Since they split away from Descent developers Parallax a few years ago, Volition have made something of a name for themselves with the Freespace series of space combat sims. Although the actual gameplay owed a lot to the Wing Commander series, what Freespace lacked in innovation it more than made up for with graphics.
Sales of space sims have been less than stellar of late though, and so Volition have turned their attentions to another genre, this time hoping to mix innovation and technology to come up with a rather unique looking first person shooter - Red Faction.
Going Down .. Again
Like Half-Life, Red Faction is a story-led first person shooter in which not everybody is an enemy, and where there are some basic puzzles to solve as well as hordes of hostiles to slaughter. The actual storyline is still in flux, but at the moment it goes a little like this...
You play Parker, a man who works in a network of mines far beneath the surface of Mars, owned by the ultra-capitalistic Ultor Corporation. Working conditions were terrible to start with, but now to make things even worse a plague is loose in the miners' midst, robbing many of them of what little life they had on the barren red planet. Unsurprisingly the mining colony soon erupts into full scale revolution, with the disgruntled workers taking on their unscrupulous bosses at Ultor and the heavily armed security guards who control the industrial facility.
And so you find yourself struggling to survive in the middle of a deadly rebellion, trying to stay alive long enough to find out the truth behind the deadly plague which is ravaging the colony, and to overthrow Ultor and save your co-workers. In the course of the game you will visit the mines themselves, the corporation's scientific labs on the surface, and even travel up to some of the satellites orbiting the planet.
To aid you in your quest you will have a wide variety of weapons, each with an alternative firing mode. All the old favourites are there, such as machineguns, grenades, and the now traditional sniper rifle, as well as explosive charges. The rocket launcher is a highlight of the game's arsenal, featuring a built-in thermal imaging system which allows you to see potential targets in the dark, and even through thin walls, by watching a small screen attached to the side of the weapon.
What sets the game apart from other first person shooters is that your weapons have a very noticeable effect on the world around you. While other games use "decals" to represent bullet holes and rocket blasts on the walls of their levels, in Red Faction you can blast a hole right through the wall.
The game features what Volition are calling "Geo-Mod technology", as well as a fully functional physics system. Combined they allow you to interact with your surroundings like never before. For example, if you shoot your gun at a pipe you might burst it, causing steam to pour out through the hole. And thanks to the game's particle system, the result looks little short of stunning.
The physics isn't just there to look pretty though, it has also been worked into the gameplay. In one level we were shown the player had to activate a massive turbine in one of the walls of a room to blow away some deadly gas which was pouring in from vents in the ceiling. You can also use explosives to blast holes in the walls or ground to provide yourself with cover in battle, effectively creating your own trenches and sniper spots as you go.
The amount of damage you can cause is impressive. Blast away at the supports of a guard tower and eventually the whole structure will topple over and crash to the ground, killing anything inside it, not to mention anybody unlucky enough to be caught underneath it. Keep firing rockets at the walls of a room and eventually the whole area will start to look like a chunk of swiss cheese. Obviously there are limits to the damage you can cause - the levels are designed so that you can't blast your way out of them, and metal will usually bring a halt to your excavations. Steel doors and panels, hard igneous rock and reinforced concrete will all prevent your progress, so you can't just smash your way through the game with your rocket launcher.
Holy Decals, Batman!
The rest of the game's graphics live up to expectations as well. Fire at a window and you will see it crack up and eventually shatter completely, little shards tumbling to the ground in a vaguely realistic way. The result is certainly visually impressive.
Even good old fashioned bullet hole decals have been given a make-over, with the marks streaking across a surface if the bullet hits it at an angle, allowing you to judge roughly which direction the shot came from. Very useful if a sniper is taking pot shots at you and you can't see where they are hiding.
The characters themselves are also nicely detailed, with high resolution skins and real-time skeletal animation. There is also a full locational damage system in place so that how and where you hit an enemy effects them as realistically as possible. This also fits in with the physics system, which means that if you place an explosive charge between a pair of guards and then trigger it, the blast will throw them in opposite directions, just as you would expect.
Overall the graphics are already looking good, and although the level of detail present isn't quite on a par with the likes of Quake 3 Arena, the game certainly looks even more impressive in motion than you might think from just looking at the screenshots. The sight of shattering glass, flowing lava, streams of gas pouring out of broken pipes and rocket explosions knocking holes in the walls is a wonder to behold.
One of the other innovations in Red Faction is the use of vehicles. Although games have tried before to mix on-foot first person action with driveable vehicles, it has to be said that nobody has entirely succeeded so far. "Redline" looked decidely odd from a first person view while the vehicle physics was rather basic, and the more recent "Codename Eagle" was absolutely dire on all accounts.
As well as the usual selection of turrets and heavy machine guns to take control of, Red Faction also features several vehicles for use on land, in air and underwater. These form an integral part of the game, allowing you to run people over Carmageddon style and drive around blasting away at your enemies and the world they inhabit, causing destruction on a scale which even your rocket launcher can't match.
There is a hover-fighter which seems as though it could have escaped from Descent, allowing you to fly around freely and fire chainguns and rockets at your enemies. There is an APC which looks like a prop from Judge Dredd, an intimidating armoured truck with heavy tracks and a grenade launcher. There's even the driller, which reminded us of one of the less frequently used vehicles from cult TV series Thunderbirds, with a pair of drills on the front allowing you to dig your way through cliff faces, with a variety of camera views around the digger to allow you to watch your progress.
Finally there is the real star of the game, the mini-sub, which allows you to swim around underwater and engage your enemies with torpedoes. The underwater explosions are some of the most stunning and realistic we've seen in a game so far, with enemy subs first exploding as the torpedo hits them, and then imploding as the water pressure crushes the remains.
Red Faction is shaping up to be one of THQ's most promising games, with a strong single player mode as well as full LAN and internet multiplayer support. Exact details remain uncertain, but it looks likely that it will feature the now standard deathmatch and capture the flag modes, as well as the possibility of a co-operative mode.
With the game's wide range of vehicles and destructible scenery to take your frustrations out on, the multiplayer gameplay should certainly be a refreshing change from your typical Quake clone. Red Faction will also come with an easy-to-use level editor and tools to allow players to modify the game, meaning that we could see a good selection of user made add-ons appearing after the game is released.
The engine itself is pretty much complete now, although the level design and gameplay is still very much work in progress at this point. THQ are expecting the game to be ready for release early next year though, so hopefully by next summer we should have final code to play with. And there is good news for console gamers - Red Faction will be available on Playstation 2 as well as PC.