Red Faction: Armageddon
Imagine you’re a colonist on Mars. You work the Martian soil without a space suit, breathing oxygen and living under an atmosphere, thanks to a terraformer your ancestors established and maintained. Now colonist, imagine that a group of terrorists attack the terraformer and bring it down. What’s the first thing you would do? Fix the terraformer, right? Doing so would put you light years ahead of the residents of Mars in Volition’s Red Faction: Armageddon. Instead of repairing the planet’s life-giving technology, the colonists abandon the surface and go subterranean.
Sure, some stay above ground and tough out the huge sandstorms, but it takes a long time for someone to even mention the thought of attempting to restore the terraformer. One would think that would be your top priority. Making matters worse, after five years of this illogical, hellish underground existence, protagonist Darius Mason is duped into releasing creatures from deep within the planet. The insectoids unleashed come in two- and four-legged varieties and quickly devastate the refugees and their limited defenses. Communities are ravaged by the onslaught, and to make matters worse, it’s partly Mason’s fault. Mason is lured by antagonist and cult leader Adam Hale to release the bugs under false pretenses, prompting Mason to save the new Martians from the old Martians.
Because the plot opens on such shaky footing, it’s hard to ever get adequately engaged in the universe that Volition attempts to establish with Armageddon. This is a particularly strong blow because it’s easily the best Red Faction title the studio has produced. No one can accuse Volition of taking it easy with the Red Faction franchise. The first three releases in the series all feel very different from one another, most prominently demonstrated by the shifts from first- to third-person and linear to open world between the second and third entries. Volition has shown an uncommon willingness to adjust core gameplay elements of the franchise.
With Armageddon, it finally feels like the Red Faction game that they wanted to make. And, as much as I have bagged on the plot so far, I will say that Armageddon very deftly pulls in elements from every game and builds upon them to establish many of the mechanics seen in the game. Take for example environmental destruction. As much as I enjoyed tearing down structures in previous entries, in the first two games it was so limited in function that it was arguably useless. Guerrilla’s selling point was that you could rip apart Mars, but my desire to do so was muted by two things. The first was that I was cast as a hero of Mars, and destroying its limited infrastructure didn’t seem like the heroic thing to do. Second, the game’s environments were so sparse and boring that after a few hours, you saw everything it had to offer (and then had to play for another fifteen hours to finish it).
Armageddon is the first title to give the destruction a point. The open-world elements of the previous game have been removed in favor of a linear adventure, which has the added benefit of removing NPCs from the environment. Since the human element has been removed, you don’t feel as bad about demolishing homes and you certainly never need to worry about your score dropping from accidently killing civilians after dropping a ceiling on their head. But what chiefly makes the biggest difference is that your enemies not only occupy structures, they infest them. In many cases, the only way to stop the insectoid invasion is by destroying every building in sight. And in this minor shift, Volition has finally established that destroying buildings isn’t just entertaining and a fun physics toy, but it is actually a justified tactic.
Volition has also improved on the destruction with the addition of the magnet gun. The gun fires out two projectiles at targets, one of which pulls the other toward it. Anything caught in the immediate surroundings of the first magnet gets propelled toward the other, often with humorous and devastating effects. Ripping off the side of a building and hurtling it toward an enemy is always satisfying and even deep within the game’s final levels it is still a viable strategy for success. I can’t recall how many times I was saved from certain death by flinging an enemy through a building far off in the distance in order to give myself some breathing room.
Complimenting the magnet gun is the Nano Forge, a device built off technology discussed throughout the franchise. The Nano Forge allows Mason to rebuild any damaged structures, giving you free reign to destroy as much as you want without consequence. You can probably already see the biggest issue with this inclusion. As great as it is for ensuring that the player never prevents their own progress, it doesn’t make sense from a narrative standpoint. If we can destroy computers and walkways and buildings, why is the terraformer going down so terrible? Why not just walk down there and use the Nano Forge to fix it?
So, a large part of what makes a Red Faction game a Red Faction game – destruction – is still here, even if in a more limited form than the last time around. But what elevates Armageddon above the other entries is how it feels as a shooter. The third-person perspective is still employed, but Armageddon plays much differently than today’s typical third-person jaunts. For one, it’s not cover-based. Survival in Armageddon is much more about reflexes and timing than it is finding a safe bit of cover to crouch behind. As the world is often literally coming down on top of you, Armageddon is much more about staying in motion and being constantly aware of the environment that you are in and the surface that you are standing upon.
This gives the game a fresh feeling compared to other shooters. Sure, you still get rechargeable health and all the fixings of a modern shooter, but the combat style keeps you engaged in the fight. Armageddon is also a linear shooter that frequently attacks you from the rear. If you hunker down for too long, enemies will swarm from all directions. Few too shooters these days challenge players to be completely aware of their surroundings, and on higher difficulty levels, Armageddon can be a truly thrilling, harrowing adventure because of this. It’s just too bad that this kind of energy is only found during typical, run-of-the-mill battles. The game features several scripted boss fights and I found I missed the freedom offered to the player in routine confrontations.
Adding to the solid shooter core is a persistent character for both online and offline modes. As you progress through either, you’ll earn salvage that can be used to purchase character upgrades. Most of these are pretty typical – better accuracy, faster reloading – but some unlock and improve new features, such as a shield players can create out of nano energy to protect them when the going gets tough. These upgrades encouraged me to invest more time in the multiplayer mode than I might have otherwise. If there were a stronger suite of multiplayer features, I imagine players who would pick this up exclusively for such content might find similarly compelling reasons to dive into the game’s campaign.
Multiplayer has always been a shortcoming in the franchise and though Armageddon‘s Infestation mode is a fun infusion of Gears of War‘s Horde mode, it’s the only one of two modes on offer here. While I found it entertaining to slice down scores of progressively more challenging enemies, it’s hard to imagine that people are going to be playing this for a long time. Even shortly after release, there are already decent wait times to get a full server of four players through the game’s matchmaking service. Ruin Mode serves as the compliment to Infestation and tasks players with destroying a small level. Points are accrued for how much destruction players can reign down. It is silly fun at times, especially when you’re flinging debris at your rivals to impede their progress. But again, the shelf-life here is on question. It’s hard to imagine anyone will stick with these long-term when it’s hard enough to find people playing now.
So, Armageddon takes some missteps, some more egregious than others. The illogical foundation on which the story opens is a significant failure that breaks immersion from the start, but even with that this is easily the strongest release the franchise has seen. Armageddon is the first release in the series that manages to latch a compelling destruction mechanic onto a solid shooter, something the team has been close to in past entries but never succeeded. And while I won’t fault them for the lack of audience for their multiplayer modes, I will say that Volition could have included more modes to attract a larger multiplayer following. These faults aside, Armageddon takes the core elements that attracted all of us to the series in the first place and combines them to create a solid game that series fans can’t afford to miss.