It's been a long time coming, but 2002 has been the year that the consoles hijacked the first person shooter away from the PC. With Halo, TimeSplitters 2 and Medal Of Honor: Frontline all proving huge critical and commercial hits, the FPS fan has another big title to consider, with Volition managing to finish work on its Red Faction sequel just 14 months after the big selling original hit the shelves.
Last year's effort was by no means up with the greats of the genre, being regarded by many as a fairly satisfying, but ultimately flawed, attempt at emulating the scripted Half-Life style FPS. Using the much vaunted Geo-Mod technology that allowed players to blast through walls and predetermined pieces of scenery, it provided a novelty that, in truth, failed to provide the revolutionary (pardon the pun) gameplay that THQ had promised us.
Nice idea, but inconsistent
The ultimately annoying thing about Geo-Mod was its inconsistency. Certain parts of the environment were destructible, while other identically constructed areas remained impervious to attack, meaning that players still had to follow a predetermined path. In essence the ability to destroy parts of the 'geography' wasn't a whole lot different to Duke Nukem 3D some five years before it, except this time there was a handy buzzword to describe it.
And sadly this year's version still follows this tightly orchestrated approach, although THQ has made less noise about Geo-Mod, so we'll stop harping on about it as well and acknowledge that Red Faction still stands as a solid example of the genre, and having been re-issued at £19.99, is well worth checking out.
Spit and polish
The first thing that's abundantly clear about version 2 is the production values. Every element of the game from the front end onwards has been given a degree of spit and polish that lets you know that THQ is expecting big things from its latest hardcore franchise.
Set around five years after the end of Red Faction, a band of six rebels are pressed into service to, basically, kick Chancellor Sopot's arse. Each of the rebels has a specialist skill; the main character Alias (i.e. the one you control) being a dab hand with demolitions, while Quill, Molov, Shrike, Tangler and Repta provide able assistance in areas such as sniping, heavy weapons, stealth and so on. But we weren't too hung up on the story - there was far too much killing and destruction to be undertaken…
The title page features a typically passionate monologue rant from (we presume) your initial nemesis Chancellor Sopot, and the level of presentation give it a unique feel that distances it from the average gaming fare. The game engine has had a fairly impressive overhaul, and as a result the overall look and feel is far more convincing than last year's often sketchy effort. Indoor and outdoor locales are far more varied and detailed this time around, with delightful particle effects giving Volition plenty of opportunities to show off with liberal use of smoke and steam. Over the course of the game you work your way through eleven distinct environments including a station, sewer, cathedral, subway, military installation, and even an underwater section, so at no stage does the game want in the variety department.
Honey, your textures look beautiful this morning
The character models have likewise been given a noticeable lick of paint. Far better animated and sporting levels of detail unthinkable a couple of years back, the game cannot be faulted for a lack of variety of different foes to kill. In fact variety is pretty much Red Faction II's watchword as it continually throws up new and interesting weapons of mass destruction, covering everything from the basic pistols to machine guns, various types of rocket launchers, loads of grenade types, different sniper rifles, and even a well realised rail gun. Add to that a primary/secondary fire for many of the weapons, and you're never short of new and interesting ways to dispatch your foes.
Red Faction II also keeps the interest levels high by occasionally allowing the player to pilot vehicles, such as the Battle Armour, which gives you the chance to stomp around as a Mech wreaking havoc for a brief period. The Gunship, Tank and -later on - the Mini Submarine all help elevate the game to a more interesting, compelling first person shooter than your standard blaster. These sections range from the engaging (Mech) to the downright bastard hard (Sub), although once you're done with them, the lasting impression is one of a pleasant diversion.
Control wise, RFII follows the standard 'TimeSplitters' settings, and as such are pretty much as good as you'd expect - although nowhere near as slick in terms of sensitivity as TS2. However, praise be for Volition for actually bothering to include a keyboard and mouse option that so few other PS2 FPSs feature - so any real die hard PC FPS fans will be able to play the game "as nature intended", although to be honest you never feel like having to resort to this.
As with its predecessor, RFII includes plenty of multiplayer options, for up to four players, including the usual suspects such as Capture The Flag, Deathmatch, Bagman and Team Arena. The frame rate holds up very nicely even in full on four player mode, although when push comes to shove, we'd still have to maintain our preference for a spot of Halo or TS2 for sofa based frag action.
Clichéd, stereotypical, disengaging
Just as well all the points mentioned so far are uniformly positive, because the story completely fails to engage at any stage. Despite being littered with well detailed, well realised characters, they're so utterly clichéd and stereotypical in a thick headed Yank centric cartoon kind of way that you sometimes feel completely detached from the action, just paying attention long enough to get the gist of whose ass you have to kick ten bells out of next. So often you're forced to recheck your objectives to remind yourself what the point was of the last fairly tedious cut scene. Apparently Lance Henrikson (bloke from Aliens/Terminator) plays Molov, but in all honesty you'd never notice, with the plot and general voice acting so infuriatingly banal you find your mind wandering while you wait for the next section of gameplay.
AI can be a little rough around the edges too, with the game getting by more on weight of enemy numbers than employing any revolutionary path finding system. The health system has been pretty much nicked wholesale from Halo, with this at least providing a degree of strategy to the combat, but health packs are generally far too numerous for there to be any need to tread too carefully - although the ante is raised considerably once you reach the halfway point.
We blitzed it
The title's longevity is pretty questionable too - with just over six hour's play on Medium difficulty we'd blitzed through nine out of the game's eleven episodes. Most episodes are broken up into several short, snappy "chunks", which gives the game a chance to autosave and introduce some more narrative. In this sense it's far more linear than other shooters have managed, but when everything's as tightly scripted, it's hard not to adopt this approach.
In truth, despite giving the gamer a huge arsenal, pleasant gameplay diversions and dressing it up in shiny new clobber, RFII doesn't take us anywhere we haven't been before, and plays by the FPS rulebook for the most part. We enjoyed RFII a lot, but have to concede that it's not the best example of its fiercely competitive genre. Fans of the original will love this, but the more casual observer might want to check it out before they take the plunge.