Red Faction: Guerrilla's only failing is in its insistence on trying to have it both ways, appealing to some of our basest destructive instincts and then asking us to think about them.
Red Faction: GuerrillaPublisher: THQ
Platforms: XBox 360 (reviewed), Playstation 3, PC
ESRB Rating: Mature
Release date: 2009-06-05
There's something of a groundswell of support bubbling up for Red Faction: Guerrilla, a not undeserved acknowledgement that there's a lot of good to be found in a game that sort of snuck up on us. Here we have a behind-the-back shooter that shares a lot in common with Gears of War in terms of combat, Grand Theft Auto in terms of structure, and Wrecking Crew in terms of gimmick. Somehow, too, it manages to combine these elements without sacrificing one of those mechanics for the other -- the combat is well-implemented and intense, the mission structure is balanced and allows a player to play to a number of given strengths, and busting up buildings, well...it should get old but somehow, it doesn't. Just when you thought you'd made the biggest boom possible, you get a few more remote charges and find a way to make a bigger one. And you laugh, because making the big booms is fun.
If it was all about the big booms, Red Faction: Guerrilla might be game of the year material, even. The problem is, it's not. Red Faction: Guerrilla's only failing is in its insistence on trying to have it both ways, appealing to some of our basest destructive instincts and then asking us to think about them. The end result is a game that allows an impressive amount of freedom in the approach that one can take to the game but then has the gall to make you feel guilty about it.
Granted, it's true that the game leaves little ambiguity as to who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, given that the very first "action" you see the EDF (that's the Earth Defense Force, a somewhat curious label for the organization turning Mars into a police state) perform involves the killing of your avatar's brother. You, as Alec Mason, are then thrown unwittingly into the civil war between the Red Faction -- that is, the "terrorists," and in this case, the "good guys" -- and the EDF.
As the game goes on and the story (threadbare as it may be) progresses, there never exists a question as to whether the EDF is the evil side of the equation. The EDF is the gaming manifestation of the worst fears of those who believe that the government exists solely to usurp the rights of the people it governs. When you talk about the precedent that the Patriot Act sets, when you wonder whether you want to live in a country whose people don't seem to mind that its government spies on its citizens, it's the EDF that you see in your mind. This is a worldwide military governing body that rules its people with the proverbial iron fist, presumably the sort of government that discourages such luxuries as "freedom of expression" and "right to privacy." What exactly they stand for isn't always clear; for Alec Mason, the EDF is simply the bunch of bastards who killed his brother, and as motivation, that tends to be enough.
What isn't always clear is how "good" the "good guys" are. The Red Faction blows up buildings, kills EDF foot soldiers without repercussion and even goes so far as to torture the enemy for information. The conflict that this sets up in the player is plainly intentional: following the lead of the most recent spate of Call of Duty games, Red Faction: Guerrilla is committing itself to portraying a conflict such as the one taking place on Mars as an ugly, gruesome, and often morally questionable affair. The story of Red Faction's single player mode is simply begging for people to talk about it, and in doing such begging, it forces the player to partake in actions that actually reduce the player's identification with the protagonist, removing the player from the game. We are to believe that Mercer has been dragged into a conflict that he wanted no part in, and yet he hardly bats an eye at the destruction of property, the killing of military forces, and even the agonized screams of a potential informant. The detachment that this forces in the player actually reduces the investment in the story, given that it seems an awful lot less questionable to simply drive around and look for crystals to mine than it does to continue fighting the "good" fight with these sorts of tactics.
Red Faction: Guerrilla's single player mode is actually a great game made worse by its story. Redemption does come, however, in the game's multiplayer experience and in a little, easy-to-ignore mode called, yes, "Wrecking Crew." Multiplayer feels pretty much the same as any other behind-the-back or first-person multiplayer mode does these days, but the allowance for the destruction of buildings and cover really does add a whole new dimension to the experience. Did somebody park in a tower and start picking off other players at will? Bring down the tower with explosives, and the problem is solved. No longer can you indefinitely hide in cover as a competitor comes after you because there's a good chance that the cover won't exist in 30 seconds. Capture the Flag is a whole new challenge when the most direct route to an enemy camp involves an entirely breakable bridge. If more people recognized the Red Faction name, these are the types of gameplay tweaks that could give the established names like Halo, Call of Duty, and Killzone a run for their money on the network usage stat pages.
The "Wrecking Crew" mode for its part is an offline multiplayer mode that allows players to take turns and see how much damage they can do to the architecture on a single map. If you can't see the appeal in that, this probably isn't the game for you anyway.
The strength of these multiplayer modes only underscores the dissonance between the story that the game tries to present and its actual gameplay experience. When blowing up buildings and shooting at nameless-but-obviously-evil bad guys is the primary draw, it's a mistake for a story to try and force players to question the ethics of what they're doing -- playing the game is just not as fun. While video games don't necessarily have to be "fun" to be great, the fact that so much of Red Faction: Guerrilla is loads of fun turns the implications of the story into kind of a drag. It's much more fun to watch a tower fall when you don't have to wonder if there are innocents inside or even wonder what "innocent" even means.