Review - the console first person shooter genre gets a new flagship game, courtesy of Volition
Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Total Recall, Red Faction puts you in the role of Parker, a Douglas Quaid-like nobody mining a few square feet of rock beneath the surface of Mars. Like your fellow workers, you don't exactly view this as a dream occupation, and the cramped work and living quarters do little to keep you happy. Enter the eponymous Red Faction, a rebellious uprising of your mining colleagues led by the mysterious Eos which seeks to usurp power from the evil corporation that enslaves the miners, from the Cohaagen-like figures at the top right down to the security staff. Once you've broken free of your shackles you take part in the uprising, arming yourself to the teeth and fighting for your freedom. As you advance so does the plot, in a round about way, and rather like Half-Life steady sequences of action are punctuated by impressive encounters with larger entities. Volition deserves some kudos here for not simply tailing things off with a marginal boss encounter, since there is plenty of longevity in here and a fair amount of nail-biting combat sequences.
The Story So Far
Unlike Half-Life though (and certainly unlike Total Recall) this red planet adventure grips you only sporadically, and as you progress there are a lot of occasions when you think "this must be it", only to discover that there is a huge chunk of the game still to be played. Red Faction isn't the sort of game where you're looking for an excuse to put it down though. If you aren't gripped by the story 100% of the time, the action will fill in the blanks.
The much vaunted Geo-Mod technology is an excellent addition to the formula, and really does mean that virtually every wall is destructible in some way. Put simply, Geometric Modification (or Geo-Mod to its friends) means that things get wrecked in real time. Everything you have ever wanted to do in a first person shooter is now possible. You can shoot the root of a lonely stalactite and watch it crash menacingly to the ground, you can shoot holes in an aquaduct carrying molten rock and let it pour down dynamically, engulfing a pair of guards, or you can simply blows holes in things to reveal shortcuts, secret items or little camp-worthy cubby holes. Geo-Mod also gives players a choice in their adventures. There are some "find the key, open the door" type puzzles, but a less painstaking Parker can simply whip out his rocket launcher (with thermal imaging target system) and blow a hole in the wall right next to it. This is particularly entertaining when you get hold of the Rail Driver, which boasts an infra-red zoom rather like the railgun seen in another Arnie film, Erazer. Using the enhanced sights you can pick out an enemy on the other side of a wall and put a piece of supersonic metal through him. Quite compelling. Another set of toys you will want to get acquainted with is the selection of vehicles strewn around Red Faction. Things like a hoverpad, a drilling machine, a jeep with an independently controlled machinegun turret, and even a submarine pop up along the way, and players will get the chance to try them all out. They're great fun to fight against, but even more amusing to direct against your enemies.
As you approach the latter stages of the game though, precision becomes just as important as power, and your remote charges and other tools become vital. Which unfortunately highlights one of the games flaws, which is the control system. Using the Dual Shock controller is tricky, my main issue being the juggling of two analogue sticks as you try to remember what they both do. Binding R1 to fire is useful since it's like a trigger, but it doesn't come all that intuitively for some reason. The bottom line is that although it is perfectly possible to complete Red Faction using the controller, you know as an experienced PC games player that things would be much easier if you had used a keyboard and a mouse. Sadly Volition hasn't even included the option to introduce a keyboard and mouse to the proceedings. Inexcusable? Nearly. This does at least mean that there is something of a level playing field in the game's multiplayer mode though. Speaking of which, multiplayer is a bit of a mixed bag - more exciting than TimeSplitters multiplayer, but with its own ups and downs. The weapons selection is a bit too top heavy, and someone with a rail driver is always going to beat the bloke with a shotgun, because he doesn't even have to be in the same room to kill him… This certainly leads to some interesting matches, because as you gormlessly prance about, desperate to avoid the attentions of your mate in the rail driver room, he can scratch that itch on his head while he dispatches you one-handed without so much as getting behind cover.
Despite its drawbacks and the lack of a three or four player mode though, Red Faction multiplayer is a delicate soufflé of action with some astounding attention to detail. The bots boast impressive path-finding AI and are quite a challenge on the medium difficulty levels, and the deathmatch maps are actually very good. Geo-Mod can be brought into play and makes a big difference, particularly in manned battles, giving you the chance to do things like blowing a chunk out of a platform which your opponent is racing across. Meanwhile secret rooms usually harbour the rail driver or another particularly vicious implement of mass destruction, and camping is never an option, since you know full well that a little thermal imaging from your opponent can reduce you to toast! Visually, Red Faction is a perfect demonstration of the PS2 hardware. I've never seen so many shades of red in a single environment before - the textures and interiors of the various locations are wonderfully vivid. And Red Faction has the enviable honour of being the first console game in a long while not to just paste, repeat, paste, repeat ad nauseam when it comes to colouring a corridor, doing a remarkable job of staving off that "another bloody tunnel" feeling which I suspected it would propagate. The computer generated movie sequences that fit in between action segments are also well animated and, although I wouldn't describe them as perfect, the character models and animations are quite nicely done, even if their faces are rather elongated.
Ironically though, the biggest problem Red Faction faces is its big brother, the PC version of the game. When it eventually hits the streets (some time in September according to THQ), it will boast everything we have seen here coupled with a PC control system. This defeats one of the key purposes of a killer app; to sell whatever system the game is delivered on. If Red Faction for the PC can do everything here with a proper control system and online multiplayer, who's going to care about the PS2 version? Potential buyers only need to ask themselves one question, can they put up with a Dual Shock driven control system? If the answer to that is yes, then Red Faction is an absolute must-have. Otherwise, you might want to wait for the PC version in September. Either way, Volition's shooter is arguably the best first person shooter to grace console screens ever.