concept, the team at Volition made a third-person, Sandbox based game which shifted the emphasis over to the destruction of buildings as its unique quality. As a freedom fighter battling the dictatorial rule of the Earth military on the red planet, players were charged with destroying enemy real estate with an impressively realised physics engine and some very fun toys. It still had flaws, but Guerilla definitely remains Volition’s strongest offering in their fifteen year history, next to the hilariously silly Saints Row 2.

Armageddon returns to the series roots by providing a linear path through mostly underground areas and makes use of the same engine as Guerilla. It focuses on Darius Mason, the grandson of Guerilla’s protagonist, as he battles the machinations of a moustache-twirlingly evil doomsday cult and the alien menace they unleash on Mars. As a result the game abandons all pretences of its anti-authoritarian roots and thus most of what made its plot unique, leaving it a much poorer experience as a result. It’s just as well that in exchange for all these lost elements, there’s some fairly solid gameplay here.

Luckily Darius is also Cole Macgrath, Starkiller and every other third person action protagonist.

Mostly players will pilot Darius through repetitive tunnels made diverse only by slight shifts in ambient colour schemes. The main time sinks are murdering bone-stupid aliens and murdering bone-stupid human enemies, mostly the former. Thankfully the aliens are fairly agile, so they can be relied upon to surround you consistently, but their lack of real variety in attack methods makes them largely forgettable. At the very least the stealthy enemy variant has some nice sound design. Vehicular combat sections offer a pleasing change of pace as you plow through buildings in some nicely designed power armour and other futuristic motors, but the tactical diversity these stages put you up against amount to nothing more than, “See enemy. Shoot. Circle strafe.” Ad infinitum, while on foot things are at least a little interesting.

Yes, the game truly glimmers when the player is making the most of its more creative weapons, primarily the delightfully fun Magnet Gun, that allows you to creatively maim enemies with the physics engine. Anything struck with the first shot from this weapon will be pulled to wherever the second shot is placed, and with a modicum of creativity this simple concept can be employed to enact pleasingly violent effects on Darius’s enemies. It actually manages to be significantly more enjoyable to use than practically any weapon in the game, and given that it is found fairly early on, has infinite ammo and adapts to almost any combat situation, it does overshadow the rest of his arsenal. This says alot, seeing as they are mostly fun and less constraining when compared to Guerilla, which could be downright abusive with how little ammo you could carry. The brother mechanic to the Magnet Gun is the Nanoforge Gauntlet, Darius’s main utility weapon. Aside from most of the game’s RPG-style unlocked abilities revolving around it, it allows players to reassemble destroyed buildings by simply standing nearby and pointing it at them. It’s a natural extension to the demolition engine, and can be very gratifying to use, even if it’s not utilised to it’s full potential in terms of set pieces or possible puzzles. It’s unique, empowering and fun to use, and really that’s enough

Tragically the main attraction from Guerilla’s engine, Demolition, is underplayed by design. While still present, fun and a large part of the game, the prevalence of underground environments means that there is a distinct lack of massive buildings to destroy in the single player campaign, which were easily the most gratifying highlight the previous game had to offer. Also, while Guerilla had a good plot reason for destroying buildings, Armageddon has to shoe-horn in the element by implying that the aliens breed by Corrupting buildings. It’s another silly plot thread in a greater tapestry of narrative goofiness.

In fact I’m tempted to label the entire game as a playable SyFy Original movie, because that’s certainly what Volition wants me to call it. They proudly wear the badge of working with SyFy, and a prequel movie was produced by the channel to accompany the game. This should display the average calibre of intelligence to expect in this game, as it is easily the most stupid iteration of the series with a bar already set low. At least there is some Joss Whedon-esque snarky dialogue to keep your brain trickling out of your ears. Just don’t be surprised if the plot resolution leaves you in a bit of a manic fury. Or that could be just me.

Who wouldn't want to be part of this rich cinematic lineage?

In terms of multiplayer there’s a distinct absence of Deathmatch, other directly competitive modes or co-operative campaign modes. Instead Volition has included a fairly basic version of the old Horde mode concept introduced by Gears of War 2, and a very welcome return by the competitive demolition multiplayer introduced in Guerilla. The take on Horde mode, called Infestation, has a group of players fend of waves of monsters in large maps and occasionally protecting objectives from them, but offers nothing in the way of unique weapons or set pieces that aren’t found in the single player campaign, and without the promise of unlockable content hanging over the mode it’s unlikely players will be interested in it for long.

Guerilla had a functional if uninteresting competitive death match mode that is absent here, but the real draw was Wrecking Crew. Wrecking Crew was a competitive hotseat style multiplayer mode where players took it in turns to use specific equipment to destroy a layout of buildings in a limited period of time. Both casual and competitive players could get into the fun, and many a match was ended as players watch the last precarious remnants of a destroyed building teetering on the edge of collapse, seeing whose favour the match would end in. It was a simple and ingenius idea which encouraged play at parties and made the game a group event that anyone could enjoy. It was a brilliant way of promoting the game among friends, and is still the most enduring thing about Guerilla.

Except perhaps this video.

The new version of Wrecking Crew in Armageddon is Demolition, and tragically it is code-locked as Downloadable Content, although the price for unlocking it is quite reasonable now. The thought occurs that Infestation mode should have been locked out and Demolition should have been playable out of the box, to help the game get promoted between groups of friends. Or it would be, if Demolition wasn't a single player only, stripped down shadow of Wrecking Crew's greatness, where the player can only take on a linear succession of levels and demolish as much as possible within a time limit. The customization options and competitive gameplay is gone, replaced with so much nothing. It’s yet another sign of some of the really poor choices that went into making Armageddon and kept it from greatness.

Because that is what Armageddon could have been. It had some well executed ideas hidden away within it, but alas it stumbles. Even so, it didn’t deserve the brutal lashing it got from the critics, and now it’s pre-owned price has become quite reasonable it’s not too hard to recommend. Fun weapons, solid physics and a few good ideas mean that this is a game you can enjoy. Just leave your brain at the door.

Cheaper, better options: Red Faction: Guerilla, Dead Space.

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