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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Red Faction: Armageddon Review

Note: Since I started writing this review Armageddon publisher THQ has filed for bankruptcy. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but perhaps we can learn something by examining the last games they published. 

The Red Faction series has always been a bit uneven. The first two entries were middling FPS games that tried but never quite managed to satisfyingly implement their “Geo-Mod” technology, allowing the player to blow holes in everything around them. The series finally hit its stride with the third-person Grand Theft Auto style demolition fest that was Red Faction: Guerrilla, turning you lose on the surface of Mars to lead a rebellion via blowing up all the fascist occupiers’ buildings and anything else that got in the way. 

Red Faction: Armageddon certainly holds true to the uneven pacing of the franchise. The game moves the series forward by offering fun and interesting weapons while at the same time dragging the player down from the free-roaming world of Guerrilla into claustrophobic underground caverns. Things have changed on Mars, and not entirely for the better.

Get your ass to Mars

Guerrilla established that Mars had been terraformed, meaning you can run around outside in shirtsleeves rather than a space suit. At the start of Armageddon a group of cultists with vaguely defined plans and a love of spiky armor attack the Terraformer keeping the planet habitable. You, in the boots of Darius Mason, snarky son of the protagonist from Guerrilla, are sent to stop them. 

If it's man-made, you can unmake it.

Just to spoil things you don’t succeed. The surface of the Red Planet is reduced to a storm racked wasteland and the Martian colonists flee underground. On one hand it’s always a bit annoying to be handed a defeat that you, as the player, have no way around. On the other I appreciate that you at least get to fight through the battle at the Terraformer first hand rather than sitting through an extended cut-scene. As always the strength of games is in letting you do stuff yourself, not just watch passively.

Demolition Man

Like Guerrilla before it Armageddon is played from a third person “over the shoulder” perspective. Also like Guerrilla large parts of Armageddon’s environments are highly destructible. Any man-made structure is susceptible to explosive weapons, demolition charges, or just beating the hell out of it with your mighty sledgehammer. Many enemies have explosive attacks, meaning no piece of cover lasts long in a pitched battle.  

Anything broken can be fixed by waggling you magic bracer or "Nano-Forge" at it.

New to the series is the ability to rebuild anything that’s been destroyed through the sci-fi magic of your Nano-Forge. This device handily lets you rebuild demolished cover in the middle of a fight and repair destroyed critical paths. While it would have been cool to materialize turrets or defensive barriers on the fly you’re restricted to only rebuilding what existed beforehand. The effect is visually interesting and prevents wanton destruction from making any area impossible to complete. 

Weapon selection is strong, with plenty of satisfyingly loud and destructive ways to obliterate your enemies and anything nearby. Conventional assault rifles and shotguns mix it up with more exotic fare like a wall piercing sniper rifle, disintegration beams, and a terrifyingly destructive black hole launcher. There’s hardly a bad option to be found in Armageddon’s arsenal.  

Tools of the Proletariat

The Magnet gun deserves special mention. This device lets you fire two magnets at different objects, which then rush together with bone-splintering speed. You can splatter enemies against the ceiling, crush them under a mass of rubble, or slam them into their buddies with a sickening “CRUNCH”. The possibilities are nearly limitless, and there’s a perverse pleasure to be found in sending a three-ton monster slamming up into the ceiling every time it tries to struggle to its feet. The Magnet gun is such a unique and fun weapon it could almost carry a physics puzzle type game on its own.

The strongest gameplay addition is in the form of a handful of pseudo-magical powers fueled by the Nano-Forge.  You start with a simple directional kinetic blast, but soon unlock tactically interesting abilities like a defensive energy shell and a shockwave that leaves enemies dangling helplessly in mid-air. All are great fun, recharge quickly, and when used intelligently make Darius just short of unstoppable. 

The Shockwave power leaves enemies floating helplessly, perfect for skeet shooting.

The biggest disappointment with this latest addition to the Red Faction series is that you’re no longer free to roam Mars at will. Armageddon takes place largely underground, in a series of heavily scripted and linear levels. The socialistic revolutionary theme and oppressive human foes of previous games have been replaced with an army of giant alien bugs. This particular breed of space-bug is colorful and agile, but they could be seamlessly dropped into any sci-fi shooter. They’re not bad enemies, just generic and symptomatic of Armageddon’s problems.

God of War

Darius makes for a tough and resilient player character, an interesting decision when many modern shooter protagonists are more on the squishy side. Between weapons and nano-powers it’s almost trivial to tear through space-bugs by the dozens, especially once you get a few upgrades under your belt. Melee is so effective and powerful it felt like the giant alien bugs should be running away from me, not the other way around. Even on hard difficulty I rarely felt seriously threatened.

Combat is more forgiving and less cover based than it was in Guerrilla. As ugly and numerous as the alien swarm is they lack the automatic weapons, keen aim, and air superiority that made the EDF soldiers in the previous game so dangerous. The human cultists certainly feel dumber and less threatening on the rare occasions in the campaign they show up. 

Vehicles, like this Leo Armor, are so powerful you'll wonder how the bugs are supposed to be winning.

Vehicle segments serve as palate cleansers between the on-foot action. There are a few variants of mech suits, insectoid walkers, and a VTOL hovercraft, but all are blisteringly powerful. Armageddon’s vehicles aren’t deep in terms of gameplay, but they do let you cut loose and obliterate everything in your path without needing to think about it. If anything the vehicle sections go on a bit long.

Rounding out gameplay is a “Horde Style” Multiplayer mode that lets you and up to three other schlubs fend off wave after increasingly difficult wave of bugs across a handful of maps. Like much of Armageddon it’s not tactically complex, but it can make for chaotic fun if you’re willing to crank up the difficulty and use basic communication and coordination. Playing alien volleyball with magnet-guns is well worth the price of admission.

The co-op multiplayer is a good excuse to explode things with friends.

As a nice touch upgrades and upgrade currency carry over between multiplayer and single player. It’s not hard to max out your character long before finishing the campaign. Finally there are a few small free-form demolition maps that might kill a few minutes of playing with explosives. 

Start the reactor. Free Mars…

Plot has never been the strongest point in the Red Faction series, but Armageddon’s is especially problematic. The story holds together for the first third of the lengthy single player campaign before it starts to fragment, with Darius jumping from location to location with steadily less explanation or flow. It feels like the developers ran out of time and resources and were forced to curt a fair bit of content, then weren’t quite able to calk over the cracks.

A sniper-rifle that lets you see and shoot through walls is almost cheating.

Many elements, like the your Marauder allies and their exotic technology, are given a cursory explanation if covered at all. The main human villain dies with a surprising number of chapters left to go, ham-stringing much of what dramatic tension the narrative has been able to muster. The story finally coasts to a face-palm inducing “We didn’t think of this solution before because we’re brain-damaged” conclusion. None of this will stop you from enjoying exploding hundreds of alien bugs, but it certainly doesn’t help.

Ultimately Armageddon just isn’t as strong at its predecessor. It sacrifices much of what made Guerrilla interesting without adding a lot in return, becoming a generic sci-fi action shooter. Its unsurprising that the game sold poorly, leading to the cancellation of the series and perhaps contributing to the collapse of THQ as a whole. If all you need is fun weapons and explosions Armageddon will probably scratch your gaming itch, but fans of Guerrilla expecting a sequel that builds on the successes of the first will be disappointed. 

Reasons to Play: Powerful weapons and destructible environments. Fun “Nano-Forge” powers. Decent co-op Horde mode. Magnet gun. 

Reasons to Pass: Mindless action soon becomes repetitive. Discards free-roaming world of previous game for linear levels. Story loses steam, becoming steadily less interesting and coherent.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.