Version tested: Xbox 360
The theme of underground resistance has always run through the Red Faction series, but it's never been so overtly political as it is in this third instalment - the first to ditch the traditional linear FPS format for a free-roaming third-person openworld adventure. "The liberators soon became an occupying force," declares our hero, Alec Mason.
The Earth Defense Force's alluring promises of new freedoms for the Martian settlers have soured into paranoid domination; roadblocks enforced by heavily armed soldiers, citizens imprisoned without trial. Propaganda broadcasts reassure the populace that Red Faction, the underground resistance movement, is compromised, weak and ineffectual. All the while you're carving through installations on their behalf using improvised bombs and stolen weaponry. The language and iconography is surely too specific to be an accident. This is Iraqi Insurgency: The Videogame, by any other name, and you're playing as the terrorists.
Despite the fading influence of Dubya's era of flag-waving good-vs-evil jingoism, it's still an incredibly bold (some might say stupid) parallel to incorporate into a major videogame, even if the story never really develops this timely theme into anything deeper than the old truism that one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist.
To begin with, Mason doesn't even want anything to do with Red Faction, and has no interest in fighting back against EDF oppression. He's only on Mars to work as a miner, to earn an honest living. Unfortunately his brother was a suspected member of Red Faction, and killed by the EDF for his connections, so it doesn't take long for Mason to be tarred with the same brush. Forced to defend himself from official intimidation he winds up as a fugitive, taken in by Red Faction simply because there's literally nowhere else to go on this barren world. You may be playing as a terrorist, but you become one by default rather than by intent.
The aim of the game, then, is to rid Mars of the EDF. There are six colonised sectors in all, and EDF influence in each one must be reduced to zero before you can undertake the final mission that will liberate the area. Completing missions for Red Faction is the obvious way to make strides in this direction, and doing so will also advance the rather slender story. Mostly, and as the title suggests, you'll be chipping away the EDF power base through smaller acts of insurrection.
The world map shows Guerrilla Actions as green icons, key EDF targets as light blue. You're free to take whatever vehicles you fancy and tackle these objectives as you fit. Guerrilla Actions are essentially mini-games and side missions, where you must demolish a structure using specific weapons within a time limit, or rescue prisoners from EDF clutches. Sometimes you'll join a Red Faction force storming an EDF installation, other times you'll be defending Red Faction strongholds from reprisal attacks. Other objectives can pop up as you're playing, and you'll have the opportunity to chase down an EDF courier or destroy an incoming supply convoy.
More freeform progress can be made by destroying each sector's key EDF installations. These can range from industrial smokestacks to heavily fortified military bases. The more important the target, the more you'll reduce EDF influence when it turns to rubble, and - naturally - the more unwelcome attention you'll attract in the process.
The concept of demolition is key, therefore, and the physics engine immediately impresses in this regard. Unlike previous Red Faction games where the destruction was hemmed in by the limits of the PS2, this is architectural carnage of unusual realism. Buildings still fall apart in predetermined chunks, but the chunks are smaller than ever, their edges harder to detect while the building still stands, and the physics more immediately pleasing when gravity takes over.