Looking back, it’s hard to see why Red Faction isn’t occupying the space that Call of Duty currently resides in. Back in 2001, Volition was first to integrate drivable in-game vehicles, and x-ray scopes into the FPS genre. As well as destructible scenery - so new was it, that a collecting a weapon with any demolitionary characteristics was preceded by an acre of instructional text.
Even back then, Volition clearly felt the need to deliver a shot of fun in the arm of their quasi-futuristic maelstrom. And on playtesting of their fourth instalment, the old dog is evidently still keen for you to enjoy yourself. Save the world - but have fun while you’re doing it.
After having blown up the majority of Mars in 2009’s free-roaming Red Faction Guerrilla, human colonists have retreated beneath the Martian surface. Greedy mining PLC’s have been on the land grab, splintering humans into warring groups of collaborators and resistance. Taking up the mantle of misjudged freedom fighter/smuggler with a backstory Darius Mason (a name that’s so nakedly computery, he may as well be called DOS-PROMPT), he’s here to clear his name having accidently awoken a dormant underground Martian race none-to-happy about these burrowing bi-pedals.
Mason’s the 30th Century’s white van man, equipped with an arsenal of space age power tools. Additional to a standard arsenal of close quarter and distanced firearms (the Banshee pistol and assault rifle proving particularly effective) to futuristic a-spec, such as the Singularity Cannon (black hole on cue? If you insist). The Magnet gun makes a welcome return, a dual stage weapon stapling a magnetic bolt into a receiver, and another into an element you want to send crashing into it – be it a rusty filing cabinet, or an explosive alien. Additionally in the initial three levels, you’ve got the chance to suit up in a robot suit (entitled SHIVA), armed with rockets, machine gun and a rather entertaining shoulder barge attack.
Although Guerrilla received a fairly lukewarm reception, the ability to demolish almost every man-made element in the game certainly made it stand out from the crowd. But rather than its predecessors over reliance on smashing stuff up Volition seem to be much keener on integrating this into the FPS play in Armageddon. Contrary to its moniker, Armageddon is as much about construction as destruction.
Imbued with the powers of 'nanoforge', Mason can project a globus blue spark that rebuilds man-made structures – from twisted junk to walkways, buildings and platforms. The interplay between these two elements adds a refreshing new dimension to battle; providing simple puzzle solving elements (rebuild walkway to unreachable escape hatch) to offensive – such as destroying key supports to drop gantries onto collective alien bonces. Mason’s imperviousness to crashing steel is uncomfortable to get to grips with, but quickly proves to be a fundamental and intriguing element to play. It’s Resident Evil 4-type 3rd person over-the-shoulder perspective and cavernous scenery allows for scurrying aliens dropping into field from all angles – weapon response and grounding is suitably meaty, even though the perspective makes traversing narrow bridges a little awkward.
Time manipulation elements have been employed before in games like the forgettable Timeshift. Yet Armageddon’s multiplayer modes belie a much more complete understanding of the potential of the games elements. 'Ruin Mode' is structured around the Plasma Rifle – a chargeable weapon that beams out a straight laser, capable of slicing through masonry and heating fuel barrels. You’ve got 30 seconds to destroy stuff and hit a milestone score to win more time. Using your limited charge to sever load-baring supports, semi-heat incendiary barrels and then topple structures into these primed elements. Setting off a decent chain reaction requires a strategic approach, elevating it above a mere highscore attack, and it’s support of the effective physics within the game makes it both exciting and rewarding.
The other multiplayer mode on show was Infestation. Centring on the defensive uses of nanotechnology, a team of soldiers have to defend a structure from encroaching aliens, intent on its collapse. Charge resource management between your plasma weapons and your nanotech rebuilding skills and co-operation with your team are certainly order of the day. Heavy weapons that can be equally damaging to your goal as well as the alien horde forcing players to adopt a specific role in each battle, providing an exceptionally entertaining multiplayer mode.
Visually, it’s still a fairly meagre affair, featuring identikit alien landscapes and buildings, as well as aliens who look pretty 8-bit next against the Dead Space’s race of anguished Necromorphs.
But although it might not look unique, the elements for a memorable planetary jaunt are certainly all there. How creatively they manage to incorporate the build/re-build elements across the final product will decide a memorable experience or a series of tasks diminishing in fun until they become a chore. Volition certainly know their destruction, and it seems once again utilising the environment is a key part of the Red Faction experience, as well as the linear storyline approach. But when a developer already exhibits a thorough understanding of the elements under its control, that can only be good sign.
Red Faction Armageddon is schedule for release in the UK on June 3rd