Volition, the developer responsible for the first North American PS2 role-playing game, Summoner, is working on an ambitious new PS2 first-person shooter that has the potential to redefine the genre. We had the opportunity to sit down with Red Faction's lead designer, Alan Lawrance, and THQ producer Rob Loftus to discuss what makes Red Faction so special.
Red Faction tells the story of Parker, a well-educated man who decides to throw away his Ivy League education to pursue a blue-collar career as a miner on Mars. Parker signs on with the Ultor Corporation, a gigantic and mysterious company that seems to have interests beyond simply mining Mars. A horrible plague is infecting miners employed by Ultor, and a rebel faction rises up to accuse Ultor of unleashing the disfiguring disease as part of some terrible experiment. Parker gets caught in the rebellion and finds himself a key figure in discovering the truth about Ultor and the rebellion. But, like the mysterious red planet, the corporation that seemingly owns it, and the characters working for Ultor, Parker himself isn't exactly what he seems. Loftus elaborated, "Parker was actually a rather academic young man before he came to Ultor, which is a little strange. I mean, he's very well educated and has a great future, then he decides to go be a blue-collar miner on Mars for this huge, horrible corporation. And that's important - his decision and background will definitely be a factor in the story."
Red Faction is obviously inspired by Half-Life, one of the first first-person shooters to immerse you in an evolving story. But Red Faction isn't simply a copycat - the game boasts one of the most amazing bits of innovative technology yet seen in games. Volition is calling it geo-mod technology, short for geometrical modification. Where other games will change wall textures to show grenade marks or bullet holes, Red Faction will actually change the geometry of the wall. If you shoot a wall with a rocket launcher, you'll take a chunk of the wall out. If you shoot a hole in a pipe carrying hot magma, the magma will spew from the hole. If you crash a tank into a sniper tower, the tower will collapse. Giving the power to the player to actually feel the effects of powerful weapons makes Red Faction one the most realistic first-person shooters yet. And Volition is making sure that you will use geo-mod technology. "The team's main goal is to take the amazing technology they've developed and heighten the realism the player is able to feel in a first-person shooter. We want to give players a story-driven experience that is not only immersive in a story sense but also in a gameplay sense - in that the walls and anything that could be realistically destroyed can be destroyed in the game," said Loftus.
Geo-mod technology affects every structure in every level of the game, with only a few exceptions. There are certain areas of the game where geo-mod technology isn't implemented, simply because blowing a hole through a wall would ruin the gameplay or rupture the storyline. In these instances Volition has used a sense of realism to help determine what surfaces won't be affected by explosives. "What can and can't be geo-modded is controlled by what we call geo-regions," Lawrance explained. "We present this to the player in terms of materials: Really hard materials like steel won't be destructible."
Geo-mod technology does more than let you make your own entrances to buildings. The system affects other surfaces too. One of the earlier demo levels is simply a house made of several panes of glass. Volition showed off how glass will shatter and realistically spider out from the impact point. Glass can also be shot out from the roof of a building and will fall to the ground and remain there. "We'll even have damage modeled so that characters are hurt if they get hit by flying glass," said Lawrance. The glass chunks are also affected by geo-mod technology. Loftus tossed an explosive mine next to the pile of broken glass and detonated it, causing the shards to be tossed from the explosion site in a satisfyingly realistic manner. Another demo level showed a pipe that pours hot magma into a receptacle. Loftus fired a rocket at the side of the pipe and blew a sizable hole in it. Amazingly, the flow of the magma changed, and it began to pour from the new hole in the side. A few more rockets and Loftus cut the pipe in half, causing the tip to fall to the ground, where it remained. From there Loftus could even jump on top of the pipe fragment and use it to get to a higher part of the level.
Volition's goal with Red Faction is to encourage you to use the geo-mod system creatively. Geo-mod technology pulls the rug out from under conventional first-person shooter strategy and allows for some of the most innovative problem solving seen in an action game. "We're definitely taking advantage of this technology. The geo-mod system allows you to take down walls and accomplish objectives in ways that you couldn't in any other game before this. So we wanted to encourage players to think creatively - like they actually would if they were Parker and they did have a rocket launcher. A good example is if you're under fire from a sniper in a tower. Instead of dodging bullets and charging the tower, then risk getting shot as you climb up into the tower, you can simply blow the supports out and watch the tower, with the sniper still inside, come crashing down. There's also a part in the game with a huge force of tanks and soldiers crossing this bridge - a force you could never take on head-on. So instead of rushing them you can wait until they're all on the bridge and then blow up the support structure to the bridge itself and watch the whole platoon plummet. It's a really satisfying experience to use the geo-mod system creatively, and we want to reward players who do that," said Loftus.
The ability to manipulate your environment definitely adds a great sense of realism to the action in the game, but Volition still had to build a realistic foundation for the geo-mod system. The game not only immerses you in some of the most amazing graphics yet seen on the PS2, but it also conveys a fabulous sense of detail in the flow of the story and the level design. "When designing our environments, one of the key focuses was on realism and functionality. A perfect example of that are the mines on Mars. When you start the game you'll be walking into a working mine - complete with conveyer belts and mining bots and bucket bots that will all be hard at work gathering and moving the ore. The levels are designed appropriately - there are never simply corridors or rooms that serve no purpose. Everything has been blueprinted and designed in a very realistic, very functional way, and we think that will have a huge impact on the realism of the game," said Loftus. Not only will the environments be realistic and interactive, but the action in the game will also evolve around you. Loftus explained, "As the story unfolds around you you'll see miners running and fighting with guards. You'll walk into firefights and see your fellow miners either get killed or be triumphant. Parker is definitely not the only miner who's fighting Ultor, even if he's the game's focus."
Rockets and explosives aren't the only thing you'll be using to your advantage. During the course of the game Parker will run into several NPC characters. Most NPCs will be employees of Ultor - technicians, mechanics, medics, and the like. Most of them aren't armed, but they still feel loyalty to Ultor. And then there are those NPCs who are in the same boat as Parker and his fellow miners. "Some NPCs are actually sympathetic to your cause. They realize that Ultor is not exactly all it's cracked up to be. They can open doors for you, walk around barriers, activate switches, and move to areas that you, as a miner, could not get to. They won't fight for you - you can't use NPCs as a combat squad - but they'll be able to assist you in important ways," said Loftus.
Red Faction follows Parker as he makes his way through the sprawling Ultor complex and then encounters a few environmental surprises. The game has plenty of levels that take place outdoors and some that take place away from Mars. "You spend time not only on Mars in Ultor's mining environment, but also in outdoor areas of Mars itself. You'll spend plenty of time outdoors - the game has some intense Martian environments. In Red Faction we discover that there actually is life on Mars, and we definitely wanted to showcase some of the cool Martian plants and creatures in the game. There are also episodes that take place on a starship and some other environmental surprises," said Loftus.
Additionally, the game's story unfolds mostly from the first-person perspective, a la Half-Life. Parker will receive mission updates through his helmet's heads-up display or through his own educated thinking, and will never return to a mission screen or briefing. "The story basically unfolds around you while you play. We use a lot of HUD messages and audio contact to inform you of new objectives and such without breaking the flow of the first-person gameplay. Our goal was to make the player feel like they are part of the story," said Loftus. Like Half-Life, Red Faction progresses in a very linear fashion. Loftus explained, "All of the levels load contiguously, to keep the flow of the game. We don't have a hub system, like in most first-person shooters, that explains each mission before you try it. Once you start Red Faction you never slow down. As you're walking along shooting guards and completing objectives, you'll get new updates or figure out that there are certain things you have to do to advance, but you never return to any one spot to get the latest word from the revolution." But unlike Half-Life, Red Faction will let you leave the first-person perspective to view cinematics. Said Loftus, "We definitely do have cutscenes. We wanted to maintain the realism, but we still wanted to deliver a highly cinematic experience. So important events will definitely have cutscenes, all which are rendered using the in-game engine, but have dramatic camera angles and cuts to increase the tension of the story."
Volition wanted to make Red Faction more than just mindless gun-wielding action. Parker's missions will be important and crucial to completing the game. "The game isn't just about running around shooting whoever you see. Parker definitely has a game plan, and he has to follow it if he's going to get to the bottom of the Ultor mess. You always have a purpose, and of course there are going to be people in your way who don't want you to accomplish that goal, but you are always up to something. The action is never mindless," said Loftus.
The game supports this statement most evidently through what Lawrance calls stealth levels. Several levels in the game require Parker to use his head instead of his trigger finger and actually have him go under cover as an Ultor executive. As an executive you'll have to interact with other Ultor employees, but you'll have to maintain your deceptive shroud. In these levels you'll be stripped of everything but your silenced pistol, and you'll have to decide whom to kill and where. This is important because if a corpse is discovered or if you're seen with a weapon, you'll have plenty of trouble to deal with. "You'll be able to shoot people in the stealth levels," said Lawrance, "but you'll have to do it quickly, when no one is around, and not let your victims raise the alarm." Additionally, after you kill someone you'll have to figure out what to do with the body. "This is where being able to pick up and move bodies is a factor," Lawrance elaborated. "You'll not only have to figure out whom to kill, but also how to cover it up. There will be a lot of exploring and observing."
Red Faction maintains the level of realism throughout. One of the key factors in making the world seem real is to ground the weapons in reality and limit the amount of health and ammo found throughout the game. You'll find weapons and ammo where you would expect - from fallen guards or guard posts - and you'll find health at first-aid stations, or you can get health directly from the medic NPCs. Additionally, the game features 15 weapons, all of which are slightly futuristic takes on current military technology. The game will feature a stun rod that can incapacitate enemies, a riot shield that can shield you from gunfire, a pistol that can be silenced, a machine pistol that fires two types of ammo, a shotgun with a fully automatic mode, an assault rifle with a burst mode, a rocket launcher with an infrared scope, a railgun that fires through walls, a sniper rifle with a fully controllable zoom, a remote mine that can be stuck to walls and even enemies, and a few other unrevealed weapons. The Ultor complex is also full of machinery for you to commandeer. There are turret-mounted guns installed throughout the complex that are used by security against you and your miner friends. But once you get the turrets you'll be able to turn the guns against Ultor and wreak some major havoc on the complex. Red Faction also has a variety of different vehicles for you to control. "We wanted to add vehicles to kind of break up the game, in the sense of finding something new for the player to do," explained Lawrance. "That way you're not always on the ground on your feet." Volition hasn't nailed down an exact number of vehicles, although it's already shown four vehicles working in the game. So far the team has shown a torpedo-armed submarine, an armored personnel carrier equipped with mortars and a ram, a hovercraft-style jet with machine guns and missiles, and an odd digging machine with huge spinning drills on the front of it - a vehicle obviously inspired by Total Recall. Loftus' favorite vehicle is obviously the APC. "The APC is cool because it moves at a slightly faster rate than enemies run, so you'll be able to slowly run enemy guards down. Additionally, the APC has a ram on the front of it that you can use to plow into towers and other buildings and cause them to collapse," he said.
Red Faction has some of the most intense graphics yet seen on the PS2. Everything from the character models to the living, breathing environments looks very clean, detailed, and ultrarealistic. The textures are all appropriately grungy, and the layout and design of the levels really shine through. "We spent a lot of time working on the graphics engine. There are several different character models for the grunts that you face in the game - guards will have an assortment of faces and weapons. There's definitely a real industrial influence in the design of the game. Red Faction takes place in the late 21st century. So we thought, 'Let's take a miner now and try to imagine what he might look like in the 21st century, working on Mars instead of Earth.' So the game isn't super high-tech, but the technology is definitely better than we have now. But we wanted to make sure people could relate to the weapons and characters in the game," said Loftus. Additionally, the sound effects add to the gritty realism of the game. A friendly female voice blares over the PA, asking miners to report to the nearest guard station and promising they won't be harmed. Guards talk to each other and cry out when they spot an enemy, and weapon effects and footprints really make Red Faction an amazingly immersive environment.
Volition also worked on the animations to make Red Faction as believable as possible. All of the characters move and animate in a very fluid way and respond to the threats of their environment. Loftus elaborated, "Red Faction uses localized damage. Aim is definitely a factor in the game, especially when using a high-caliber weapon like the sniper rifle. You'll be able to zoom in on a character and literally pick where you want to shoot him. And, of course, you'll get a different animation when you shoot a character in the kneecap from when you shoot him in the shoulder. One of the cooler things you can do is shoot a weapon out of a hostile's hand. Once he's disarmed he'll cower or run away. Also, we're toying with the idea of having nonlethal damage affect characters. For instance, if you shoot a guard in the knee, he'll have to limp to get around. That's something we're still considering, though."
Though the game won't support online play, Red Faction on the PS2 will feature a two-player split-screen mode. Volition is still considering what game modes will be available for the multiplayer game, but deathmatch is certainly one of them. "You'll be able to get in, play against your buddy, and be able to use the cool geo-mod technology in a two-player scenario. The game will also have computer-controlled opponents, so you can play a deathmatch with bots or against bots. We're also working on multiplayer modes that take advantage of geo-mod technology - maybe where the first player to blow his way through a certain wall wins, or something like that," said Loftus.
With Volition's knack of spinning deep and compelling yarns combined with plenty of levels, weapons, vehicles, amazing graphics and sound, and, of course, the geo-mod system, Red Faction looks like it could be as revolutionary to the genre as Volition hopes. Red Faction is currently in development for both the PC and the PS2, although both Volition and THQ assure us that the PS2 version is definitely the lead development. The game is scheduled for release in Q2 2001.