Red Faction: Armageddon Review
The Red Faction games have always been just on the edge of the huge success that developer Volition deserves for all their efforts over the years. The series got its biggest boost with the last game, Guerrilla, where building destruction - including huge multi-story structures tumbling to the ground in a dizzying whirlwind of slick physics calculations - was a major part of how you played. You were a freedom fighter, taking on an oppressive force in an open-world version of a terraformed Mars, and the discoveries you made shaped the history of the planet for centuries to come.
Now, Volition has a sequel. Red Faction: Armageddon has you playing as Darius Mason, the grandson of Guerrilla's protagonist, and apparently things haven't really gone well for Mars in the last few decades. Cultists, led by a Sith-looking dude named Adam Hale, have destroyed the terraformer, putting Mars' atmosphere back to how it once was and sending peaceful colonists underground to eke out their dimly-lit lives in the depths of the planet's massive cave system. Mason, feeling defeated because Hale tricked him in order to destroy the terraformer, takes odd mining and engineering jobs when he can. When a well-paying job to explore some kind of ancient ruins opens up, Mason jumps all over it. In the process, he lets out an ancient race of creatures that have been living deep underground for thousands of years. Described by the game's characters only as "bugs", they crawl and fly, explode and spit, swarm and slice at you.
Armageddon is structured like a linear, story-based action game with none of the free-roaming that its predecessor had, and the first half of it plays out exclusively underground. Building destruction is still here, as the colonists have built little Fallout-style shantytowns underground, and there are some pretty impressive mining and production complexes down there, too, but you won't see destruction of massive buildings quite on par with Guerrilla. The bugs you fight for most of the game are devious and sometimes difficult to hit, as they will fly around and snipe at you from perches and from up high on cave walls. That's why the game gives you a generous amount of lock-on aim whenever you pull the left trigger.
Yes, in Armageddon you will eventually manage to get out from underground, and you do have to fight actual human enemies at some point. I'd consider information like this a spoiler in any other review, but I say it here because it's so vital to this game's eventual (partial) redemption. Players who start to think they'll never escape the caves and see the sun (obscured as it is by the roiling Martian atmosphere) again would quickly have their will to play sapped, so I think it's helpful to let you know that yes, you do eventually get to go outside, and from then on they include plenty of gameplay variety that really livens things up. It's just unfortunate that Volition eventually only put these bits in the last half.
It wouldn't be a Red Faction review without talking about a few weapons, would it? The hard-hitting maul that was so popular in Guerrilla is back, but at this point I think you'll find that with the four weapon slots you have, you're better off using the Magnet Gun over a pretty basic sledgehammer. The Magnet Gun is incredibly fun: you tag one target as the "anchor", and then fire again to tag the "attractor", and the first thing you tagged is ripped from whatever it was attached to and flies across to the second thing you tagged. You can have an enemy on either end (or both ends if you want), you can quickly destroy buildings with this, and you can wreak a lot of havoc without even using any ammo. And this is good, because while your guns are still best at taking out the swarms of bugs you'll find yourself up against, you'll likely run out of ammo here and there, and the Magnet Gun works perfectly in those situations. (Plus, you will have the nanoforge-powered Impact ability if the beasts get a bit too close anyway.)
Beyond that, you'll have a pretty standard assault rifle, a couple of dual-wield pistol options, a solid-feeling shotgun, and a nice array of high-tech weapons that can cause plenty of damage against the game's bigger and nastier enemies, which will get thrown at you pretty often - especially by the end of the game. All the while, you'll be picking up salvage with which you can buy upgrades for Darius - you won't be upgrading specific gear or weapons, but instead they're personal abilities that Darius can then take online in the Infestation and Ruin modes.
What I feel is most disappointing about RFA is simply that once the intro is over, the developers didn't start introducing some real variety to the action until the last half of the game, about three or four hours in. In the meantime, you're stuck in a DOOM 3-style, dimly-lit series of corridor-like caves, and while the action never gets totally dull thanks to the entertainment factor the weapons bring, it can still get tedious. It's rather inconsistent across the course of the whole thing, and gamers who don't play Armageddon long enough to see the second half will have a worse impression of the game than those who do.
The online modes this time around include no competitive action. Infestation mode is like Firefight or Horde mode, using the Salvage upgrades you chose in online play with up to three other people together. You'll fight increasingly nastier waves of bugs coming in, and will be able to choose better and better weapons as you get to the later waves. Then there's Ruin mode, which is actually an entirely solo affair, but here you're given a choice of super-destructive weapons and are given a specific amount of time to cause as much damage as possible. The maps are small and full of buildings as well as explosives that you can set off, and your top scores will go onto a leaderboard - you can compete for the best scores on any given map with your friends or the rest of the world. In all, I really don't think that Armageddon's online play is so amazing that it'll put even a dent in the currently best-played games on PSN or Xbox Live. As far as the PC goes, it's the same, and while overall the PC port is generally good enough, it's kind of a mismatch for PC gamers, as this is clearly a game designed from the ground up for console gamers. Still, playing it both over Steam and OnLive, the game ran smooth and generally offered better visuals than the console editions - well, it did over OnLive with FIOS-type bandwidth (20mbit download) and a wired connection to my router. Your mileage may vary.
Red Faction: Armageddon comes out swinging with its famous GeoMod building destruction technology along with a very fun variety of weapons, but I don't feel that the new enemies are quite as exciting to fight as the developers may have thought, and the decision to place so much of the game underground (and so much of that in the first half) feels a lot like wasted potential for such an ambitious engine and overall design. The open-world gameplay of Guerrilla is gone, and what's been put in its place is decidedly more of what you'd see in a more generic action game. Armageddon does manage to improve on its predecessors in the storytelling department, but it sacrifices some of the fun to achieve that, and I doubt many will argue that that's the right move for a franchise like Red Faction.