The ability to actively destroy every piece of an environment is something that has always seemed to elude video games by the slimmest of margins. Mostly due to things like technical limitations and the fact that PhysX hasn't caught on yet or been made inexpensive enough. One could also argue that the early forays into "realistic" terrain destruction had been in the wrong direction, focusing on destroying both the landscape and the buildings resting on it instead of just one or the other.
After those first few stumbles, most game developers realized that reducing buildings to rubble is a lot more entertaining than blasting holes in mountains, and thus focused on that aspect. Thus it would follow that, eventually one of the pioneers of environment destruction, Volition, would eventually come around to this as well. They did so with 2008's Red Faction: Guerrilla, the third in the Red Faction series. A year after release it was ported to the PC, and came out pretty well considering Volition's last PC Port was a pile of crap set on fire.
Guerrilla takes the series in a few new directions, for one it's no longer an FPS. In fact it's not really taking place in any mines (I'll get back to that). Rather it's now become a sandbox game, and no I don't mean "like Grand Theft Auto". Let's get one thing straight. To be "like Grand Theft Auto" a sandbox game would have to have the following
1. Multiple Mission Providers
2. Chances to play one set of providers against another
3. Stealing vehicles
4. Money system with financial penalties for getting arrested or killed
RFG does not fufill 1 or 2. 3 it sort of fufills but in an ass-backwards way and 4 never factors into it. There is a money system but it's not really money as we know it. So it's not simply "like Grand Theft Auto", and to be honest I don't really like the trend of having to dumb down comparisons to other games. Not saying these comparisions can't and shouldn't be made, but one shouldn't try to make game comparisions a simple, one-note "oh it's like this" without being elaborate enough. This is the 21st century, we are no longer in the age of "Doom Clones" or "Quake Killers", or even "GTA Ripoffs".
Anyway, in RFG you play as Alec Mason, a licensed demoman (for if he were a bad one not only would he not have his license but he also wouldn't be sitting here discussing it with us) who goes to Mars for reasons not fully explained, perhaps because his real name is Hauser? I kid, of course. He joins his brother Dan in the glorious Earth Defense Force-controlled, terraformed Mars of 2120. For the record, Red Faction I took place in 2075, so in less than 50 years they terraformed the planet to have not only a breathable atmosphere but also cultivated the land to a degree. Pretty impressive considering what I'm about to say next. All is not well on Mars however, the EDF has become repressive in an ironic twist seeing as how they helped Parker in the first game. The reason for their opression seems to be that things on Earth have gone completely to shit due to rampant speclation on commodities and a lack of production. Again this is odd seeing as how the ending of Red Faction II ended with the opressive regime that replaced the first opressive regieme getting overthrown and replaced with Democracy. Elaborate joke about Iraq? Elaborate joke about the Sub-Prime housing crisis? Or it's just possible things changed from how they were in 2083? (the year RFII takes place). I am uncertain. Anyway with Earth pretty much fucked the EDF wants to solidify control of Mars and its resources so that they can save the Earth with...ore? I guess?
Due to all this violence inherent in the system and people being repressed, Dan has apparently joined a new, third iteration of the Red Faction. We find this out through the tutorial mission where we smash up an old Ultor watchtower while Dan reads us the Space Communist Manifesto (just kidding, despite the "Red" moniker that's only referring to Mars and the Red Faction seem to have no real political leanings other than "not be run by the military-industrial complex"). On the way back from work we find Dan's prefab hovel is being raided by the EDF and he is promptly perforated by a gunship for not immediately surrendering. Miranda Warnings were apparently repealed in the future. The EDF troops on site take the time to make some bullshit charges against Alec and instantly revoking his demolitions license through the power of mis-timed movie quotes. He's only saved from execution by the timely arrival of the Red Faction. After caving in an EDF officer's skull with his sledgehammer, Alec reluctantly joins the cause.
First off the game is very good looking and each of the six areas look distinct enough from each other. You start in an area that looks barely terraformed at all, and eventually proceed to locations that look like they could be found on Earth. Of course where the game really excels is in the "shit blowing up everywhere forever" department, which is what happens often in this game. You can arm yourself with four weapons at any given time, and most of them allow you to blast chunks out of walls, barriers, and other assorted building materials as you fight the EDF wherever they may be found, which of course is just about everywhere. Though I should note when I say "four" weapons, I really mean "two". At least you'll only be able to choose two. You always have to hold onto your sledgehammer, and the remote charges are too useful to ever get rid of, so it boils down to what you're going to use for weapons in slots 3 and 4. It feels a bit limiting especially when you run out of ammo to blow up buildings with and have to rely on your sledgehammer to take things down (though this kind of ammo shortage is not common). Of course then you could in theory just take a vehicle and smash it through the walls, Kool-Aid man style. Or get lucky and be able to find some explosive barrels. Oddly enough they come in two flavors. First there's the sensible hydrogen gas tanks that would make a bit of sense in terms of providing fuel for things like cars, generators, etc. These are fairly stable and Alec can even pick them up and throw them without them going off. They'll only go off when shot or when too close to another explosion. In fact these tanks often are used for some of the demolition challenges littered across the map, often when they want you to use skill over brute force. So yeah, those tanks make sense, but then there are the standard explosive barrels of indeterminate flammable material. These are so volatile that if you knock one down a hill just by running into it, it'll explode. In fact I'm pretty sure that if the barrel should go over 1 mph in velocity, it will explode. Not that it will explode instantly in all cases, mind you, so you can in theory use a hammer strike or a vehicle to punt a tank into something. Kind of neat but again why these barrels exist alongside the ones that are sensible seems to just be a video game convention rather than a reason for them to exist on Mars. Unless the EDF uses Mars as a dumping ground for them.
Getting back to weapons for a second, only about 1/2 of the weapons you get are ones that come from the EDF or other hostile sources, the rest are weapons that are built by the Red Faction. These include rocket launchers, grinders (a gun that shoots spinning sawblades that can be upgraded to explode), and an "arc welder" lightning gun that can fry enemy soldiers within their vehicles, which is really the only way to steal some of the heavier EDF combat vechicles like tanks. To make these weapons and upgrade them takes "salvage" which is the currency system of this game. Salvage is found by blowing up buildings or mining ore deposits that are just sitting out there in the landscape. Like I said earlier, the Mars mining operations seem to have been a little confused and they decided to start from underground and work their way outwards.
Anyway the objectives of the Red Faction are to swing popular opinion in their favor by blasting the crap out of EDF-controlled buildings and destroying propaganda. Ultimately the goal is to fully demoralize the EDF and force them out of an area before you move onto the next. So essentially rather than being a rebel like in the first two games, this time you are pretty much a terrorist/freedom fighter (remember it all depends on which side you're viewing it from). I mean sure the EDF is making use of a lot of the buildings, but by the time I reached the fourth area and I was blowing up restraunts EDF officers frequently used? Well now I was starting to think things were a little suspect, but it seems that the EDF is so opressively bad the citizenry would rather be blown up by their fellow miners. Not to say there aren't repercussions for killing civilians, but it's more of a slap-on-the-wrist "support fell by 5 points" thing than anything else. Anyway, back to making the EDF crap themselves. There are many ways to do this. In addition to the default number of campaign missions you have to complete, there are also side missions in every area. Some of them have you blowing up targets, some have you wrecking shit as a diversion, some have you riding around with a crazy guy named
Jenkins and shooting things, and some have you rescuing civilians who are being tortured by the EDF for info on who did the campaign missions you just completed, which I thought was a nice bit of continuity. There are also marked targets in each area that will give off big bonuses for destroying. Often these are grandiose targets that look really nice when they crumble as well. The physics are done exceptionally and this is easily shown by knocking a floor down to the one below it. If you are particularly good at knocking buildings over you can manage it so that buildings can fall into other buildings and damage those as well in the most lethal domino rally ever. However on some occasions the physics will get a bit wonky in that some buildings will still be standing despite having all but a tiny piece of their supports knocked out (though after a time the building will eventually suffer a structural integrity failure and collapse with much groaning and creaking), but otherwise it feels somewhat realistic and gratifying to watch a building crumble or get blown apart, watching as debris rains down on enemy soldiers. Also there are secret bombs you can get and mount onto vehicles (see what I mean about terrorism?) that can pretty much destroy some of the larger buildings with one blast. I first tested it out on one of the high importance targets, a city hall building that got turned into a firebase, and the blast basically ripped the roof right off of it. The destruction isn't perfect, though, since the game uses Havok physics which means your computer might lag at times. It's never bad enough to severly cripple the game but it is somewhat annoying.
Now I said this was a story about trying to free Mars from opression (again), but that's not the entire case. In fact it gets a lot tacked onto it once you reach the second area. See, like Metal Gear Solid, Red Faction has always had a fascination with Nanomachines. Fortunately in Red Faction the nanomachines do not bring you back from being shot in the brainpan or allow you to run on water, and instead are treated as minor enhancements or possibly a potent particle weapon. Why do I mention this? Because it turns out the EDF is looking for leftover Ultor nanotechnology, and so is the Red Faction if just to keep it out of EDF hands. Now to be fair this does play into the whole struggle between the Faction and the EDF so I'm not going to be too harsh on it...but I do have to mention the
Marauders. And if you thought I was being spoiler-heavy beforehand, you haven't seen anything yet.
See the Marauders are mysterious raider types that live out in the wastelands of Mars (so most of Mars) and frequently kill the shit out of things for little to no reason. Despite all the fear people get from them all you have to do is introduce them to a sledgehammer, HHH-style, and they're done. Seriously I emptied half an assault rifle clip to put down one and then realized melee kills them a lot faster. In any event you find out both through secret radio tags (that get you those awesome vehicle bombs...don't ask) and through the story that the Marauders worship the almighty Ultor Nanoforge (essentially a grey goo creator although far more controlled). Even better, they're apparently descendants of the original Ultor scientists that worked with Capek in the first game. While this is a neat twist in theory and also leads to a really creepy mission about 1/3 into the game, it comes off really odd. Especially when some of the Marauders can't speak worth a shit and others can speak fluently. Is that how they establish who's in charge? I have no idea. It'd be the most fucked-up meritocracy ever if so.
As to the Red Faction's plan for the nanoforge? Well they figure the best way to keep it out of Ultor hands is to integrate it into a rifle and hand it to Alec. The idea being that he just ejects the Forge if he has to drop the gun but really now, the safest place for it is in the hands of the most wanted man on Mars (at least I think he'd be after all he's blown up). Then again given that EDF soldiers react with shock when they see their comrades get vaporized painfully and slowly by nanites maybe they don't want to try and frisk Alec for something like that anymore.
So yeah, the story starts out kind of ok then becomes silly, but I don't think anybody really would play the game for the story, they'd play it for the destruction, which as I said is quite wonderful, if at times also silly. For example you can hit a person with a sledgehammer and their ragdolling corpse will manage to break through a wall. Not all walls though, military buildings are far tougher to take down than regular civilian structures, but still it's odd all the same. Destruction also plays a big part of the multiplayer game, both as a strategic move (i.e. destroying a bridge to cut off one avenue of approach from the enemy) and as the central focus of game modes where the entire idea is to blow stuff up or protect buildings from being blown up. Of course thanks to the sketchy nature of Games for Windows Live matchmaking, it becomes very hard to get into some of those modes especially since everybody online seems to only want to play Team Bagman which is just "hold on to this thingy for X amount of points". Boring as hell after the 10th time in a row, trust me. Still despite those problems there is enough replay value in the campaign as well as the hotseat "wrecking crew" multiplayer mode, which as you guessed, is about blowing shit up.
In fact really, the only part of the game mechanics I can complain about really, is the fact that they put in a really awesome cover system that is useless. Basically the cover system allows you to take cover behind objects/walls and so forth and dynamically move in manners that I haven't seen out of any other game with a cover system yet. For example I once took cover behind a car and then dove over
it to get behind some rocks. Sadly though the cover system is useless, as I said, because anything that is cover usually doesn't last very long because you're too busy blowing it all up. I wish Volition had made this cover system for Saints Row 2, where it would've fit better.
Due to the nature of Red Faction as a series I can't really compare Guerrilla to anything other than either other sandbox games or just games in the Red Faction series. I'll do the former and say that, as a Sandbox game it's better than GTA IV but nowhere near as good as Saints Row 2 (assuming we're not talking the crappy PC port of it). Then again it's hard to beat a game that runs on pure sociopathy.