Retrospective: Red Faction 2

Red Faction 2 - big mech

Following the poor sales of 2011’s Red Faction: Armageddon publisher THQ have chosen to shelve the series, with CEO Brian Farrell stating “we do not intend to carry forward with that franchise in any meaningful way”.

The series has a mildly interesting history for fans of videogame trivia. Originally intended as a follow-up to the famous ‘six degrees of freedom’ series Descent the first Red Faction ultimately took a different direction, opting for a less vertigo-inducing FPS perspective (Descent fans may have been somewhat mollified when the superb Conflict: Freespace aka. Descent: Freespace was released, even if that game and its sequel’s undeserved poor sales effectively shelved the space combat simulation as a commercially viable mainstream genre). It did, however, introduce a new innovation: Geo-Mod, a game engine which permitted players to use explosives to blast holes through terrain and access areas from whichever direction they chose (that’s what she said, etc).

A modified form of the same engine drove the more recent success of Red Faction: Guerilla, a cult classic which revelled in environmental destruction, although follow-up Armageddon scaled back the extent to which such terrain deformation could be indulged in – a decision which some blame for the muted reception to the game. Oddly, a similar decision was made with Red Faction 2. It is slightly surprising that Volition did not learn from this mistake.

Red Faction 2 - fighting in the streets

Occasionally I make some strange and decidedly arbitrary decisions in the games I choose to play. When I bought Red Faction: Guerilla several years ago I received the first two games for free. The first had passed me by though the second was one of the first games I bought for PS2 and had not impressed me at the time. Despite this I decided it would be interesting to play through the entire Red Faction series in sequence; evidently I was no better at learning simple lessons than Volition themselves.

I waded through the first game back in 2010, before Arcadian Rhythms was born. It was a strange game: the Geo-Mod aspect offered something genuinely unique and the story of oppressed workers rising up against corporate overlords both struck a chord with my lefty heart and stood out among videogame plots (which, let’s be fair, even when they’re not expressing a monocultural worldview are usually the narrative equivalent of filling your mouth with Coco Pops and then squeezing your cheeks together, blasting the wet, brown, depressing mess into the face of whoever is unfortunate enough to be paying attention to you). This story was itself so muddled and poorly told that it somehow took on a vaguely mythic air – the sort of happy accident that occurs when developers try earnestly to tell stories but haven’t really worked out how best to do so.

It was also an often-bland shooter and was overly long and cruel; when I became tired of enemy mooks one-shotting me I cheated through the last eighth of the game, just to see what else Red Faction had to offer. (The answer was less Geo-Mod fun, more one-shot bastards, and a tedious boss fight – as though the designers had gotten a little tired with their own creation.)

The experience left me a little burned out but I was still determined enough to continue with the mission that I left Guerilla alone for a while longer. Two years on I finally sat down to blast through Red Faction 2. Astonishingly, the whole process took barely five hours. The game’s campaign is astonishingly short.

Red Faction 2 - shooty shooty

In some respects Red Faction 2 is a curious historical artefact, marking out what characterised many FPS games of its era. First released for PlayStation 2 in 2002, the game moves at a pace eschewed by many of today’s shooters. It demands that players remain constantly in motion, occasionally pausing to utilise cover (without the aid of a button press), and features a regenerating health / health kit hybrid system a little more forgiving than that of the original Halo.

It is not stingy with weapons. There are about fourteen in all, ranging from pistols and SMGs (single- and dual-wield), a shotgun, several assault rifles and machine guns, a sniper rifle and a scoped carbine, grenade launchers and a rocket launcher, plus a railgun. Nothing outlandish, although compared to many modern FPS releases it’s unusual that you can carry them all at once. The majority of guns also share ammunition (light, medium, heavy), which essentially allows players to stick with their favourites throughout most of the game. This is helpful, because most of the weapons are a distraction and find themselves so rarely used that they are only a distraction when scrolling through your loadout.

Not only is the game short its levels are also tiny, with a dozen chapters broken up into sub-sections that essentially serve as checkpoints. Some levels can be completed in a couple of minutes, and that’s not a Doom-style ‘ignore everything and run to the finish’ approach either. Red Faction 2 is very, very linear. It is possible that the brevity of its levels is a side-effect of the Geo-Mod engine, or a side-effect of trying to cram the game onto PS2, although its  predecessor was longer, less bitty, and more open – Red Faction 2 limits the Geo-Mod technology to specified areas in each level, usually areas you must blast through in order to proceed. Perhaps the higher polygon count and sharper textures are to blame, then.

If what I’ve just described sounds like it could be applied to just about any FPS from the early 2000s, then how about this: Red Faction 2 also features our old friends Endlessly Respawning Enemies, Difficulty Spikes and No Signposting. These three usually show up in tandem like a band of mates you didn’t expect to show up at a party – and yet here they are at three in the morning, drunk as hell and calling everyone a f*****g c**t. In some areas new enemies will appear constantly until you figure out where you’re supposed to progress to – if you can figure it out. The fourth level, Underground, is notorious for this. Remember in Half-Life 2 where you find yourself beneath City 17 and you get ambushed by manhacks? It’s like that, but annoying and shit.

The difficulty spikes are usually tied to these instances; on normal difficulty the game rarely presents too much of a challenge for a player equipped with mouse and keyboard, although the final boss is a real fucking bastard who is annoying and shit. He introduces a long-lost friend from the first Red Faction, the One Shot Kill, and helpfully introduces said friend alongside another: Second Stage of Two-Stage Boss Fight. Now that’s game design.

Red Faction 2 - setting your sights low

I know this is the third picture I've used featuring a mech. Sorry; I like mechs. If it helps, this one I can cleverly caption "setting your sights low" to lead into the next section!

It is an easy thing to put the boot in to Red Faction 2. The negatives are many: Geo-Mod aside we’ve seen everything the game has to offer and done better – which was true even when it was released. The tiny levels are strung together better than a lot of FPS games, but they’re still severely disconnected. It features on-rails vehicle sections where you man turrets, which in gameplay terms can be reduced to “hold down mouse buttons, move centre of screen towards movement”. Awful antiques like Rebel Assault were better than this (and came out almost a decade before, fact fans – who says videogames don’t regress). There are a few levels where you pilot vehicles yourself, which offer a slender thread of variation, but here the game’s best feature – Geo-Mod, obviously – goes almost unused.

Plus, Red Faction 2 is under assault from both sides. It came after the more interesting Red Faction and before the more fun Red Faction: Guerilla. And did I mention that it’s short? I did? Oh, well, in that case I’ll just mention that it has no multiplayer except bot matches and you can’t play it on hard until you’ve beaten it on normal.

But to be fair to the game, and I am a man who likes to try to be fair, its fast pace sometimes makes it inadvertently exciting enough that you forget to be bored. And blowing holes through walls to progress is fun, even despite the game’s utter linearity – it’s a little surprising that so few games do destructible terrain, even to this degree. Outside of the Red Faction series I can only come up with the Bad Company games, the first Crysis and some stuff I just read about on wikipedia.

Plus, despite the plot being as bland and characterless as magnolia walls, the theme is still somewhat interesting. Okay, so here the Red Faction are a generic bunch of resistance fighters rising up against a comedy Russki dictator with a fine moustache so the class component is gone, but the iconography is still charmingly Red. I would like to explore this a little more but I can’t; the first and third games are most interesting in this respect, as here what we really have is a typical story about a chisel-jawed super-soldier saving the day for some plucky resistance fighters who can barely hold their own dicks.

(I should say “genitals”, though that wouldn’t be as funny, because Red Faction 2 is somewhat equal opportunities and includes many female characters. Although I think everyone in this game is white. Wait – let me check that. Nope, according to the character models I’ve unlocked, there are two black bad guys – a security guard and a cop – and the civilians include a stern Asian resistance member, a distinguished-looking black gent, a fat guy, and an Indian doctor. There we are then, that’s perfectly representative of the ethnic demography of a global despotism.)

Where was I? Oh, right. Despite the story being about as engaging as a British Rail Authority simulator, it’s nice that a videogame can have a story about a bunch of people overthrowing the guys in charge and have overtly soviet overtones. It makes a change from the usual trappings we see, even if it is entirely superficial.

Red Faction 2 - in the dropship

Opening the game with some guys sat in a dropship. Huh. Never seen that before.

So what’s the final verdict, Shaun? Well I don’t know. Were you going to play this anyway? Obviously, you were not. What I have just done is reminded you of the existence of something that was mediocre on release and is almost entirely forgotten today. It’s a bit like pointing out a film such as Twister, which usually only happens when someone is trying to remember the low points in Bill Paxton’s career, or when Joss Whedon is complaining about writing in Hollywood.

Red Faction 2, as a game, is often dull, occasionally exciting, regularly confusing, always linear, irritating rather than challenging 95% of the time it bothers to offer a challenge, looks deeply uninteresting, features bargain-basement gunplay, pedestrian level design and a rubbish plot. Being a decade old excuses some of that, but I’m not going to pretend any of the above isn’t true any more than I’d pretend your gran isn’t a terrible racist just because she’s old and collects plates with Princess Diana’s face on them. Nuh-uh.

There are moments when Red Faction 2 does manage to produce some sense of fun, but really this is a title only worth revisiting if you are an FPS historian or just a weird masochist who likes to indulge in old shit, like me.

Red Faction - running from an explosion

Get me the hell away from here!