Platformers, extreme sports, football, tennis... say what you like about the N-Gage, but its launch line-up has at least been pretty varied. And now, with Red Faction, the handheld can add a notch on its bedpost for first-person shooters. After the Game Boy Advance's fumbled attempts at the FPS genre, it would at least prove quite interesting to see what kind of performance John Romero and Tom Hall's Monkeystone Games could pull out of Nokia's console.
Red Faction starts off quite faithful to the PS2 and PC original, kicking its story off in the mines of Mars run by the Ultor Corporation. Famous for running its workers into the ground (literally!) in horrendous working conditions, it was only a matter of time before somebody snapped and sparked off a rebellion. You - as Parker, another disgruntled miner - join the uprising with the eponymous Red Faction, fighting off Ultor and its hundreds of minions.
To a veteran of many FPS games, the controls should immediately seem quite comfortable, using the D-pad for turning left and right and moving back and forth, the opposing 4 and 6 buttons for strafing, 5 for firing your weapon and 2 for jumping. However, with extended play you will begin to rue the N-Gage's lack of shoulder buttons, which could have instead been used for strafing; I often found myself accidentally firing or turning on the free-look mode when I was meant to be strafing and this was usually a fatal error, particularly when I had the rocket launcher selected.
So anyway, here's Parker (who has for some reason or other seen fit to bring a pistol to work and strap it to his chin) stood in a hideous-looking brown tunnel, and he has to find his way out. However, the brown tunnels are so completely featureless that it becomes difficult to even ascertain whether you're able to turn a corner as you approach it, helping you to get completely lost in an incredibly short amount of time. A good indication that you're heading in the right direction is when you turn a corner and yet another blue-suited goon yelps "Drop your weapon!" Which happens a lot. In fact, for the first half hour of the game, that was the only speech sample I heard.
I quickly discovered that Red Faction's mine section is possibly the worst opening to any FPS I've played in ages, and I'd be surprised if anyone doesn't turn the game off in disgust mid-way through it. However, it does get better once you're past the hideous lava pits that make up the final mine section... At least, I think it was lava. Making your way into the barracks, the game takes the story and action up a notch and thankfully introduces a better variety of enemies, dialogue from fellow rebels, and even lends you the occasional AI-controlled sidekick - although sadly they are almost completely useless.
However, despite its best efforts, from the very outset Red Faction on the N-Gage doesn't really grip the player as effectively as its popular big brother. Any scripted scenes are played out by simply stopping play and shoving a couple of text boxes in your face with some dialogue to read. The game barely manages to muster any sort of atmosphere because of this approach to storytelling, and the plot loses its effect, failing to draw you through the game. This doesn't mean to say I was expecting full motion video or game engine scenes with spoken dialogue, but the text box approach really does have a genuinely detrimental effect on the steadily unravelling plot.
Still, the lack of atmosphere doesn't stop Red Faction from being a passable action shooter, and it certainly rivals any similar attempts on the GBA, including Doom. All the right pieces are in place: hordes of idiotic enemies at almost every turn; a sturdy arsenal comprising pistol, shotgun, rocket launcher, grenades, sniper rifle... you know the drill; and a whole host of locked doors with controls located somewhere over the other side of the level.
So far, so mid-nineties FPS, but you may well be wondering what Monkeystone did with Volition's much-vaunted Geo-Mod technology, which allowed bits of levels to be blown into tiny pieces - the feature that got everybody excited about the original Red Faction in the first place. Well, naturally the N-Gage isn't anywhere near powerful enough to support such a feature, but you're still able to blow up the odd wall here and there Duke Nukem 3D-style with remote charges or rockets - you just need to keep your eyes open for visual indicators like cracks or spray-painted slogans. Ah well, an obvious solution perhaps, but better than ignoring it completely.
Of course the icing on any FPS-flavoured cake is its multiplayer modes, and Red Faction has... deathmatch. And unfortunately that's it. Five cramped and frankly pretty unimaginative little maps for you and a pal to duke it out in over Bluetooth. It's alright I suppose, but it would have been nice to perhaps work in some more imaginative two-player modes alongside the deathmatching. What could have proven a big selling point sadly comes up pretty short.
Surprised as I was with the visual impact of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater on the N-Gage, it was rather pleasant to be impressed further by the machine's graphical might thanks to Red Faction. It's by no means a pretty game, but the engine manages to pull off full 3D environments and character models with a fairly respectable frame rate - only when the action really gets hectic does the machine begin to struggle badly. Once you're out of the abysmal-looking mines, the quality of the level texturing goes up quite significantly and, well, it's not going to win any awards, but you can at least tell what things are supposed to be despite their blockiness (thanks to the N-Gage's lack of texture filtering). Also, and quite surprisingly, the portrait screen orientation of the N-Gage didn't cause even the slightest of concerns. I never felt as if my view was unfairly impeded by the narrow screen.
Red Faction doesn't fare so well in the audio department though, as the constant barks of disapproval from the Ultor guards become extremely repetitive extremely quickly. Couple the lack of variety in the speech samples with some bloody awful droning background music loops, and you'll quickly find yourself turning the music off and the sound down. Or you'll quickly find a fellow Tube passenger's fist hammering against your nose.
Completely unsurprisingly, Red Faction N-Gage plays like it was made by people who were involved in making Doom and Quake. Anybody who's played a first-person shooter in the last two years or so will find this primitive and slightly dull, even though it picks up in fits and bursts. As I said, it's a passable action shooter, but it never elevates itself beyond that, thanks to Monkeystone's clumsy attempt to narrate the game and develop characters. Come on John and co., aren't you bored of this stuff by now? We certainly are.
Red Faction would probably be something of a revelatory title to a completely green fledgling gamer who's picked up the N-Gage as a first games machine, but I think we can safely say there aren't too many of them. Hardcore FPS fans looking for an engaging shooter might do well to wait and see what else turns up, but at the moment there's literally no alternative.