Sunday, May 21, 2017

Red Faction: Guerrilla Sucks

Red Faction: Guerrilla is one of the worst games I've ever played. That statement's a bit hyperbolic, I admit, but even when I don't like a game I can usually find some sort of redeeming value, some reason to maybe like it in spite of its problems. I can't do that with Red Faction: Guerrilla. Sure, the Geo Mod 2.0 system, which allows you to reduce towering buildings to piles of rubble through a full-fledged physics-based destruction system, can be a lot of fun, but literally everything else in this game -- vehicles, combat, missions, the story, the open world -- is either underwhelming or completely rubbish. It's like they had this idea for a great destruction system and then slapped a bunch of stuff together to make a game out of it, without bothering to make sure any of the actual game was any good.

Guerrilla is set in the year 2125, a couple generations after the events of the first Red Faction. In essence, Mars has been terraformed and colonized, but its population -- mostly immigrant workers who have come to Mars to work the mines and factories -- is being oppressed by a militaristic organization known as the Earth Defense Force. You play as Some Guy Alec Mason, a demolitions worker who arrives on Mars just in time to witness his brother get murdered by the EDF. Mason quickly takes up the mantle of the Red Faction, a guerrilla organization working to rid Mars of the EDF and liberate its people. The rest of the game sees Mason completing missions for Red Faction and destroying key EDF structures to reduce EDF control over the game's six regions and raise colonist morale within them.

The basic gameplay takes an open world approach similar to Grand Theft Auto -- you get an open region on the surface of Mars (divided into six districts) to explore, driving assorted vehicles along streets and over open terrain towards various points of interest. These mostly consist of main missions and side-missions where you drive to a start point to load the script and assets for the mission and then carry it out in the open world, but there are also ore deposits that you can mine (giving you scrap, a resource for upgrading equipment), audio logs to find (giving you tiny bits of backstory and, if you find enough of them, hidden locations of massive bombs), and marked EDF buildings that you're encouraged to destroy in your own free way.

A reference to the protagonist from the first Red Faction.

Each district has two gauges associated with it: one representing the EDF's level of control over the region, and another representing the population's morale in that zone. Your goal is to lower the EDF's control in each district by completing main missions and assorted "guerrilla actions" (stealing EDF vehicles, intercepting EDF convoys, destroying EDF structures, rescuing civilian hostages, etc) and then complete the final main mission (only unlocked once EDF control reaches zero) to officially liberate the district. Completing these missions and guerrilla actions will also raise morale; the higher a district's morale, the more likely random civilians are to join you in a fight, supply you with extra ammunition, or grant you extra scrap as rewards. For the whole game you simply repeat this process of performing various tasks to lower the EDF's control over a district and then moving on to the next one to do it all over again, until you eventually liberate all of Mars from EDF control.

Red Faction: Guerrilla's biggest and most glaring flaw is that it's just so, damn, repetitive. The whole game consists of essentially two things -- driving from mission point to mission point and blowing stuff up -- divided into hundreds of little five-minute scenarios that you tackle one at a time, driving from one to the next, repeating the same basic objectives and hitting the same beats over and over again, from one district to the next, until you eventually do enough of these actions to beat the game. To reiterate: it feels very much like they had only a bare-bones idea of what kind of game they wanted to make, created a few demo scenarios to show off the destruction system, and then copy-pasted the tech demo scenarios several dozen times until they had a "full game" on their hands. As such, playing through Guerrilla feels a lot like grinding repetitive tasks in an MMORPG.

There are, for instance, eight types of side-missions (nine if you count the Demolition Master challenges), most of which are some simple variation on a basic objective like "kill X number of dudes," "destroy this target," or "drive this vehicle somewhere." There's room for creative freedom within some of the missions, but you spend most of the time stuck at "red alert" status which causes dozens of EDF troops, tanks, and copters to swarm your locations from all directions, meaning once you actually start a mission you don't have time for any kind of clever tactics for completing your objective as the situation quickly devolves into frantic run-and-gun mayhem. In practice, most missions end up playing out exactly the same, and once you realize you're doing the exact same thing for the umpteenth time you stop caring about coming up with fun, clever solutions to objectives and instead resort to just getting it done as quickly as possible -- usually by charging straight in and just blowing up or smashing everything indiscriminately.

"Left Click for five minutes until everything dies."

Some mission types are just so incredibly boring that I started actively avoiding them unless I happened to be conveniently right next to one. "Heavy Metal" missions, where you pilot a mech and are tasked with killing/destroying X amount of things, are the worst of all since you're practically invincible, and you're forcibly restricted to a small circular zone where you just stand around mashing the attack button waiting for things to come and die. "Collateral Damage" missions have you passively riding in the back of a vehicle with a turret shooting random buildings and EDF vehicles, but you often get stuck in long sections where you've blown everything up and just sit there waiting for the next thing to show up. "Transporter" missions (or any mission involving a vehicle) is just following a dotted line towards a destination across a boring wasteland of a map.

All the vehicles control like ass in this game. There are over 20 types of vehicles to drive, ranging from lightweight civilian minihaulers to armored tanks, each one with its own unique stats for things like durability, speed, and handling, and every single one of them is just a pain in the ass to drive in its own way, because despite their varying stats they all have the cumbersome inertia and turn radius of a freight truck with the weight of a miniature Hot Wheels car. The surface of Mars is full of uneven terrain, with lots of hills, canyons, and rocks of all sizes, and vehicles tend to bounce around and fly out of control even on relatively smooth terrain, meaning that you're only ever really in control of the vehicle about half the time you're driving it. Going up a measly two-degree incline will send your vehicle gliding through the air once the incline levels out, and if you were in the process of turning then the vehicle is now spinning out of direction. One time I was driving onto a bridge which had a fairly steep entry ramp (5-7 degrees) and the car went flying a solid 20 yards through the air and landed on the bridge with enough force that it crashed straight through everything and fell nose-first into a huge canyon.

Even the NPCs can't control these crappy vehicles.

Driving around would be more bearable if there just weren't so much of it. According to my final stats, I spent more than a third of my play time driving a vehicle, most of which I would wager was time spent simply driving to the next mission point, or doing those stupid time trials where you steal an EDF vehicle and have to drive it all the way across the whole frickin' planet. And it's not like all that driving is really necessary -- even though the mission points are spread all across the map, the mission structure often requires you to return to a safe house when you're done, thereby forcing you to retread the same roads and paths numerous times in a row to get back to where you were after finishing a mission. At one point I logged a note that I had driven out from a safe house to a mission objective that required me to drive a new vehicle back to the same safe house, then drove back out of the safe house to the next mission point where I rode around the back of a vehicle that eventually returned back to the safe house, where I drove out again to another objective that had me rescue hostages and bring them back to the safe house.

Besides driving to the next mission point, there's not a lot to actually do in the open world. You can destroy marked EDF structures in whatever method you desire (this is actually required of you to lower EDF control enough to activate the final mission for each district), but this becomes pointless and repetitive after a little while. Otherwise, all you can really do is get out of the vehicle at random intervals to smash ore deposits or go hunting obscure corners of the map for audio logs, both of which are seemingly put into the game simply for the sake of having a bunch of collectibles (as in, hundreds) to round out achievements. Ore deposits provide such a pathetic amount of scrap (currency used to upgrade your equipment) that it's rarely worth the time to stop and harvest them, and the audio logs just give you one or two generic sentences from random people you don't know and don't care about while also not expanding the lore or the story in any way.

Good luck seeing anything through the huge muzzle flashes and explosions.

The story is practically non-existent, lacking any of the basic building blocks of an actual story. You get only the barest possible exposition for the world, its political state, and your character's history and motivation, before it jumps right into video game cliches about needing to do X amount of Things to beat the Bad Guy. There are no characters to speak of, as the only named NPCs have extremely limited screen time, limited function in the story except to hand out jobs for you to complete, no personality whatsoever, and no motivation besides "EDF bad, Red Faction good." There's not even a villain to drive the conflict forward, as the EDF is just a faceless organization of henchmen represented primarily by a statistical meter. Most missions lack any kind of interesting narrative to propel the game's story forward, as they all consist of basic objectives like "go here and blow this up." And since the game spends its majority repeating these same basic objectives over and over again there's no feeling of rising action until the very end. All of which is to say, there's really no reason to care about anything that's going on.

Combat is a boring, tedious, repetitive, pointless, unsatisfying waste of time. The whole game plays in third-person with the idea of it being a cover-based shooter, where you press a button to attach yourself to a wall so that you can shoot around corners. This system, unfortunately, just doesn't work very well. As far as I can tell, there's no way to shoot over cover, thereby limiting your tactical options. Secondly, the cover system only works with small weapons like the pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, and so on -- all the boring, uninteresting FPS standards. If you want to use any of the more novel weapons (like the arcwelder, grinder, rocket launcher, etc) then you simply can't use the cover system. If you have the hammer equipped and need to take cover, it won't actually let you go into cover mode simply because you can't "shoot" that weapon from behind cover.

Getting shot at from all directions while blatantly avoiding cover.

So the actual cover system is completely rubbish -- not a big deal, that just means you take cover manually, positioning yourself with an object between you and the enemies. There are two problems with this: first, enemies come at you from all directions, with aerial copters buzzing around everywhere and foot soldiers streaming in even from the mountains, so there's never really any safe place where you're actually protected because you're always exposed to something; second, since all man-made structures are destructible, any halfway decent cover you find is likely to get blown up by enemy explosives. So in reality, you rarely have any kind of worthwhile protection, and with enemies coming in from all directions you're always getting shot at by something off-camera, and so every combat situation becomes an annoying exercise of spinning around trying to figure out what's shooting you while your vision gets horribly obscured by the ginormous muzzle flashes of your weapons, debris and smoke from destructible structures, and the blurring effect of taking damage, and frantically scrambling around looking for cover while you can't see the tiny dots who are shooting you from across the map.

Most weapons aren't that satisfying to use, because most of them feel rather underpowered. Most basic weapons don't have any kind of meaningful recoil, they sound dull and muted, and enemies barely react to taking damage from them until they ragdoll -- it feels like playing laser tag or firing airsoft rifles. Bigger weapons that cause explosions come with a more satisfying kick, but they're usually limited to a much lower ammo capacity. Likewise, you can only carry four weapons at a time, one of which has to be the hammer and another one of which should probably be remote charges, meaning you really only have two weapon slots to play around with, which doesn't allow much room for fun variety. And the game's upgrade system, where you spend scrap (earned from mining ore deposits and blowing stuff up) to buy new weapons and improve them, restricts the more interesting upgrades until the second half of the game while doling everything else out at such a methodical pace that there's not much excitement to be had from upgrades.

Like with the vehicles, the tedious, annoying combat wouldn't be such a problem if there weren't so damn much of it. Combat is practically non-stop -- it happens during every single mission and every single guerrilla action, meaning that for every little thing you do you're going to get swarmed by comically absurd numbers of enemies, Blues Brothers-style. According to final stats, I spent more than half of my playtime at "yellow alert" or higher (meaning over half of the game was spent with enemies trying to kill me), and I killed a total of 2,745 EDF soldiers and destroyed 677 EDF vehicles. And like with the missions, virtually every combat scenario is the same because they just throw hundreds of enemies at you where any difficulty or challenge stems entirely from the sheer quantity of enemies you have to face. There are no structured challenges or setpieces to create unique scenarios, because every mission is just a copy-pasted rehash of the same basic formula.

The only fun part of the game: causing destruction.

Imagine if the main missions were a little more elaborate. What if, instead of always driving to a location and blowing up a building in a completely open landscape, you had to infiltrate a deep, underground mine tunnel and plant an explosive somewhere, without getting caught, and then escape in time before the fuse goes off. You might have to avoid EDF patrols in a quasi-stealth system, maybe engage in dialogue and talk your way out of situations, maybe create a distraction somewhere else and slip by, maybe use the hammer or another item to create tunnels and shortcuts. Then, when you've planted the bomb and have to escape, you have to fight your way out, with a structured level design creating alternating choke points, hallways, and more open spaces with different types of enemies using different weapons, creating different scenarios with different solutions depending on what equipment you're using and what you did on the way in.

Of the roughly 125 missions in the game (21 of which are considered main missions), only a small handful attempt to do anything remotely like this, but they still proved to be pretty boring and straightforward. Really, only the "Demolition Master" side-missions offer any kind of satisfying gameplay; these missions task you with destroying different types of abandoned structures in creative ways, with some type of specific objective or challenge like "use only three explosive charges" or other weird scenarios where you have to attach remote charges to explosive barrels then throw them down a chute and detonate the charges. These challenges are legitimate puzzle scenarios, typically the only situations in the game when you get a chance to actually a study a building looking for weaknesses and planning something clever, instead of just driving a vehicle straight in to them and setting charges everywhere, because they're a rare occasion when you're not being attacked by a bajillion enemies and can just focus on the destruction.

And really, the destruction system is the only reason to bother playing this game. I love the fact that you can use the hammer to bust through walls wherever and whenever you feel like it, and there's a lot of fun, creative stuff you can do in the open environment if you really want. Plus, it's immensely satisfying to crash a vehicle carrying a giant bomb into the ground floor of a building, throw a few charges about, then run out and shoot a rocket at the vehicle, and watch as the building collapses in on itself and the shrapnel from the explosion flies out and hits other buildings leading to a small chain reaction of destruction. Likewise, it can be pretty intense to be in the middle of a heated firefight with a bunch of enemies and then have an entire building come crashing down around you, as you frantically try to dodge the falling bits of concrete and metal while shooting back at the enemies.

How is this building staying up without its support columns?

The actual physics for all of this can be pretty wonky sometimes, however, which can lead to some really jarring, immersion-breaking moments. It's kind of surprising, for instance, how often you can knock support beams out from under something and find it standing in complete defiance of gravity, held up by a single toothpick or, in some cases, nothing at all. Sometimes rubble will fall in your general vicinity and you'll get completely flattened even though it barely grazed you, or things that should knock you down bounce off you like foam blocks. These instances are more infrequent, but it's still awkward every time it happens. Then you've got more general issues where you struggle to walk over all the rubble because you end up with a bunch of tiny one-foot-tall walls everywhere that you have to jump over, which is clunky and imprecise, and the invisible walls that make you awkwardly slide down hills when trying to climb up steep slopes. Overall, the physics system for destruction is extremely impressive, but the little things like this start to pile up in a repetitive open-world game and can affect the experience.

Unfortunately, everything else in the game just seems to get in the way of the destruction, and none of it's good enough to offer a satisfying distraction. Many parts are so bad that they actively take away from the game's satisfaction, while everything else is just so boring, bland, tedious, and repetitive. Even the lauded destruction system becomes kind of boring after the first few hours since the game keeps repeating the same scenarios over and over again for the whole game. I enjoyed the game decently enough for the first three hours, but then once I liberated the first district and it said "now do it all over again in a much bigger district," presuming that I'd then have to do it all over again for another four districts after that, I rapidly started losing interest and started plowing through missions and guerrilla actions just to get it over with as quickly as possible. The destruction system is pretty unique and enjoyable, but the actual game practically ruins it for me, and I therefore can't recommend Red Faction: Guerrilla at all.


  1. Same basic deal as Noman's Sky. A neat technology but no idea how to utilise it to create a game that's actually FUN.

  2. Good review. Played it for an hour and never had the urge to continue