Those of a Wreck-It Ralph persuasion can rejoice in the news that Red Faction: Guerilla is back. My recollections of playing the 2009 original are somewhat hazy now, but my one abiding memory is one of absolute carnage. No 3rd-person action game – before or since – focused so much on the gleeful destruction of the world around you, or made it so satisfying to execute and behold. The big question was whether Red Faction’s central mechanic could sustain interest over the campaign, or if the appeal would be ground to dust through repetition. Opinions varied on this point, but with Guerilla sporting a new layer of visual polish and improved frame rates, now is a perfect time for a fresh appraisal of life on Mars.
For the unfamiliar, a quick recap on the story: you play as Alec Mason, a mining engineer who resettles on Mars only to discover the promised Utopia has not materialised, and that the era of free Mars is over. Instead, the planet is under the vice-like grip of the Earth Defence Force (EDF), an overtly hostile army which controls and oppresses the populace. EDF controls key buildings, manages the dissemination of propaganda and doles out swift retribution to those who do not comply.
In the opening scenes, you are introduced to Alex’s brother, who paints a very grim picture of the regime’s downward spiral, imploring him to join a resistance movement called Red Faction. A tragedy soon unfolds and Alec is subsequently recruited to the liberation cause. The themes of revenge and revolution are quickly established, giving our reluctant rebel a cause to fight for. The cut scenes emit no real emotional resonance, probably on a par with your average 80s action film, but do at least provide context for your actions.
It’s in these early moments that you first whet your appetite for destruction, taking down two buildings using a combination of sledgehammer and detonator bombs. You enjoy significant freedom in how you approach these tasks, and with a little forethought there is usually an easier and less laborious way of toppling a building. The key, you learn, is to carefully survey the structure. Judicious placement of bombs – for example, on supporting pillars- can see a building razed to the ground with spectacular ease. Alternatively, you can do it the hard way, through attrition, repeatedly hacking away until the building is dust.
Speaking of hacking, the sledgehammer is incredibly satisfying to use. There’s a genuinely tactile feel to it, a bona fide sensation of weight and heft as you prod the L2 and R2 buttons to activate the swing. It reverberates and crunches as it makes an impact. Many materials don’t simply submit instantly, some yield more gradually as the delightful physics engine takes charge. Swings against enemies connect powerfully, spurring you on to despatch more of the EDF’s fanatical henchmen. In short, you feel badass; Commando-era Schwarzenegger badass.
Tapping R1 reveals your starter weapons and it soon becomes apparent that these will require significant upgrading if you are to make meaningful progress. As it transpires, there is another motivation for all this destruction and it comes in the form of salvage. Wreck a building or vehicle and you can collect the remnants, returning them to the base safe house where they can be traded for new and upgraded weapons.
Having established the basics, the task ahead of you is to wrest back control of six sectors from the hatred EDF. Each has an EDF control rating, which you can diminish by completing missions and obliterating key buildings in enemy control. As you succeed in these missions, Red Faction morale increases, compelling others to support your cause. The game eschews a rigid approach to problem solving and often there is no surefire, prescribed way of tackling a mission. Go stealth, or go bananas. The latter approach can see you engulfed in EDF soldiers, however, so there are occasions where circumspect is best.
During one hostage-style mission, another character is pinned down by enemy fire. I hopped into a vehicle, powered through the base and decimated the enemies. Before the second wave landed, I espied some hydrogen barrels. Placing these at the front of the base, I attached some detonators, activating these just as enemy trucks arrived, thereby avoiding a lengthy and protracted firefight. The playful, GTA-style of experimentation proved repeatedly entertaining, making for so many memorable and unexpected moments. It was also a pleasure to find my progress aided by (mostly) sound fundamentals. Controls were intuitive, maps were generally clear and the option to place yellow markers towards your destination proved to a boon in minimising frustration. The music deserves praise, too, for perfectly complementing the action with a suitably dramatic score.
Guerilla is a generous package. In addition to the single player campaign, you have access to Wrecking Crew (do as much damage as you can with a set time limit), bonus missions and full online multiplayer, along with an ‘insane’ difficulty level which is unlocked after your playthough. You can find fault with Red Faction: Guerilla – and I will – but you certainly can’t accuse it of a lack of content for that budget-friendly price tag.
Downsides? Well, the Mars setting really does constrain the developers in terms of serving up visual variety. Brown and orange hues dominate, as you might expect, and the terrain is unremittingly dull. For some gamers, the impetus to keep progressing hinges on the visuals, and the feeling of being in ‘new’ worlds or areas; they will be dissatisfied with how derivative it all looks. The remaster adds some HD sheen, but it’s all fairly bland on my base PS4. Cutscenes lack visual interest, too.
The game betrays its age in the brain-dead NPCs, who repeat dialogue on an endless loop and are oblivious to your presence as they spout platitudes about the futility of the war against EDF. Enemies seem dim-witted too, easily outfoxed by running, zigzag style, away from their bullets. Vehicles feel light, prone to tipping over at will and incongruous against the satisfying weight of the other weapons in your arsenal. Maybe that’s Mars gravity at work, but whether by accident or design, the vehicle handling is poor.
Finally, to address the important question of whether smashing stuff up ever gets old. Potentially, the novelty could wear off, but if you’re playing this game you really do owe it to yourself to mix things up. Experiment, apply lateral thinking, charge in, see what works. The sense of discovery, of reward through creativity and trial and error, keeps the appeal alive. The game’s unique selling point in 2009 is its unique selling point in 2018: the unbridled joy of destruction. Perhaps it is best experienced in small doses, but Red Faction does smashing stuff up better than almost any other game.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*