“Some couples dance, others go to Mars”
For an FPS title to break free of its peers, it needs to have an original gimmick. Something that can set it above and apart from the crowd. The blood soaked DooM and Wolfenstein wasn’t afraid to ignore taboos of gaming during the delicate 90’s. Portal 1 and 2 showed us that first person perspective was more than run ‘n gun. Myst even threw away any kind of combat in favour of devious puzzles that fully immersed the place within a three-dimensional world.
Enter the Red Faction series of games, a sci-fi saga that relied on modifying the terrain around you.
Volition’s brainchild would be my first proper foray into console first person shooters back in the early 2000’s (I see a few people shudder at the notion already) and at the time, it was an incredibly atmospheric experience that reminded me of Total Recall, playing on the trope of interstellar worker rebellion.
Similar to Arnie’s character, you player character (called Parker) looks to Mars as an escape from the drudgery on Earth. Parker tires of the cookie-cutter life of high-priced education, and so he ditches a Harvard life for the radically different work on Mars. But the red planet is no paradise, unless you happen to be one of the many bullies of Ultor, who watching over Parker and friends toiling in the mines. A gruesome description of working conditions begins to unfold, as Parker talks about his new life with contempt and disgust.
He describes the tensions amongst his workmates; since guards don’t care for the well-being of their fellow humans. Overworked and overcrowding become the norm throughout the mines. Even persistent rumours of plague run rife throughout the work force.
His final words foreshadow rebellion in the ranks “I don’t know how long I can keep doing this…”
Playing the game
Within moments of starting the game, you immediately come across workers losing their patience with guards. You pick it up and the guards turn their weapons onto you. From then on, staying alive is your primary objective, as you navigate the maze of tunnels dug out by the miners. It isn’t long before you pick up a gun either, enabling you to take on entire groups of of armed guards.
Batons lead to guns, which in turn lead to explosives.
Red Faction used something called Geometry Modification Technology, or Geo-Mod for short. It allows the player, via explosive weapons, to change the face of the landscape. Explosive charges and/or rockets can blow chunks out of walls and the surrounding rock face. Previous inaccessible area can now be accessed, such as negating a new route around closed doors.
There are even opportunities to literally blow the ground out from under enemies or vehicles. The game doesn’t even penalise you for such reckless activities either. Throwing a sticky explosive charge to the back of a guard is sadistically satisfying, as is running them over with a tunnelling machine.
Furthermore, the game grabs you with a tension from the beginning. You get a sense of how lonely and far you are from everyday society. This is not just merely another dystopian realm, but a harsh, cold and unforgiving locale far from Earth. From your first melee scuffle, you are hunted and pursued by Ultor and their mercenaries throughout the game. You will start to grow tired after walking through tunnel after tunnel. Complacency and boredom gnaw at your senses.
Therefore, a lot of the game is made up of crossing long lonely distances though a combination of mines, research stations, space ports and undersea laboratories. You’ll be given ever-changing status updates and orders from the Red Faction. Because killing that first guard made you into spearheaded for the Red Faction. As a result dying brings up a game over screen that directly blames the fall of the rebellion squarely on your death. You can’t even rely on checkpoints either, only the last time you properly saved your progress.
Thankfully vehicles come into play during a lot of these ventures, though they aren’t built for speed. In fact on each occasion you’ll be slowly ploughing through enemies, such as other ships or just a couple of giant fish. They range from simple jeeps with mounted guns, to submarines and even small jet fighters.
Finally within the last half of the game, the opponents change from simple grunts to fully armed mercenaries. With their heavier hardware, a more difficult foe become apparent. Precision rifles, more powerful variants on rocket launchers and machine guns are the order of the day. As the Ultor menace morphs into something more dangerous, you’ll take whoever is left to finish the job of liberating Mars.
Consequently plot elements and events of RF1 naturally unfold into the story of Red Faction 2. Hailing from a more militant background that his predecessor, you play the role of Alias, an expert in demolitions. As one part of a team of six specialists, you follow the orders of Sopot, the leader of a dictatorship on Earth that wants to reap rewards of science developed on Mars. In addition, the first mission of the game conveys your role as a mere pawn, as you infiltrate and steal this precious piece of technology.
Using it to create an army, Sopot soon after fears they may turn on him and orders their immediate termination. As a result this includes you and the rest of your unit becoming wanted criminals. Their only option is to find the legendary Red Faction, and for convenience sake, has a gathering on Earth somewhere in Sopot City. On the run from Sopot’s Commonwealth, you become another point man for the Red Faction and their objectives of overturning Sopot. Their primary objective is installing a more democratic government in it’s place.
Playing the sequel
With the Geo Mod engine present, it switches from damaging terrain and more about blowing up various buildings instead. Walls can be torn down with umpteen choices of explosives, allowing you to easily make your own path throughout. While there were moments to utilise this in the first game, the second game allows for more opportunities. As a matter of fact, you can find much more explosive ammunition compared to Red Faction 1. This includes multiple grenade types and numerous weapons having an explosive option too.
However we find in this game the inclusion of a ‘heroics’ bar. Complete optional objectives, such as saving allies or finding a cache of weapons will give your stats a positive boost. Ignore the penalty of collateral damage or miss out on secrets will stunt the bars growth. This gives the game a somewhat simplified morality system running throughout.
Thankfully these optional objectives aren’t too taxing and usually include the destruction of a certain enemy type. But it is difficult to determine what exactly counts as a bonus objective. They will only appear upon completion, though there are verbal hints given at certain times on when it’s best to save people or destroy aerial threats. Even shooting your own allies counts against the bar.
Vehicle sections are present as ever but largely consist of an on-rails shooter. They’re supplemented by your resident driver/pilot Shrike, voiced by Jason Statham who provides unhelpful inane chatter along the way. Again the Geo Mod still applies here, but just for fun instead of making your own route. A humanoid shaped robot gives you a lot more freedom in later levels and lets you decide what wall to smash through next.
Playing them today. How well do they hold up?
Overall each game is generally easy to pick up and play. Loud, unsubtle and brash in their combat mechanics you’re free to approach each area with whatever weapon you choose. Even using your vehicle as a means to both kill and crush people is a viable options in both games. Both have a generous lifespan to their respective single player game, though the Geo Mod element isn’t so prevalent as it is in RF2. A lot of the time in the first game you’ll be navigating umpteen caverns in search of your next objective. However in RF2 you’re dropped into the fighting immediately, leaving only a couple of areas that seem relatively quiet in comparison.
Graphically they’ve not aged well. Blocky polygons are your cut scenes, as are the in-game surroundings. The first game will make you glad at the sight of a bright white laboratory, as by then you’ve had your fill of same old Martian rock. In comparison the sequel has plenty of dense industrial levels to navigate, as your first mission is the first and last example of more rural surroundings. They each share their own variant on underwater levels, with Red Faction 1 being generally easier to navigate in terms of visibility and enemy count.
The soundtrack is quite varied between the two titles, with the first one opting for more of a surreal science fiction accompaniment. Whereas Red Faction 2 settles more into a cyberpunk techno ambience that slows noticeably when you find yourself in quiet locations. Voice acting is just cheese plain and simple with laughable character scripts. Parker spends most of his dialogue chasing answers and taking orders when friendly NPCs make their entrance. On the other hand, Alias barely forms any character to begin with; only a few cinematic moments giving him no more than a couple of sentences throughout. He joins the Red Faction, as did Parker, out of pure survival instincts.
Enemy AI is a rather bizarre affair, especially in the first game. Guards will pursue and attack you relentlessly in a rather comical fashion of running. Some will retreat when you return fire upon them, proclaiming to be unarmed before firing again. Civilians will predictably run around like headless chickens when the shooting starts. This is especially problematic in Red Faction 1 where you’ve the option of receiving first aid from medical staff, who wont heal you until the fighting has subsided. Or you enter the rooms with your weapon holstered.
Speaking of which, there are a couple of stealth sections in RF1. Carrying a pistol and a simple outfit devoid of armour is your ensemble in these areas. This means discovery turns to death; getting too near guards calls others over instantly and without your suit, you’re as good as dead. These locations are relatively small and you do pass through rather quickly via trial and error of predicting enemy routes beforehand. Red Faction 2 has no such stealth to speak of, though there are times you can get the drop on enemies that haven’t yet seen you.
While they’re both indicative of the era, both games are generally fun to pick up and play. Simple weapon and vehicle mechanics is what attracted me back in the day and they’re just as enjoyable now. The stories from both aren’t going to surprise you, nor the graphics going to endear anyone new. It’s an action packs FPS from an era not overly concerned about dynamic characters or precision shooting.