These days, it's not so strange to see a decent first person shooter on the PlayStation 2. Medal of Honor: Frontline is of course the de facto standard, but it's easy to forget that Volition's Red Faction helped pave the way for EA's seminal classic. We haven't forgotten though, and with Red Faction II, Volition and publisher THQ aim to remind you the best way they know how - by blowing a hole in the wall with a rocket launcher and shoving it down your throat.
Back in the red
The original Red Faction was a very good game, but it suffered from a handful of flaws - most notably its framerate, which dipped quite considerably below acceptable levels at times - but the thing it was most guilty of was failing to innovate enough. Ironic, perhaps, because the Geo-Mod system, which allowed players to blast holes in the masonry and even dig makeshift bunkers with rockets, was arguably one of the coolest things to appear in a shoot'em'up since the railgun. Fortunately, Volition has taken each and every criticism of the first game into account and five years after the rebellion on Mars, your mission is a lot more beautiful and a lot more destructible.
The player's role is that of a demolitions expect, sent in with a team of five specialist squad members on a mission to oust the maniacal dictator Sopot, whose reign of some fifteen years is really starting to annoy the locals. But lurking behind this unassuming and frankly quite uninspiring story is a carefully woven tale of violence and intrigue, well scripted and well paced.
Having been dropped from a gunship to take out a small fortress, the first thing you notice about Red Faction II though is how gorgeous it looks. Gone are the low-res textures and simple geometry, replaced by well lit, carefully constructed buildings offering some fairly intelligent design. Once you get into the thick of things, dodging rocket blasts from sentry towers and hiding behind thick concrete pillars, the quality of the character animation also becomes evident - particularly death animations. Shoot a bad guy and he might just flop to the ground, but he'll spill his guts if you hit him hard enough, and you can even relegate him to a pile of giblets with a bit of rocket-propelled oomph. What's more, Volition has made use of some amusing situational animations - in one area, a violent explosion rips through a poor guard leaving him standing exactly where he was, sans upper body...
Red Faction II builds on the Geo-Mod engine that allowed real-time environmental destruction, and this time around it can be split into three distinct layers. First of all, there are the bullet holes, scorch marks and so on which pepper the walls and mess up the fine exterior. Beyond that, there are destructible objects like lampposts and barrels, which rocket up into the air and crash down in a smouldering mess, and beyond that, we have the heavy-duty Geo-Mod technology, which mostly applies to puzzles and combat tactics. At its simplest, you can take advantage of it to blow a hole in a wall for easy access to something, but as you move on it creates a nice halfway point between basic shoot'em'up gameplay and the scripted sequences, which are back in abundance.
Level scripting in RFII is greatly improved, with huge action set pieces that don't upset the tempo, and along with your bevy of troops and considerable opposition, unite to manufacture an entertaining spectacle, which not only keeps you interested but also involves you to a reasonable degree. That said, the amount of scripting and the addition of new objectives is all a smokescreen to try and hide the game's linearity, but at this stage it's no less exciting on account of that. You may be moving from A to B, but it's far from a stroll through some bland corridors.
For a start, you have your arsenal to help keep you entertained. Returnees from the first game include your trusty grenade launcher, sniper rifle and rail driver, along with a clutch of new additions, like the dual-handed weapons and versatile complement of grenades. The dual handguns and machine pistols are a great addition, and the control system adjusts slightly for them. With a regular shoulder-mounted weapon like the rocket launcher you fire with R1 and use L1 to handle alternate fire, but when you have a pair of pistols in front of you, L1 operates lefty and R1 operates righty - a good system, which allows you to use them individually or akimbo for that desirable John Woo effect.
In addition to your basic arsenal of fifteen weapons though, you also have various grenades, with the throwing action bound to L3. Frag grenades, incendiaries and shock grenades are available - the latter will paralyse your foes in single player, and in a nice touch, reverse the controls of your opponents in multiplayer - but if bouncing grenades round corners isn't your thing, you can always take advantage of satchel charges. You didn't think they'd leave them out, surely? One of the funniest sights in the original RF was a satchel charge slapped on an enemy's back, and you can relive that here quite happily.
Your five squad-mates will also be packing a heavy arsenal, and they are completely autonomous with particular skills to aid you. They're not stupid, either. Their AI seems quite helpful in most situations, without being too smart or conversely too stupid, and they certainly don't get stuck on the walls from what we've seen. What's more, they have a bit of personality about them, which enhances the experience, and they can happily pilot things if needs be.
Piloting? Well, where would a modern first person shooter be without a car park's worth of vehicles? Red Faction II starts you off as a gunner on the back of a gunship strafing Sopot City, but there are other options within. Halo-esque tanks and hover flyers are available, and you can even take to the depths in a submarine, but our favourite is the battle armour. Don the gear and you're a walking tank, with miniguns, incendiary grenades to bounce around and explosive rockets to reshape the scenery with. Oh boy, the fun you can have with these in deathmatch...
Shoot your mates
So, we can say that the single player game is good at this stage. Nay, it's very good. However, Red Faction II wants to compete with the likes of TimeSplitters 2 and get one over on Medal of Honor, and to do that it's going to need a very, very good multiplayer side to it. To this end, Volition has packed the game with options - including one for USB keyboard and mouse support! At the moment the game handles four players, split-screen, with up to six players per game (including as many custom CPU bots among those as necessary), and there are plenty of game modes on offer.
The standard deathmatch and team deathmatch options are present, along with capture the flag and a couple of last man standing modes called arena and team arena [wasn't she a singer? -Ed]. The oddities are "bagman" and the team bagman variation, in which the player or team is trying to hang onto a bag for as long as possible, and "regime", which is a bit like bagman, but with a silly hat. Levels lave all been designed to fit six players, so they are generally quite compact but they all flow quite well, and some are downright excellent. Volition hasn't been afraid to populate them with power-ups too, like the quad damage-esque damage enhancer and a slow motion toy, which leaves your enemies hideously exposed.
The bots are at this stage almost finalised, and you can alter their characteristics on a number of levels. Obviously you can tweak them to be clever or stupid, but you can also stipulate how aggressive or cowardly you want them to be, and whether they're fast or slow and whether they camp amongst other things. The good news is that the difficulty level can be tweaked well above and below my own abilities, which suggests that pretty much anyone will feel at home.
As you can probably imagine, Red Faction II has been a popular fixture around here lately, and we're looking forward to getting our hands on the final incarnation of the game later this week. Until then, I'll leave you with a thought. When I first got my hands on RFII, I was wondering how it would compete with TimeSplitters 2 from Free Radical. A month on, and I'm wondering just how TimeSplitters 2 can suppress this explosive faction...