Red Faction: Armageddon E3 Demo Impressions

I loved Red Faction: Guerrilla. Not a perfect game by any means, but despite its flaws (thin story, too linear, difficult-yet-repetitive sidequests) it was a riot. A vast departure in gameplay from previous Red Faction games, it provided hours of destroy-every-building-period fun, and the story, thin though it was, was actually kind of cool: lightly evocative of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, it also directly tied to 2008′s highly underrated Saint’s Row 2. And the game’s flaws weren’t terminal – Saint’s Row was, at best, a surprisingly not terrible GTA clone, but SR2 was basically my entire Fall, 2008. No reason a follow up to Guerilla couldn’t similarly improve on what worked.

So it was with some interest that I attended a demo of Red Faction: Armageddon at E3. Unfortunately, it appears THQ are treating the Red Faction series the way Konami treats Castlevania – desperately forcing it into whatever genre of gaming happens to be hot right now. So say hello to Red Faction: Gears of Mars.

We saw approximately 8 minutes of gameplay, plus the trailer. What gameplay was shown didn’t reveal very much by way of plot, but while not offering anything new or consistent with the game series, Armageddon looks like a ton of fun, if exceedingly derivative. The backstory takes place about 50 years after the events of Guerilla, after some kind of disastrous war bombed out the surface of Mars, un-terraforming it, and forcing the citizens live underground in caverns and bunkers. Just prior to the game’s beginning, the colonists apparently woke up some kind of ancient underground monsters. No, I did not just drink a bottle of vodka and type the first thing that came to mind. Underground Martian Monsters. (More on that shortly.)

The 7 minutes or so we were shown began with the game’s protagonist, Darius Mason, leading a convoy (filled with survivors of the aforementioned monster attack) through a cavernous path filled with the wreckage of a very recent conflict. According to the demo presenter, Mason has been blamed for the catastrophe and apparently the plot of the game has himIn this scene we were treated to a bunch of creepy space… things attacking, while Mason blew them up using the game’s many awesome weapons.

The first weapon – The Magna Gun, a ray beam emitter than can be used to destroy objects by magnetizing them, then flinging them into a specified target. It’s actually really cool in action. In our Demo, mason flung an office in a mining complex into the cliff behind it, taking out an enemy in the process.

The second weapon – The nanoforge, an improved version of the all-purpose kill-die-blow up device from RF:G. In Armageddon, the nanoforge can rip things apart or repair them (in an effect that looks kind of like Dr. Manhattan’s abilities from the film version of Watchmen). But best of all was the use of the Magna Gun in tandem with the nanforge to create combo destroy-and-rebuild attacks that have impressive results.

The third weapon was the LEO suit, a giant mech suit that looks like a combination of a Zerg, and the walkers from Aliens. Mason jumped inside of one of them and proceeded to royally f the monsters attacking him.

After the LEO suit scene, we were shown the trailer, and escorted out. All told it took about 9 minutes. Not a lot of time to get a picture about what the final game will be like, but I can drop a few more observations:

* The fully destructable environments will return.

* The idea of Mars as a specific backdrop appears to have been rendered irrelevant. They really did basically shoehorn a Gears of War premise into a story set on Mars.

* (Probably) no more sandbox play. It appears from the demo that environments are pretty narrow and straightforward. We saw no mission generations or cutscenes, so no word on how the plot is moved along, but if the demo is indicative, it appears to go in a very straight line from Z to Z, ala GoW. I might be totally wrong about that, but if so then THQ needs to prove it, pronto.

* The weapons look redonkulous.

* Derivative. I have no idea if these monsters are Martian in origin or, assuming THQ has consulted at least one scientist, aliens from somewhere else, I just know that what the hell are they doing in this series? If there’s one thing I’ve learned from years of game playing, it’s that an immutable rule of game making is don’t fix what isn’t broken. Red Faction already has a compelling backstory – Martian colonists versus varying forms of oppression rooted in greed and resource scarcity. With awesome weaponry. And now it’s just, well it’s kind of like how the upcoming Castlevania game is basically a God of War clone. Based on what we saw, they’ve made Gears of War: Ghosts of Mars.

It’s still a ways off from release and I’m fully prepared to eat crow. I loved Guerrilla enough that I’m willing to give the game a shot when it comes out. However, at this point it looks like a workmanlike, but otherwise unremarkable game that could have been so much more. Here’s hoping they manage to defy expectations.

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