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Red Faction (PC) artwork

Red Faction (PC) review

"So here's the thing. "

So here's the thing.

There's a section late on in Red Faction that took my breath away. I'd spent the past ten hours fighting for my life in the depths of cavernous Martian mines, in high-security research facilities and oppressive office blocks. I'd fought guards and soldiers and ferocious mutations. I'd seen hundreds of comrades perish, but I'd survived. I'd escaped. All that was left was to saunter off to safety on one of the vehicles the rebellion had prepared. On the back of an armoured truck, I emerged, blinking, into the strange outdoors. And I looked around.

There's rock, and there's fog. In the distance, there's a collection of mercenaries, mercilessly assassinating anyone who dares to venture too close. Between us is an enormous, gaping void of outer space, thick with dust. The sky is a foreboding terracotta. And all I can think, in spite of Ultor's evil plans, the mass-scale uprising, the carnage and the chaos, is that I'm so very far away from home. My heart sank. I should never have been so naive as to think this would be my escape. All that lay ahead of me was an inevitible, painful and harrowing death.

In that moment, I became Parker. I was at the centre of the Red Faction. I'd been fighting for our freedom, but now, it looked as though everything was in vain. I shed a tear for my loved ones. And I vowed to fight until the very end.

Now then.

This is quite something. Out of all the games to have that effect on me, I never for a second imagined it would be Red Faction, an aged and largely disappointing first-person shooter built on the foundations of half-finished ideas and incomplete technology. And yet, here we are, nearly eight years later, that moment fresh as ever in my mind. There's a lot to be said for emotional charge in videogames, but here it seems wrong, unnatural, unintended. What's behind it?

Because Red Faction doesn't really do atmosphere. It tries to, sure, but somewhere between the incompetent AI, bland visuals and uninventive storyline, it resolutely fails. It's also a game of unfulfiled promises, a textbook old-school shooter that seemed to forget it aspired to be the genre's reinvention. Who else remembers their crippling disappointment regarding the much-touted GeoMod technology, which purported to allow players to blast their own ways through levels by destroying the environment? Seemingly, Volition expected players to forgive its inconsistent application early on, and forget it even existed by the time the entirely static later levels rolled around. Red Faction set its sights high, then slipped achingly back to mediocrity. Mediocre games don't do this to me. What's going on?

Red Faction starts abominably. Cast into your day job as an oppressed miner on a future Mars, your shift ends in a splatter of spilt blood, as - for seemingly no reason whatsoever - the entire security force starts shooting at you after your buddy gets into a minor altercation with one of the guards. It's a nonsense opening, glossing over any logic in a dismal attempt to thrust players straight into the action. This is a game that cited the slow-burning unease of Half-Life as a major influence on its heady ambiance. Goodness knows what they were thinking here.

Thus begins a tretcherous yet dull sci-fi dungeon crawl, through monotonous underground networks, plagued by badly-planned blueprints and texture issues. The first couple of hours of Red Faction are woeful, but something compelled me, spurred me on, something other than the gradually improving level design. It's worth noting that Red Faction is one of only two games I've ever played through in a single day (the other, curiously, is Belief & Betrayal, a title I umremarkably 4/10'd for this very site). What was it that I found so captivating about this ugly and broken shooter?

Maybe it's escapism. It's what the modern videogame form does so very well, after all: who was it that talked about "travel journalism to imaginary places"? Red Faction's ludicrous implausability lends itself surprisingly well to this, and the chance to rise from everyman to every man's hero is what drives experiences such as this one. As you plough through the Ultor facility in search of your freedom, your reputation rises. People begin to recognise you: "You're that miner from Sector M4! I can't believe you've made it this far!" And it feels good.

Or maybe it's my inexplicable love of 'Total Recall'. Arnie's big dumb Red Planet excursion seems to be where Red Faction draws most of its inspiration from, to the point where not only the location but much of the actual plot is lifted straight out of it. It smacks of a lack of ideas, or even a stubborn refusal to think outside the box. For many, it'll be offputting. For me, strangely, it sat quite nicely.

But why, of all of Red Faction, that one section? While by no means the worst part of the game (that award goes unequivocally to the 'sneak in and escort' section half way through, involving the stealthy kidnapping of a man who enjoys walking into walls far too much for his own good), it's not particularly better than any other bit either. In fact, Red Faction remains so consistently stale throughout that's it's rather difficult to pinpoint any specific highlights. Manning a submarine through an aquatic cave segment is somewhat thrilling, and the set-piece where the escape pod blows up provides for some agreeable thrills. But nothing really stands out on its own merits. Not even this.

But maybe, just maybe, that's the key. In a game like Red Faction, one that puts so little effort into creating these moments for you, perhaps you go one of two ways. Either you turn off, idly shooting away until the end credits roll and you cast the game into a pit of forgotten memories. Or you tune in, you engage, you make the game your own. And, the more I think about it, the more I become certain that's what I did eight years ago in the back of a truck, heading towards my clouded destiny.

Who is truly at the centre of this medium? Gamers have long assumed that the community is at the heart of online games, but what about the story-driven, single-player experience? Most, I'd wager, would consider it to be the developer, finely-tuning their experience in order to manipulate their bitch, the player.

Red Faction, to me, suggests otherwise. This is a distinctly clumsy game, a heavy sack of lazy design, wrapped in a colourful shroud of marketing deceipt. But it's not about them. It's about me. It's about my engagement with this entertainment, this art, whatever you want to call it. It's about getting caught up in moments, about letting go of the mundane restrictions of everyday life, and committing - for better or for worse - to the world on-screen in front of you. It's about rejecting one reality, and connecting with another.

So I became Parker. I shed a real tear. I readied my firearm and, screaming, poured hot lead into the mass of cold killers on the bridge ahead. I saved my friends from certain doom, and I escaped that foresaken planet, heading back to my own home. I was a hero, a real fucking hero, and I wasn't going to let anything stand in my way - least of all shoddy level design, nonsensical narrative exposition or inferior technology.

Did a games developer create these important memories, or did I? "A man chooses; a slave obeys," a twisted suit would shout six years later, the focal point of a game that tells us we will never, ever be free from the developer's reigns.

I reject this. Are you a slave to the foibles of your entertainment? Or are you that hero, fighting for the lives of humanity with every last breath?

I know, from now on, which one I'm going to be.

Lewis's avatar
Featured community review by Lewis (February 18, 2009)

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