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.
To begin with you're armed with a serviceable assault rifle, a small supply of remote charges and your trusty sledgehammer, which carves through solid walls with unlikely - but enjoyable - ease. The latter two are your initial tools for demolition, and even with this basic equipment it's easy to see how the robust damage model influences gameplay. Identifying load-bearing walls and crucial supporting structures makes demolition a much faster process than simply peppering the place with bombs, although the latter is fun enough that you'll still keep doing it even when a more scientifically sound solution is available. Weaken a building enough - which means not only doing enough damage, but doing it in the right spots - and the joypad will rumble ominously, giving you a few seconds warning before the whole lot comes down on your head.
It's instantly gratifying, and chances are you'll spend a decent chunk of your first hour on the game just smashing and exploding stuff to see what happens. As fun as it is, though, it's just a mechanism - and one that requires a compelling gameplay framework to endure.
It's here that Guerrilla struggles, at least to begin with, and following those first giddy destructive sprees, the game settles into something of a rut as you battle through the first two sectors. Like most openworld games, too much time is spent navigating from A to B, and the Martian scenery doesn't have the sort of life or vibrancy that allows GTA to make the journey something that can entertain in its own right.
The difficulty can also be frustrating in the early stages, as EDF troops easily gun you down, their numbers bolstered by an apparently limitless supply of reinforcements that can flank you in an instant. It's especially problematic if you're tackling those key EDF targets, essentially making any attempt at tactical play redundant since you can never clear the area long enough to plant your bombs in peace. Instead you end up dashing into the thick of things, doing as much damage as possible, then trying to leg it out again before you get killed.
You have recharging health, and any damage done to key structures remains even if you have to respawn back at the nearest Red Faction base, but these repeated suicide runs are wearying rather than exhilarating. Given the focus on demolition, it almost seems as if the game is crying out for more stealth-based options. Sneaking into fortified positions, setting charges and then detonating from a safe distance would be much more rewarding, but the crude run-and-gun combat system, augmented with only rudimentary crouch and cover abilities, combine with aggressively efficient enemies to steamroller any attempts to bring nuance to your play.
Many players may even lose interest completely during this first third or so of the game. After three or four hours of play, Guerrilla seems to be falling into the trap of so many other free-roaming games, with too much trekking, too many restarts and too little to keep things focused. The lynchpin thrill of destruction dims as the grind takes over.
Thankfully, it's a temporary dip and by the time you move into the Badlands, the pace has picked up again and you start to unlock interesting features and weapons that diminish some of the grumbles. This shift starts when you acquire the nano-rifle, which dismantles both walls and enemies at a molecular level, and precise demolition from afar suddenly becomes a much more feasible option. The map opens out at the same time, offering missions into more new areas - such as the posh, gated Oasis district where moneyed settlers drive groovy sci-fi sports cars - and it no longer feels like you're being funnelled into discreetly restricted playgrounds, recognisable only by their slightly different shade of dusty red.
The nature of your targets begins to get more complex as well. Enormous bridges and fortresses shrug off your now-feeble remote charges and rockets, and you need to start finding more inventive ways to wreak havoc. Quantum bombs and thermobaric rockets certainly do the job, but must first be unlocked and then purchased. Although you're free to replenish ammo at safehouses, actually improving your arsenal depends on how much scrap you've collected. This crude currency can be found in the wreckage of vehicles and structures, and equivalent value can also be mined from large crystals dotted about the planet surface.
You can trade this bounty in at Red Faction bases for better armour, new weapons, modifications to existing weapons and useful abilities. Some, like the ability to pick up scrap while driving, offer inessential conveniences. The option to travel directly to safehouses, on the other hand, makes a huge difference to the amount of mindless scenery chugging you need to do, and it's a bit baffling that it's something you only earn after irritation has already set in.
Over the long haul, however, the pleasures and pain come to a sort of equilibrium, helped along by a thoughtful array of multiplayer options. Online play offers Anarchy and Team Anarchy - deathmatch by any other name - as well as the obligatory Capture The Flag options. More interesting are modes like Siege, where teams take it in turns to try and remove each other from key fortified buildings. Damage Control is a base-capture variant, made different by the fact that the bases can be demolished and rebuilt, and Demolition casts one member of each team as the Destroyer, ensuring everyone scrambles to kill or defend the chosen one.
The weapons are familiar from the single-player game, but the addition of a repair gadget, to put buildings back together, and other different abilities contained in backpacks makes it a distinct experience. Jetpacks are the most obvious function on offer, but you can also generate localised earthquakes, run through walls and turn invisible. It's neatly balanced as well, with the benefit of each pack being countered by another. In a genre where make-do multiplayer is a common sight, there are enough fresh ideas and new takes on old standards here to show that Volition put some extra effort in for online, and it's appreciated.
The game even finds space for local multiplayer, an area so often forgotten these days. There's old-fashioned System Link for those with wires and tellies to spare, but even those with just a single joypad can have some fun in the shape of Wrecking Crew. These pass-the-joypad challenges concentrate on point-based carnage against a time limit, using a series of unlockable sledgehammers (including the infamous ostrich), the various backpack powers as well as limited demolition weapons. Fast, silly and making intuitive use of the excellent environment physics, it calls to mind Burnout's marvellously addictive Crash Junctions, and has much the same gleefully explosive allure.
Taken as a whole, the net result is a generous game that remains fun despite its frustrations, yet never quite achieves its full potential. Think of it as the game that Mercenaries 2 should have been. The presentation is polished, the visuals solid, the core gameplay gimmick amusing enough to keep you playing even as irritation creeps up. The gameplay has its ups and downs along the way, and some will find its lumpy structure a problem, but Red Faction is the very definition of a solid 7/10 - a game that should have been better, but offers more than enough to warrant a purchase during the quiet months.
7 / 10