Red Faction: Armageddon

In this modern generation of video games, there are plenty of titles that offer up twisting storylines and complex gameplay mechanics, some of which require mental dexterity and problem-solving skills beyond anything we had to summon a decade ago. But every now and then, it’s relieving to just switch off our noggins and feed that primal urge to blow s@!# up. Red Faction: Armageddon fills that requirement without a hint of pretension or subtlety. In other words, it’s a true Red Faction game, one that faithfully follows the destructive spirit of its predecessors. And boy oh boy, is it fun.

Armageddon is the follow-up to Red Faction: Guerrilla, considered by many fans to be the best game in the series and one of the sleeper hits of 2009. It took the Red Faction story of resistance and revolution (on Mars!) out of the dark and drab mining caverns where it started, and into an open-world sandbox a la Grand Theft Auto. It also pulled the camera back from a first-person perspective, into the over-the-shoulder view we’ve become so accustomed to seeing in recent years. In Guerrilla, you could tackle objectives and side missions with relative freedom compared to its linear forbearers. But Armageddon refocuses the experience and drags you back into the tunnels below the surface of the red planet. Whether that’s a good or bad thing will depend on the individual, and the move has certainly proven to be divisive amongst the series’ fanbase. Though I’m okay with the return to linearity, it does prove to get a bit tiresome at times. More on that later, though.

You play as the heavily-tattooed Darius Mason (who should be played by Jason Statham if/when a film adaptation ever comes around), grandson of Alec Mason, the protagonist of Guerrilla. He lives on a Mars that’s been liberated from corporate and military oppression, but the humans are still living in an unstable political atmosphere of tribalism. That must be the reason for the tribal tattoos, right? Anyway, our story opens with Darius chasing down a terrorist who is threatening to blow up Mars’ terraformers (big machines that make the Martian surface livable). He fails to stop the villain, who looks like an albino with the aforementioned tribal tattoos on his face. Years later, the planet’s human population has been forced underground, and Darius accepts what seems to be an everyday “destroy this for us please” job (he’s a demolitions expert for the sake of convenience). Without revealing too much, he inadvertently releases an alien scourge upon the planet, and spends the next 8-10 hours exploding everything in sight. That’s Armageddon in a nutshell: just about every plot development serves as an excuse to stomp, shotgun, and rubble-ize every structure and alien bug you come across. And rest assured, there are a lot of them.

If you’ve played any modern third-person shooter (Gears of War, Resident Evil 5, etc.), you’ll know exactly how Armageddon controls. The aiming feels tight and responsive, and the weapons themselves are damn fun to shoot. In fact, the weapons are the star of the show. There’s the requisite stock of pistols, shotguns and rocket launchers, but the game introduces a couple other tools that really change things up. The Magnet Gun is one of the coolest, most liberating weapons I’ve ever toyed with in a game. Firing it once sets an attractor beacon. Firing again sets an anchor that pulls the attractor toward that point–and violently so. Take a few seconds to imagine what that can do to elevate the average enemy encounter into something special. Rather than just firing an endless barrage of rounds or shells, you can send giant horned aliens (they look a lot like the Balrog from Lord of the Rings, sans flames) flying toward cavern walls instead, no ammunition required. Or you could send an explosive barrel flying toward it. Or you could just send pieces of a nearby structure crashing into it. Or, for a good laugh, make two aliens slam into one another. The offensive possibilities are just about endless and it nearly makes the Magnet Gun a “god weapon.” However, the other firearms in the game are powerful enough that they’re not completely eclipsed by it.

Another great addition is the Nano Forge, a wrist-mounted device that can completely rebuild just about any previously-destroyed structure. It’s pretty cool to knock a bridge out from under a group of enemies and watch them fall to their demise, then rebuild it as you walk across like some cocky jerk. It also provides some defensive options, as you can reform fallen pieces of cover. In addition, the Nano Forge gives you shield and attack abilities. One of them lifts nearby enemies into a temporary mid-air stasis, allowing you to blast them like clay pigeons. The Nano Forge borders on being a magical item, as it operates like a localized time travel gun. However, it is a joy to use as it lets you be destructive without consequence. Getting medieval on buildings has another purpose–collecting pieces of salvage. Salvage, just like in Guerrilla, serves as currency for upgrading your abilities. Increased fire rates, health, and Nano Forge abilities can be purchased at upgrade stations littered throughout the campaign. You won’t be able find enough salvage to buy every single upgrade available in one play through, however, and that’s where the Campaign+ mode comes in. Selecting this allows you to play through the story again with all your upgrades intact. Furthermore, there are cheats and some previously inaccessible weapons made available for purchase. I won’t ruin any surprises, but there are some really awesome toys to add to your armory.

From a technical perspective, the game has serviceable graphics and sound design, but nothing that will really surprise you. However, explosions and gunfire all sound meaty, and watching a building crumble never gets old. The sound of cracking rubble and screeching metal accompanied by the screen shaking really brings the series’ Geo-Mod engine to life. You will believe that towers and research labs have real weight as they come crashing down. The game’s musical score is surprisingly impressive: a mix of techno beats with orchestral backing. The pre-rendered cutscenes look very nice, and the voice work is never less than average. Some of the game’s environments get a bit repetitive–the underground tunnels in particular. There are some above-ground sequences that change things up visually just as you feel things are beginning to get boring, but they don’t last long enough. In future installments, I’d like to see Volition offer areas that contain both subterranean and surface environments simultaneously, allowing players to stretch their legs whenever they want. To be fair, the game has a few sections that involve piloting powered armor suits and gunships, but again–these are too few and far between.

There are a couple other gameplay options included with Armageddon that are worth mentioning, the first being Ruin Mode. This puts you into an arena with a selection of weapons and no enemies. Your job is to tear through the level and cause as much damage as possible before the clock runs out. There was a similar mode (Wrecking Crew) in Guerrilla, but allowed multiple people to trade off a single controller and take turns going for a high score. Unfortunately there’s no such option in Ruin Mode here, only allowing a single person to go for a spot in the online leaderboard. I would imagine that the turn-based mode will become available through download in the future, but if you still have the previous game in your collection, you can probably get by with that. Infestation is essentially a cooperative online blast-a-thon, pitting up to four players against increasingly difficult waves of enemies. It’s fun, if not the most innovative online mode out there, and gives the game some longevity beyond the campaign.

If you fell in love with Guerrilla‘s expansive above-ground landscape, you might find the romp though these claustrophobic caves to be slightly disappointing. However, if you approach it as a straight-up action shooter with some innovative weapons and mammoth amounts of destruction, you’ll have plenty of fun. The return to linearity also provides a more focused storyline, and while that story is nothing special, it gives you good excuses to blow the hell out of everything you see. If you were a fan of the original Red Faction, or you just like your shooters with heaps of twitch shooting and splode, Armageddon is a good place to be.