Review: Red Faction: Armageddon
July 6, 2011, Author: Andy Corrigan
From First Person Shooter to Third Person Sandboxer, the Red Faction series shows that THQ developer, Volition, aren’t afraid to reinvent the wheel when it comes to one of their cult franchises. The first Red Faction was famous for its ‘Geomod’ technology that allowed players to deform the terrain and structures around them with explosive power, making Keycards a thing of the past. After a lengthy hiatus (for the gaming world, anyway), in 2009, Volition brought the series into the current generation with Red Faction: Guerrilla, and boy was it impressive.
Alec Mason’s tale of a political power struggle on a terraformed Mars stayed with me for quite some time, and after playing it, I was happily labelling it as one of the most polished Sandbox games I’ve encountered. The upgraded destruction was easily the most memorable aspect of a largely enjoyable game, as nearly every building you looked at could be destroyed in some way, shape or form. Toppling entire buildings was a joy to behold as you could almost feel damaged structures struggling under their own weight, before satisfyingly crashing to the ground in a destructive orgasm of steel and concrete.
Two years later and Volition are back again with their next instalment, and once again they’ve decided to change things up. Is it for better or worse?
Masonry runs in the family
The protagonist of Armageddon is one Darius Mason, grandson of Alec, who you might remember as the hero of the last game’s Martian revolution. The game kicks off while Darius is serving with the Red Faction. His outfit is desperately trying to stop a group of Marauder separatists from destroying the Mars Terraformer, which is the only thing that’s keeping the harsh Mars surface habitable. Confusion ensues during the confrontation with the cultists, who are led by the uber-pale nutjob, Adam Hale, whose relatives were killed in combat against Mason’s Gramps all those years ago. Hale tricks Darius and achieves his goal, blowing the Terraformer six ways from Sunday, seemingly taking himself out with it in the process. Without the Terraformer regulating the environment, the human race is forced underground to survive.
A few years later and Mason has left the Red Faction and is living in the underground colony of Bastian. He is found operating as one of the few people who will venture to the surface to do work if the money is good enough. Taking a job for a mysterious client, Darius is tasked with breaking an ancient seal. By doing so, he unwittingly unleashes all manner of hell onto Mars in the form of vicious, indigenous creatures who have laid dormant for years. Their numbers are large and they tear through the human colonies as quickly as they do brutally. Blamed for the atrocity befalling his fellow-man, Darius must eliminate both the new threats and old, clear his name, save Mars and still find the time to return his DVDs to Blockbuster Video before he gets fined… probably…
Typical action game storyline then, really, isn’t it? It’s a pretty enjoyable yarn too for most part, certainly enough to keep you entertained for the entirety of the game, though it can a little by-the-numbers and overly predictable at times. It’s hard to say exactly what the plot is missing, because there is atmosphere here and the characters are just about interesting enough to make you want to see where it goes. It’s probably not helped in this respect having to follow the excellent writing of Portal 2 and L.A. Noire, but as long as you go in expecting a big dumb story you’ll likely enjoy the ride while it lasts.
Build it up, tear it down…
So, as I alluded to, Volition have changed their format again for Armageddon, and the game is no longer an open world affair, opting instead to create a linear shooter. There will be many put off by this news, but as much of a fan as I was of the previous game, Armageddon definitely benefits from the new focus. It takes a brave studio to make a change like this after a prior successful outing and I have to say, for me, it works very much in the game’s favour. Don’t think for a second, though, that linear means that there’s any less destruction or fun to be had.
This time around the cover mechanic has also been completely removed, and initially, for me this seemed an odd decision. I rather enjoyed the stop n’ pop system of the previous game, which was surprisingly deep for a sandbox title. It’s when you consider that the type of enemy you’ll be fighting for 90% of the time will tend to rush you, rather than looking out for their own safety, you realise that it was actually a very smart move. The gameplay in Red Faction: Armageddon is fast-paced and with hordes of insect monsters verging on your position desperately trying to bite your nuts off, a cover system would feel very out-of-place.
The general controls are nice and smooth, making for a very fun and fluid combat experience. At times you’ll notice the sources of inspiration from other games, such as diving about all over the place à la Gears of War, putting some much-needed distance between you and the bugs. Dead Space elements are notable from obvious things such as the design of the creatures, all the way down to subtle implementations like the trail that leads you to your next objective. There were even moments where, thanks to the types of weapons and powers you can unlock, combat felt a little like Mass Effect as you manipulated certain abilities to your advantage. So, derivative? Absolutely, but fun? Definitely.
The types of creature differ greatly, with a huge variety of nasty bugs that want to make a lunch of you. There are ones that rush you in large numbers, ones that jump around the ceiling firing projectiles at you from all angles, big brutes that are slow but powerful; there’s so many, I won’t list them all here. Some of them come in different flavours too, with your typical electric, fire or acidic variations making an appearance. There are stationary threats as well, with massive claw-like structures that spring from the ground that not only hit you with high-powered projectiles, but also buffer the strength of the other enemies in the vicinity until you can take them down.
I won’t go into the precise details, but there are one or two stretches where you’ll be taking on human enemies, which will see you rely more on range and cover than in the rest of the game. To be honest, at the times you come to them, it can be a welcome change of pace.
The destruction is just as great as it was in Guerrilla, and certainly unrivalled in the industry (that might be set to change if you’ve seen the recent Battlefield 3 trailers, though). The physics are almost perfect, and it’s impossible not to be amazed watching a building topple. This is even sweeter when you consider the multitude of weapons at your disposal to make that happen. You can only carry four at any one time, meaning there are times where you will need to think about what to take into battle with you. Thankfully, you can change your load-out at the designated computer stations you come across throughout the levels.
The weapons themselves are drip-fed to you at regular moments throughout, always keeping things fresh and offering you new ways to play. Old stalwarts like the Hammer are back, although as glad I was to see it, I ditched it early on in favour of more destructive weaponry and never really looked back. Aside from your usual set of standard weapons in assault rifles, pistols and shotguns, the game has enough outlandish ones to keep you experimenting.
You’ll probably have read about the Magnet Gun by now, but I’ll cover it again. With the first shot, you fire the magnet, and with the second an anchor. As soon as that anchor is deployed, whatever is attached to the magnet will smash into the anchored item at high velocity. This is great fun, as you can literally hurl entire walls at enemies, or even fire them into hazards. Along with that, you have guns that can disintegrate entire buildings almost digitally, powerful lasers that will tear a line through any surface, or a gun that fires black holes that suck enemies and objects into it before exploding. There is a lot of variety here, and a lot of different play styles to toy around with.
As well as spending a lot of the game shooting at enemies and knocking stuff down, you’ll also spend a fair amount building things back up with the Nano-Forge. The Nano-Forge, if you remember from the previous game, was a destructive weapon of untold power that all opposing parties were after. In the years between Guerrilla and Armageddon, Mason’s family have backward engineered the Nano Forge so that it can rebuild and this comes into play often. While holding the left bumper, you can rebuild whatever you’ve destroyed; walkways, generators, stairs, even entire buildings or cover. This creates a cool dynamic at times, leaving you in firefights where you have to rebuild your cover in the midst of combat or face certain death. The Nano Forge can be used for destructive purposes too, allowing you to send a rush of energy a few feet in front, damaging enemies and knocking them back in the process, while even being strong enough to punch holes in walls.
To help some of the firefights along are the vehicle sections. The first one you’ll use is a mech-styled exosuit, and if I’m to draw obvious comparisons, it’s to the Power Loader in Aliens. In this you can pretty much move about as normal, but have unlimited firepower in the form of rockets and machine guns. There are two other land vehicles, which are both types of insect-designed walkers with different levels of power in their arsenal. My favourite of the two has to be the one with the electric gun, as it attacks Telsa style and any enemies in the direction you’re aiming will explode in a glorious puff of red liquid. Towards the end of the game, you’ll even get to pilot an aircraft in one of the game’s final and explosive stages.
The best thing about these segments is that you feel unstoppable as you tear through hordes of enemies, bringing down entire structures with ease. Within that sentiment lies my only complaint; they make it too easy. It’s about that time where I should say that cliché I hate to use, the one about how the vehicle sections break up the gameplay, but there’s no other way to put it. They do, and they do it well.
It also wouldn’t be a review of a current-gen game if I didn’t mention that you can, of course, upgrade Darius’s abilities. Your currency for this is salvage, which is littered around the levels or generated by destroying buildings. To spend your salvage, you need to find the upgrade terminals which will allow you to improve current attributes like your maximum health, how much ammo you can carry, or the amount of recoil you’ll get. In the same skill radials, you can also add abilities like the option to see enemy health bars, give yourself a temporary protective over-shield or get salvage from kills. It’s a flexible system that you can reset and reassign at any time, and it helps change the game up further as you work your way through. The good news about this is that your abilities will be carried back and forth between this and the Infestation mode I’ll talk about later.
The last thing I’ll mention about the campaign is that once completed, that you’re offered the chance to play a New Game Plus. Not only do all your current weapons and abilities apply from the start, but the game opens up some new things to play with. The cheats make the biggest impact, offering you something else to spend your hard-earned salvage on. So, like in Resident Evil 5, you can buy unlimited ammo for your guns, purchase new vision modes (like night vision or ‘sketch’), or add other modifiers that will affect the game in certain ways. The New Game Plus also offers up a ridiculous new Easter Egg weapon in Mr Toots; a rainbow farting unicorn with highly destructive power. It really has to be seen to be believed.
It’s in this second playthrough that the game finds the chance to offer you the level of experimentation that many might have found wanting in the transition from sandbox game to linear shooter. A great addition that actually made me start the game again immediately after finishing it, and I haven’t done that many times since Bioshock.
Talking of having the chance to experiment, there is one other single player mode to consider; ‘Ruin’. As it sounds, your objective is absolute destruction. Ruin mode is essentially a series of challenges where you will be required to enter a map, choose your weapon set and then try to beat a target score for destruction within a time limit. By chaining together the demolition of structures and using explosive barrels to your advantage, you can earn multipliers that will see your score rocket. Once you’ve beaten the par score on a stage, it will unlock the next one for you. Once beaten, you can also get into those maps on freeplay mode, allowing you to dick about as much as you like. This is a fun mode and worth investigating, but it might not have the legs to see you spend considerable time in there.
It does, however, require an online pass, which luckily, you’ll get in the box. That means that if you pick the game up second-hand, you’re looking at around 400MP to get the full set of features. Thankfully, if you gone the thrifty route, you can play a demo of the mode in-game, so you can at least see what you’re getting.
Visuals of mass destruction
Like its predecessor, Red Faction: Armageddon is a very polished game visually, with a gritty look that captures the essence of what you’re experiencing perfectly. The character models are a treat and there are some nice little touches going on with them, such as Darius Mason’s outfit changing logically along with the events of the game. The cut-scenes are also nicely directed with typical action movie sequences making up, in part, for some of the shortcomings found in a by-the-numbers plot.
The enemy models, if a little too derivative in some ways, do help in gameplay, with the different enemy classes clearly distinguished by the colour of their markings. It’s not obnoxious or in your face, but acts as subtle, almost subconscious recognition of the types of foe you’re facing. A quick glance and you know what you’re tackling without really realising it.
Of course, the destruction is always going to be the star of the show in a Red Faction game, and thankfully it’s as good as ever. Watching a building fall realistically into itself in a cloud of concrete dust is something I’ve yet to see rivalled in any other title and it never gets boring. With action going on wherever you look, the frame-rate never drops, the game never stutters and I can’t recall seeing any glitches. Volition should be really happy with their game engine once again.
Crash, bang, wallop…
Audibly, Armageddon lives up to the quality of the rest of the game with a great impact in sound. Once again, the sound of destruction is second to none and compliments the brilliance of the physics engines when things start falling down, and the guns sound loud and fun, as they should in a game this brash. It has a decent soundtrack too, with the dramatic overtures provided by Warner Bros. suiting the game perfectly.
The voice-acting is decent for most part, although the writing isn’t the greatest, with it being full of action movie clichés. My favourite aspects of the sound were the few moments of witty interaction and banter between Darius and S.A.M., his wrist-based A.I. created by Mason’s Grandmother, Samanya (also from the previous game). S.A.M. acts a way for the game to feed tips to Darius and advise him of his objectives, but she always seems to have a brilliant habit of saying something hilariously deadpan in the face of the most dire situations.
Sadly, there is no competitive multiplayer, which seems to be an increasing trend with the games I’m reviewing lately. This is possibly because many developers are realising that the online multiplayer market is a tough nut to crack if you’re not developing within Activision or Bungie. This is a shame, but it allows you focus on what is a very good co-op mode in ‘Infestation’.
This is your typical Horde mode, where you and three others choose a map and your arsenal, then try to survive one wave of bugs after the other, which will obviously increase in difficulty the further you get. You can respawn a number of times before you’re taken out of the game, but if you’re simply downed, your team mates can run back over and get you back in the thick of it. There are some light customisation elements in there too, allowing you to change your character skin for the match and offering you the option to create a custom logo, similar to how Bungie did in Halo.
Now, I really don’t usually go a bundle on Horde modes, but I had a total blast in my time with the Infestation mode. If it wasn’t for the need to move onto other games to review, I would happily be spending a lot more time in here and it’s not often I will say that about the online component.
Join the revolution!
I guess how much you’ll enjoy Red Faction: Armageddon is really going to rely on how much you can stomach the change from open world game to linear adventure. For me, it works, providing a better focused game on many levels at the expense of the trappings of an open world. It would have been so easy for Volition to rest on their laurels and release another identical sandbox game, and I’m glad they’ve taken this risk to shift Red Faction back towards its story driven roots. While it’s still not an Oscar-winning masterpiece in this respect and probably won’t be atop many people’s lists when the GOTY awards roll around, the sheer fun of the combat along with the destructive force at your fingertips make it worthwhile purchase.