I initially had a hard time writing my review of Red Faction: Armageddon. I almost fell into the same trap that caught me in my review of No More Heroes 2, another game that essentially abandoned an existing open-world concept, of reviewing the predecessor rather than the sequel. This was an enticing prospect, because I liked Red Faction: Guerilla a great deal, and I did not like Armageddon one little bit. I ultimately did the review the right way (it should be going up on GameCritics.com soon), but I still want to talk some more about Red Faction: Armageddon and why it’s such a disappointment in juxtaposition to Guerilla.
Linearity is one of the usual suspects, and certainly it contributes to Armageddon‘s mediocrity. The game has a very dull plot, and the inability to do anything other than advance it makes Armageddon seem more tiresome than it already is. On the other hand, Guerilla‘s open world had considerable problems of its own, as a fictional world, as a model of insurgency, and as an organizing space for the game’s missions. Guerilla might have been a better game had it been more linear, like the first two entries in the series. At any rate, if what we want from an open world is to give us something to do that isn’t the story, that’s a symptom that the narrative is the real issue.
That’s not too far off the mark. Armageddon‘s story is an incompetently written mess in every possible respect. The characters are dull, and the plot is so puerile and full of holes it qualifies for a pineapple in Bikini Bottom. The game’s abysmal handling of its principal female character is a particular sore spot with me after Samanya was done so well in Guerilla.
More distressing, though, was the way the plot totally collapsed at the end of the game. As Armageddon‘s main boss dies, without any apparent effect on the army of critters it was supposedly controlling, the computer on Darius Mason’s arm informs him that the creatures can only survive in an ionized atmosphere. This is a stupid idea, but things are about to get worse. The only way to save Mars, it seems, is for Mason to repair the terraformer that blew up at the beginning of the game, using the repair tool he’s had on his arm for the entire game. That is, the tool he obviously should have used to repair the damn terraformer two years ago before all these creatures started running around eating people’s faces.
The plot hole is an issue, but any honest analysis has to acknowledge that it only matters at the end of the game. The monsters themselves, present throughout the game, pose a more serious problem. I’ve criticized the use of monsters in games before, in the case of Singularity and also the Uncharted games. In the case of Armageddon they don’t play particularly well, but that’s in the review. The more subtle and essential dilemma is that the monsters in Armageddon don’t pose a set of problems that can be solved by blowing up buildings.
This matters because “blowing up buildings” is what’s unique about the Red Faction games. One of the great disappointments of the current generation is that the increased processor power has not been leveraged for the production of dynamic environments. In most modern games the player has less capacity to alter the level’s appearance and architecture than he did way back when Duke Nukem 3D came out, with its breakable windows and demolition switches. Guerilla and Armageddon don’t let the player alter the natural geometry of a level, but they do offer him the ability to break apart practically everything that’s man-made.
Guerilla was such a wonderful game because it complemented these unique mechanics with a scenario that emphasized their usefulness. The ability to destroy buildings is very valuable in the context of an insurgency, so that’s the game Volition made. That this entailed making a game that was essentially pro-terrorism was an unexpected outcome, and one that Guerilla didn’t handle as well as it could have. Nonetheless, it was refreshing to see such a politically bold idea placed front and center by a mainstream game, and it’s one that evolved naturally from creating a story that needed the game’s most interesting mechanics.
Armageddon‘s aliens don’t need to be addressed with bombs. Indeed, it’s difficult to figure out what could address them. The game makes a half-hearted effort by telling Mason to blow up bridges or erect force-fields, but since the aliens can crawl along a cavern roof without any problem and tunnel effortlessly through rock these objectives seem thoroughly useless even as you’re accomplishing them. Fundamentally, Armageddon‘s core mechanics of destruction and reconstruction don’t seem to have anything to do with its core struggle. That is where the true shame of this game lies.
In Guerilla, Volition created a wonderfully coherent experience where the mechanics and narrative built on each other. In Armageddon, while not entirely at odds, the mechanics and narrative don’t really speak to one another’s needs. That’s the fundamental disappointment of this game. If Guerilla hadn’t existed, Armageddon would be just another dull, workaday third-person shooter. Since it does, we know that Volition could have done much better than this. They didn’t, and what they did ultimately produce was pathetic.