Red Faction: Armageddon
There aren’t many universal truths in the world. Beyond ‘everyone likes music’ and ‘cats are evil’, our inherent differences ensure that we’re constantly at odds, rendering our entire race never more than one petty disagreement away from being the cast members in a live-action remake of Fallout 3.
There’s even less harmony in videogames, if that’s at all possible: the tribal nature (read: childish squabbling) of the art means that no two opinions will ever be the same. It may
be good for keeping the internet in business for the next millennium or two, but it’s bad for finding genuine consensus.
One opinion that does seem constant, however, even among the horde of babies, forum trolls and Nintendo 64 kids, is that Volition’s previous title, Red Faction: Guerrilla, is pure, unadulterated fun. A game that enabled players to literally destroy most of the playing environment piece by piece, from the tiniest hut to the biggest base, it speaks to that lizard part of our brains that wants to tear everything to pieces. No surprise, then, that it appealed to most gamers.
So when Armageddon was revealed to be a smaller, more compact experience than the sprawling yet unwieldy Guerrilla, concerns were aired faster and louder than a Fox News broadcast from an Obama-fronted rock concert.
“It’s [been] one of our biggest challenges,” states senior designer and name of the year nominee Jameson Durall. “I don’t like to use the word ‘linear’ because of that exact reason.
As a gamer I prefer linear games; linear has never been bad. The first two Red Faction games were linear. [As a whole] Red Faction is not an open-world series; the last one was the first open-world game in the series."
"We want to make people understand that we’re making a Red Faction game, and it’s going to fit into the universe, but we’re still giving you plenty of options in the things we’re giving
you to do. We’re focusing on variety and the second to second experience, as opposed to hour to hour.”
Playing through two of the game’s levels shows just how compact and interdependent everything in the world is now. Instead of seeing a structure in the distance and trudging over there, here you’ve got more strategic options in a smaller space. What you’re left with is a game that now has a laser-like focus as opposed to a scattershot approach; one that has removed the downtime between smashing things to pieces in an attempt to keep players engaged for the whole duration.
The introduction of Mars’ aliens as the primary antagonists is one of Armageddon’s key changes. Released into the world after player character Darius Mason, grandson of Guerrilla’s Alec, is tricked into freeing them by a radicalised sect of Marauders, the aliens are the primary reason for forcing the human populace underground.
This may seem a mildly convenient excuse to downsize the play areas, but in actuality the creative licence afforded by the alien foe has enabled Volition to make some sweeping design changes.
“Instead of blowing up EDF bases, which is basically you destroying the infrastructure of the planet, and having players thinking, ‘How does this help me accomplish my goal?’, it’s much easier to convey to a player why your mission is to go and blow up these buildings if they’re covered in alien infestation,” explains Drew Holmes, lead writer.
It’s not just potential narrative confusion that the xenomorphs help to improve. Combined with the smaller spaces and improved Geo-Mod 2.0 engine, the aliens’ habit of clambering all over walls and on ceilings in an attempt to get their multiple claws into Darius enables players to go beyond most similar shooters by targeting almost every part of the environment, rather than just the constructs within it.
“Taking it underground enables us to have things on the floor and on the ceilings, and with that we have the enemy’s desire to be on these things,” Durall tells us as we blast away at our foes in one of the demo levels. “If the player is paying attention, he can blow up the things that they’re on, and give himself a strategic way of dealing with enemies.”
Of equal significance is the new and magnificent Magnet Gun, soon to replace Red Faction: Guerrilla’s hammer as everyone’s favourite weapon. If Half-Life 2’s Gravity Gun and Just Cause 2’s tethered grappling hook somehow had a child, this would be it. By firing two magnets into applicable geometry, the incredible physics engine underpinning the action will drag one onto the other, depending on the order in which they were selected and the weight and mass of the two targets.
If your internal monologue just let out a maniacal laugh then you’ll be right at home here. The Magnet Gun’s deliciously evil simplicity ties everything in the world together: environment design, destruction, combat. All in harmony, waiting to be smashed together.
In action, this combination takes the pace of the game up several notches. Exploring the dank and deserted underground tunnels of the first mission showed us just how well this system works. Entering a large, cavernous opening, its battle-scarred innards betraying its former use as a desperate refuge for some of Mars’ human population, it’s now infested with alien scum. Creepers – small, four-legged low-profile enemies – attack in waves, while Ravagers, upright and limbs akimbo, strike from all sides.
In other games you’d be outgunned, but here it barely registers as a threat. Using the Magnet Gun, we tether a Creeper to a Ravager that’s lurking across the map, the former careering into the latter with deadly force and sending their broken bodies crashing into the nearest wall. We follow up by smashing a piece of loose scenery into an oncoming Ravager, before attaching another Creeper to a rock overlooking a mile-deep pit and hurtling it to its doom.
Suddenly, a large, tentacled beast thrusts out from the floor. Before it gets a chance to flex its grotesque muscles, however, it’s introduced to the front grille of a nearby 4×4, the vehicle crashing into the beast with breathtaking velocity and exploding it on contact. Later on, in the second of the playthrough missions, we’ll fling an oversized and heavily damaged Berserker enemy type into a horde of teleporting Wraiths, exploiting the former’s explosive death throes to good effect.
It’s as satisfying a weapon as any on the market, with the Plasma Beam – which fires a stream of concentrated death, useful for scything the support struts of buildings clean out from beneath them – not far behind. Both can be toyed with almost endlessly, and we’re not ashamed to say that we spent more time than strictly necessary messing around with them. “We built the areas in a way that it is linear, but we also wanted to make sure that the player had tons of options,” Durall continues. “So each encounter we built as a mini sandbox.”
Red Faction has always been about destruction, as anyone who ever spent hours knocking out beams and supports in an effort to work out how to take down the gigantic Harrington Memorial Bridge in Guerrilla will attest. But Armageddon aims to take this cycle of violence one step further: what could be better than destroying something, rebuilding it, then destroying it again?
Not a lot, it turns out. The Nano Forge returns in an upgraded fashion, now enabling players to rebuild any structure they’ve destroyed. In theory it sounds cool, but in practice it’s hugely addictive: unlike Guerrilla, the buildings aren’t one single yet interconnected entity. Here they’re made out of various elements that ‘snap’ together like so many pieces of futuristic Lego. And who hasn’t smashed up a Lego base just to make it all over again?
“In Armageddon, from the beginning we decided that repair would be as integral to the experience as destruction,” explains Eric Arnold, senior programmer. “We made a plan for it. If you can snap pieces together it means you’ve got to be able to put them all back together, re-creating objects that are potentially no longer in the game. If you destroy the object so there’s nothing left, you need to be able to bring it back so players can do things like run out across the void, repairing a catwalk in front of them.”
The given example is hopefully but one use for the weapon. With a serious commitment to integrating complex combat and puzzle mechanics, Armageddon could be brilliant. Taking out an entire building and then holding LB to watch it rebuild piece by piece in front of you is effortlessly cool – helped infinitely by the Tron-style materialisation during the rebuilding process – and tapping LB to fire repair grenades that rebuild the area of impact hopefully points to both devious level and puzzle design.
Arnold argues: “The repair has really changed the feel of the game. You can have a lot more back and forth. It’s a lot more dynamic.” It’s hard to disagree. As a company, Volition is widely and rightly renowned as an innovator of excellent technology that can’t quite wrap a classic game around it, no matter how much fun the experience might actually be. It’s a theory the studio is well aware of.
“We’re really conscious about having that reputation,” admits producer Jim Boone. “It’s a tremendous luxury for us to have, but when we put stuff out on the marketplace people tend to focus on the tech. We’ve tried to de-emphasise some of the talk about technology [with Armageddon].”
Boone’s candid admission admirably demonstrates the studio’s desire to get away from this gilded reputation, but it’s too early to say whether Armageddon can finally help Volition shake it off once and for all. We still need to see how well the larger, more cavernous areas marry up with the destruction and rebuilding engines, and how skilfully Darius’s story of saving Mars and getting the girl entwines with the mechanics.
All we know is that the building blocks are all there: now Volition has to put them together. At the moment, Armageddon is closer to being another solid hit than ushering in a brave new world for the company, but if it gets it right it could be brilliant.