At a recent event in Central London, Game Rant was invited by THQ to go and check out the hotly-anticipated Red Faction: Armageddon, the sequel to the 2009 open-world Destruct-em-up Red Faction: Guerrilla.
There's a problem with Red Faction: Armageddon, but it's hard to pin-point exactly what it is. Armageddon is a game that feels carefully thought-out and, as far as experiences go, it's tightly crafted, with a strong core mechanic, and a well-designed structure.
If you think that description sounds unenthusiastic, then you're probably right. Despite all its obvious good qualities -- the immensely satisfying 'Destruct-the-environment' mechanic springs to mind -- it's a game that is hard to get excited about, purely because it seems to have an identity problem.
The Red Faction series is one that's well-known for its destructible environments. Set to wander around the planet Mars, players were able to use the environment as a weapon and, more often than not, simply enjoy themselves by running around and demolishing the scenery around them. The 2009 Red Faction: Guerrilla explored new ground by introducing a (much-loved by fans) open-world environment but, since then, Volition has gone back to the drawing-board, and come up with Armageddon: a brand new and extremely linear Red Faction game.
The new-found linearity isn't exactly a detriment, however. Red Faction: Armageddon's story is one that wants to be deep and engaging, keeping players demolishing through the single-player campaign. As luck would have it, 'demolishing' is exactly what the developers at Volition want you to do -- every single object in the environment can be broken, blown up or destroyed beyond all recognition. Whether you use a simple RPG to destroy cover, or you use the brand-new 'Magnet gun' to attract an enemy to a wall fifty feet away, it's a core mechanic that feels incredibly satisfying and left me grinning like a madman.
The unfortunate thing is, the game's protagonist, Darius Mason, is one of the least likable characters I've ever had the misfortune to play in a video game. Of course, by their very nature, personalities are a subjective entity, but I think it would be hard to describe Darius as anything other than an obnoxious ass;
Assistant: [Having dropped into a sewer] "We are now in the Waste Disposal Center."
Darius: "So the garbage dump? Huh!! Great!"
Darius: "Looks like we're taking the scenic route!"
Assistant: "Hostile creatures incoming."
Darius: "Huh! Of course there are!!"
It's because of this awful 'dude-bro' nature that the game's more tender moments don't land as well as they should. Granted, the demoed portion of the game was roughly a third of the way through the campaign, and we weren't given ample opportunity to get to know Mason, but the juxtaposition of Spacebro/Tender Soul came across as overbearingly clichÃ© and completely unecessary. It seemed as though the writers of Red Faction: Armageddon looked at Uncharted's Nathan Drake and thought "Oh man, we need our character to be a sassy asshole with an emotional core, and we'll be set!" In doing so, they completely missed the spark that makes characters such as Drake, or Die Hard's John McClane, such a pleasure to spend time with.
This apparent Multiple Personality Disorder also extends to the game itself. During one segment of the demo, Mason's apparent love interest, Kara, is heard telling him distinctly not to go to the market -- however, due to a malfunction in his radio equipment, he doesn't hear the message correctly and continues onwards to the market.
Here is where I really became frustrated by Red Faction: Armageddon. Now, I'm perfectly fine when games choose to use a linear story-telling method. Hand me a tightly-crafted, well thought-out experience and I'll have fun with it. But suggest to me that the course my character is choosing to take is a bad one, and force me to continue? Now that doesn't sit quite right. If I'm aware that something is a bad idea... why on Earth would I want to do it?
Of course, it would be unfair to completely demonise Armageddon simply due to its poor portrayal of player agency - not to mention the small snippet we're previewing. As already mentioned, during the hands-on, I frequently found myself thoroughly enjoying the scenarios I was presented, and also enjoying the game's destruction mechanic. Having quickly been forced to find the 'Repair world' button, there was an immensely satisfying feeling to the destruction, and using the environment to destroy enemies felt instinctual and, to use an overplayed term, completely awesome.
One would hope, therefore, that the feeling of awe would be enough to sustain the 'Ruin' mode. It's a simple enough idea -- placed in a small arena with a certain time limit, you have just one objective: destroy as much as you possibly can in the time given. An entire mode devoted simply to carnage, destruction, and simply enjoying the game's core mechanic -- what could possibly go wrong?
Not a lot, as it turns out. However, there wasn't a lot going right, either. Although in theory, the mode sounds fun and an interesting way to spend a few minutes, it fails to be anything more than that. And while I'm sure there are complex algorithms dictating the destruction of buildings within the environment, it all seemed highly random during my playthrough. Presented with a 30 second experience, I replayed it over and over, trying out different methods, in an attempt to beat my high score. Sometimes, I'd think I was racking up a huge score -- in reality achieving close to zero -- and other times I'd think I was doing terribly -- suddenly setting the highest score in the room -- but it all seemed... aimless.
During the event, I expressed my concerns to one of the fellow journalists. I mentioned that it seems like a completely unnecessary mode, to which he replied "But aren't all games just meaningless distractions from real life?" Of course he's right, to an extent. Sometimes, we play video games to immerse ourselves in another world, and to forget about how horrid real life truly is. But when it comes to Red Faction: Armageddon's Ruin Mode, it simply feels like there are a great number of better ways to spend your time.
Although the overall tone of this preview had been negative, it would be remiss to cast Red Faction: Armageddon as a lost cause. With still a few months left to go until release, there may yet be interesting features that give cause for a second-look. I certainly hope so, anyway.
Red Faction: Armageddon will be destroying your concept of a third-person action game on May 31, 2011, on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.