Version tested: Xbox 360
It's been ten years since developer Volition first debuted its environment-trashing GeoMod technology in the original Red Faction. Over that period the series has fidgeted uncomfortably from first-person shooter to openworld adventure and now, with Armageddon, to third-person shooter.
All the above have featured the ability to blow bloomin' big holes in the scenery. But even in 2011, GeoMod still feels like a great idea in search of a game.
For this latest do-over, the action picks up 50 years after the events of 2009's Red Faction: Guerilla. We're introduced to Darius Mason, Red Faction soldier and grandson of Alec Mason, the hero of Guerilla and apparently just one in a long line of men whose surname has led them to save the Martian colonies with a sledgehammer.
Half a century is just enough time for pretty much everything to change, and in a short introductory level we discover how Darius was caught out by a voodoo-faced cult leader during a terrorist attack. They destroy the terraformer keeping the Martian atmosphere stable, and everyone is forced to go and live underground like Wombles.
Fast forward another few years and Darius goofs yet again - this time by taking a freelance job which involves stomping around an ancient underground temple in a mech suit. He unleashes a subterranean race of Martian creatures which immediately swarm through the colonies, eating everybody and making a right old mess.
So, yes, Darius is a bit of a dim bulb, another video game hero with a nice line in pithy quips but a terrible weakness for going wherever he's told and doing whatever he's asked - even if the person asking is a hooded growly character who might as well be called Brian Baddy.
From this starting point the game deviates little from the path you'd expect. Armageddon is easily the most anonymous and generic title to bear the Red Faction name, with virtually no new ideas to call its own.
You get your orders from a sultry voiced female AI or a gruff black sergeant. Audio logs offer snippets of backstory or oh-so-poignant messages left by devoured colonists. There's a mine cart ride. Mech suits. Turrets. Is there a boss monster with glowing weak spots? Go on, take a guess.
In fact, the creatures themselves are a good indication of Armageddon's dearth of imagination. Apparently designed to look like every alien you've ever shot in a video game ever, they come in conveniently colour-coded sub-species, ranging from small scuttling headcrab things to cloaked teleporting stabby things to hulking tank-like things.
My stats tell me I shot 5564 of the buggers during two complete playthroughs, but if you asked me to draw them now, mere hours after putting the controller down, I'd come up blank. They vanish from memory before their exploded digital entrails have faded from the screen.
Most galling is the decision to move the action underground, which effectively neuters Red Faction's sole distinguishing feature: demolition. Guerilla was poorly paced, and struggled to fill its vast Martian landscapes with gameplay, but it's revolutionary tale did at least create a situation where bringing buildings tumbling down was both logical and fun.
In the tunnels, that's not the case. There are moments where you need to use your arsenal to destroy structures, or your Nano Forge device to rebuild and fix damaged stairways so you can get back on course. But for huge swathes of its playing time Armageddon is simply another over-the-shoulder shooter, albeit one where stuff generally falls apart in a more visually pleasing way.
If anything Geo-Mod is more hindrance than help in this game, as you're more likely to destroy stairs and walkways you need to traverse, forcing you to restore them with the Nano-Forge before you can progress.
By the end of the game Geo-Mod might as well be gathering dust. A lengthy series of vehicle sections leads directly into a protracted grind through snaking tunnels with absolutely no scenery to destroy, even just for fun. By this point you could be playing anything from Dark Sector to Dead Space, and any hope of Red Faction finally carving its own niche disappears.
Of the weapon selection, only one item truly stands out. The Magnet Gun is a nifty construction tool that Darius wields as a weapon. The first shot places a magnet, the second an anchor. The first item is then yanked at speed into the second. It's simply but instantly satisfying, as you send enemies sailing into rock walls, walls thundering onto enemies, or even enemies colliding with other enemies.
It's up there with the Just Cause grapple hook and Half Life's gravity gun as a gaming toy that demands to played with. And it's telling that mucking around with this gizmo is the only time when Armageddon stirs from its creative slumber and rises beyond its copycat status.
So does the game feature any sections, battles or even puzzles where the player is compelled to utilise this fantastic contraption to interact with the game world in fresh and exciting ways? No. It doesn't.
Darius has other tools to play with, of course. The Nano Forge can give off an impact wave, forcing enemies backwards with a violent push. You could call it Force Push, perhaps.
Similarly a shockwave effect can levitate enemies slowly into the air, making them easy targets. But effective as this is, slow motion and anti-gravity are hardly fresh additions to the shooter armoury.
There's also an energy shield, while weapons like the nano-rifle and singularity bomb from Guerilla return. Upgrades for all can be purchased using collected salvage, opening up four tiers of fairly useful enhancements.
When it comes down to function there's very little distinction between the guns on offer, all dividing neatly into Guns That Kill Things and Guns That Demolish Things. The nano-rifle isn't massively different to the singularity gun in practice, so point any of them at an alien and it'll explode in a shower of colourful goop anyway.
With no finesse or nuance in the tactics required there's little incentive to experiment with your toys. Bog standard rockets and bullets are ample for carving through the horde so whatever destruction you leave in your wake is literally collateral damage - a mere side effect, rather than core gameplay concept.
For the most part you'll be jogging along and shooting like in every other game in the genre, and it's all too easy to let the second hand feel overwhelm what is actually a perfectly serviceable action game. Combat is solid, weighty and enjoyable and Volition has hit all the important genre keystones with confidence, if not style.
Shooting from the hip is a bad idea, since the skittering aliens are too fast for such cowboy antics, so the robust lock-on system is the best way to progress. There's no cover system, apart from the ability to crouch, but since almost everything can be blown apart that's clearly for the best.
In terms of offensive options, four weapons can be mapped to the d-pad, with nano powers on the shoulder buttons, and control feels crisp and responsive. The over-the-shoulder viewpoint can be claustrophobic, while the inability to see your feet means its sometimes easy to get snagged on rubble and debris while back-pedalling away from some bulky monstrosity. But when the game gets the mix of enemies and environment right, it's easy to forgive the lack of personality and just get stuck in.
And there are plenty of chances to get stuck in thanks to a lengthy single-player story. If anything the game goes on too long, padding itself out with missions where you're sent backwards and forwards down crossroads pathways, finding some vital machine, only to be sent back again to find the generator needed to get it working.
The game also keeps going after the climactic boss battle, overstaying its welcome with another hour or so of truly sadistic monster spamming that leaves you weary rather than thrilled.
If you measure your gaming quality by the hour it'll all add up, but it's here that the generic nature of the experience really bites hard. At times it can feel like a large bucket of mashed potato: filling, but requiring rather too much mindless munching to get to the end.
For the benefit of the stopwatch crowd, a normal mode playthrough took me nine hours, including cut-scenes and a thorough hunt for audio logs and upgrades. Tackling Insane Mode using a fully upgraded Darius and skipping all the cut-scenes took just five hours. Indeed, the game is so keen to keep you on the hook with unlocks and abilities that playing through again on the hardest difficulty is actually easier.
Multiplayer is passably efficient and rarely creative. Two modes await - one free for all, the other locked away behind a download code for second-hand purchasers. Infestation is the best, and it's thankfully also the one that everyone can play regardless of where they bought the game.
It's a survival mode for up to four players, set across eight maps, each involving 30 waves of enemies. Weapons and upgrades earned in single player are made available as you progress through the waves, but the maps let it down slightly.
With mindless alien foes there's no need for any tactically interesting layouts, so each one is essentially a crowded maze with plenty of spots where you can put your backs to the wall and wait for the creatures to bottleneck into your sights. It's simple, and very easy compared to similar modes in other games, but with four players it's surprisingly good fun.
Ruin, on the other hand, is the solitary competitive mode. Virtually identical to Wrecking Crew from Guerilla, it's a time trial demolition job in which you wreak as much havoc as you can in enclosed arenas, hoping to beat the par score.
It's a fine pass-the-pad distraction, but it's a shame that deathmatch and flag capture modes like Siege and Anarchy have been left by the wayside. They certainly wouldn't make Armageddon more original, but if there's one area where Geo-Mod 2.0 can really stand out it's these traditional multiplayer modes, where the uncertainty that unfettered terrian destruction offers can shake up even the most cliched challenge.
Despite such a long list of complaints there's plenty to like about Armageddon, provided you keep expectations in check. Polished presentation makes it look and feel more exciting than it really is, while completion unlocks more goodies to tempt you back in for a second playthrough with the same weapons and upgrades.
Options for infinite ammo for any of the game's guns are added to the in-game store along with handheld versions of the ultra-powerful vehicle weaponry. And, apropos of nothing, you get Mr Toots, a cuddly unicorn who blasts enemies with his rainbow farts. There is personality here, when it's allowed to peek through.
Armageddon, then, is one of those middle of the road games which adheres to a familiar template closely enough to provide adequate entertainment in the short term but is unlikely to inspire any devotion. It falls over itself to make you feel like an unstoppable badass, but then rarely gives you the opportunity to show off.
By the halfway point, you'll have seen every weapon, ability and enemy, so rather than building to a crescendo it feels more like a slow descent towards the finale. Cut from the borrowed cloth of too many similar, better games, Armageddon is easy enough to like but impossible to get passionate about. Maybe it's time to set GeoMod free and see what it can do for other games.
7 / 10