Eschewing fancy offices and a parking lot full of sports cars, Champaign, Illinois-based Volition prefers to make outstanding games with as few distractions as possible. The creators of Descent: Freespace and FreeSpace 2 have a reputation for excellence, and they are currently applying their talents to Red Faction, a first-person shooter with some decidedly new twists. Recently, we were lucky enough to spend the day at Volition's offices, in the company of lead designer Alan Lawrance, director of product development Philip Holt, THQ producer Rob Loftus, and several other team members to get a close-up, in-depth look at the shooter that has the potential to redefine the genre as much as Half-Life did.
Red Faction is the story of Parker, a miner on Mars who works for an evil, tyrannical (is there any other kind?) mining conglomerate known as the Ultor Corporation. After a plague breaks out among the miners, they decide to rebel against their squalid living conditions and bring down the Ultor Corporation. Red Faction follows Parker as he tries to escape the mining colony and get off Mars, find the cause of and cure for the plague, and solve the mystery of his own secret origins. It's a compelling story, and Volition has a full-time writer working on it to ensure that Red Faction immerses you not only with a graphically rich environment, but also with a gripping plot.
The project that became Red Faction actually started out as Descent 4, but Volition felt that rather than work on another sequel, it would be less confining to try something in a different genre and incorporate several new ideas for the first-person shooter. The centerpiece of this approach is something called "Geo-Mod," a deformable terrain system that goes far beyond any of the interactive environments found in other games. Instead of changing some textures or applying decals to textures as a result of weapon effects, Geo-Mod actually changes the geometry of the world in response to various factors. If you shoot a wall with a rocket launcher, it will take a huge chunk out of it. If you crash a vehicle into a structure, the structure may collapse or at least inflict serious damage. You can even use weapons like the rocket launcher to dig tunnels through the world. "This introduces a whole new set of challenges for the level designers," Philip Holt said. "Where you used to be able to just hide things behind a locked door, in Red Faction you have to deal with a player who can pull out a weapon and take down the wall next to that door. Geometry modification affects all levels of the game."
Break Down the Walls
The Geo-Mod system isn't just restricted to blowing up solid objects. One impressive demonstration level was labeled "the glass house," which consisted of a framework of glass panels that made up the roof and walls of a rectangular box inside a larger room. If you shot the glass once, it created a very realistic-looking hole and cracking effect, while if you shot the same panel a second time, the glass shattered and fell to the ground in a shower of glass shards that looked remarkably realistic. The glass house also had a sloped glass roof and a flat glass ceiling beneath it. If you shot out the glass panels on the roof, they fell onto the ceiling, and if you stood in the middle of the room, you could look up and see the glass shards that were lying on top of the glass ceiling panels. A couple of shots later, the roof and ceiling panels alike were lying in pieces on the floor. If you walked over them, it produced a satisfyingly realistic crunching sound. "We'll even have damage modeled so that characters are hurt if they get hit by flying glass," said Lawrance.
Not everything in the world of Red Faction will be Geo-Mod-enabled, although most things will. "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." Level designers can specify which regions of a level are Geo-Regions and which ones aren't. To demonstrate, he fired the rocket launcher at a set of steel blast doors. The doors were scorched, but they stayed intact. Next to the blast doors was the wall of the cavern. A few well-placed rocket shots left the stone wall in ruins.
The Geo-Mod system works on all levels from huge rocket blasts down to single bullets. We took some shots at the corner of a wall with a pistol, and we were surprised to find that the chips and holes we had inflicted were visible from both sides of the wall, not just the one we were shooting from. Ricocheting bullets left marks corresponding to the direction of their impact. "We made sure to include that in the engine," said lead programmer John Slagel. "It's little things like that that make Geo-Mod a believable system." Another thing that makes the game believable are the graphics. Completely separate from the Geo-Mod effects is the fact that Red Faction's graphics are superb. "We designed our own engine, since we have a lot of experience with things like that," said Lawrance. "It would have been almost impossible to impose a Geo-Mod system onto an existing one."
So how does Geo-Mod work? In programmer-speak, it all comes down to "real-time booleans." Don't take our word for it, though - listen to Alan Lawrance. "When a rocket hits a wall, we take this shape and basically subtract that shape from the world. So we boolean with that 'bit' - we call them Geo-Mod bits - and that takes a chunk out of the world." Which is exactly what we did: We aimed our rocket launcher at a huge steel drainage pipe that was protruding from the wall near the ceiling. Three or four rocket blasts later, part of the pipe, which had been severed from its base in the wall, was on the ground. "There are a lot of other things you have to deal with," continued Lawrance, "like if you shoot out the base of a column, it has to fall over."
This raised an interesting question. What if you shot out most of a column's base but left a tiny sliver intact? Trying this on the intact pipe, we managed to blow off almost the entire pipe, which was adjacent to the wall; but we left a tiny thread of steel undamaged. Instead of breaking off and crashing to the floor, the pipe stayed aloft, as if it were intact. Was this flaw in the Geo-Mod system?
"Not at all," explained Lawrance. "A system like Geo-Mod is not meant to simulate all the physics involved in everyday life. It's simply a tool to bring players into closer contact with the gameworld and to create a greater level of immersion." As John Slagel explained, "To see if an object can support its own weight, you need to know the thickness of things, you need to know how much weight is on the other end, and you need to know the tensile strength of materials. The way it is now, when an object is connected, it doesn't move. Once a piece disconnects, it moves on its own like an object according to the game physics. To determine whether a connected object is under enough stress to fall, we'd have to do finite element analysis, like engineers do when they design bridges and the like." According to Slagel, this would involve data structures that aren't currently present in the game. "It would be hard to write a program that, given a level, would go through that level and determine which objects were under enough stress to fall over." It certainly could be done, he explained, but it would require a lot of programming time, and in the end, it would take up most of the CPU cycles available in the game. So you'd have a game that was really good at simulating the physics of the world, but one that didn't have anything left over to actually run the game.
Lawrance says that rather than creating a detailed physics model of this sort, there may be an artificial way to flag the most egregious instances of objects that resist collapse and to handle them separately, but these kinds of small problems don't diminish the effect that Geo-Mod has on the way you experience the game.
Weapons and Vehicles
Red Faction will include 15 different weapons, although Volition is keeping all but five under wraps right now. Weapons include the pistol, sniper rifle, assault rifle, rocket launcher, and remote detonator, which consists of an explosive pack that can be placed or thrown and then detonated with a remote control. Most of these have a secondary fire mode that you can activate by pressing the right mouse button, so that the assault rifle can fire in bursts or in full automatic and the sniper rifle can zoom in on its target with a scope. The rocket launcher has an infrared detector that lets you see enemies behind walls if they are close enough, much like the X-ray glasses in Perfect Dark. "We wanted the weapons in Red Faction to be a natural extension of modern-day weapons," explained Philip Holt. "This also makes the Geo-Mod system more believable. It's hard to relate to what a plasma rifle would actually do to a stone wall, but everyone knows what a machine gun would do." For this reason, the weapons are recognizable but have been designed to be more powerful than their modern counterparts. The pistol, for example, fires 12mm ammunition.
There will also be turret-mounted guns that are installed throughout the complex and used by security, although if you can get to them (and you will), you'll have the opportunity to wreak some havoc by using the enemy's own weapons against them. The turret-mounted automatic weapons are truly fearsome, and Lawrance says they'll probably have to be "toned down some" because right now, they're so powerful that they've earned the nickname "lawnmowers" among the design team.
Red Faction will also have a variety of different vehicles for Parker to drive. "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." Six vehicles are planned, although only four of them are in the game right now. Each vehicle will have a weapon, each of which range from torpedoes for the submarine to a mortar for the armored personnel carrier. There is also a fighter armed with guns and rockets. "It has a similar feel to Descent," says Lawrance. "You're not flying a jet - it hovers, for example." You also can't roll the craft, although it fully has six degrees of freedom in movement and will come into play in one of the aboveground levels. However, most of Red Faction's 20 levels will be beneath the surface of Mars, whether in the mines, passageways, offices, or other parts of the Ultor Corporation complex.
Probably the most intriguing vehicle, though, is the burrowing machine that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen the film Total Recall. Lawrance used it to dig a tunnel through one wall of the quarry level, and the giant spinning blades made tremendous noise as they ripped through the rock. You can only imagine what this would do to the enemy characters... or to you.
An intriguing aspect of Red Faction's level design is what Alan Lawrance described as the "stealth levels." Although most of Red Faction will follow the traditional first-person shooter paradigm of shooting enemies on sight, several levels will place a premium on stealth over strength. While this may sound a lot like the Thief games, Lawrance cautioned against this kind of comparison. "Thief is about sneaking around and trying not to be seen. In the stealth levels of Red Faction, you're going to be 'undercover' rather than undetected." The challenge will be to accomplish your objectives while you interact with the game's enemies on their own terms.
The stealth levels (and there will be several) will strip Parker of all his weapons except for a silenced pistol. Then, in the guise of an Ultor executive, he'll have to mingle with the staff and security of the giant complex and achieve his goals without giving away that he's not whom he appears to be. The first instructions you hear when you start the level are "Keep your weapon holstered. If you don't, the guards will shoot you on site." Since high-ranking executives of multinational companies don't walk around with drawn weapons, you'll have to find other ways to get around the huge complex.
Lawrance demonstrated one such level that was populated by a variety of Ultor workers, executives, and security guards. Very early on, it became evident Parker would have to pass through a checkpoint to get anywhere in the level, but the guards stopped him. "I'm sorry, sir, you don't have the authorization to go there." Getting past this part of the level would require finding the right codes. "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." Once you've killed someone, there will be the problem of disposing of the body. "If Ultor security finds a dead body, the alarm will sound, at which point you're going to be hard-pressed to survive," cautioned Lawrance. To demonstrate, he entered a small room, closed the door, and quickly killed the occupants. Then he holstered the gun and opened the door. As soon as someone walked by, an alarm went off throughout the complex, and several heavily armed Ultor security guards arrived. Armed with only a pistol, Parker was no match for the enemy. "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." Just another reason Red Faction looks to be much more involved than your average shooter.
In addition to the security guard enemies in Red Faction, there will be a multitude of mining and military robots. Alan Lawrance demonstrated some of these, ranging from a small cylinder that was essentially a flying turret to huge military bots that were as large as small aircraft. Mining bots will populate the world to create a more realistic atmosphere around the mining colony. Some of them had fearsome rotary appendages, like giant buzzsaws, although Lawrance assured us that they were for mining, not combat. "Although if you attacked them," he said, "they'd defend themselves."
Red Faction will ship with a level editor so powerful that you will be able to use it to re-create the actual game levels. This shouldn't be surprising, as this editor will be the same one that Volition's level designers used to create the game in the first place. Lead level designer Matt Boynton took us through the basics of creating a level by using these tools, and before we knew it, he had constructed a set of curving, rocky tunnels like those in the game. The editor has a very powerful event engine as well, so would-be level designers will be able to exercise total control over AI behavior and event triggers. Just about the only thing you won't be able to do is create your own character models, as there are some proprietary import functions in 3D Studio Max that are used to generate the models that don't exist in the level editor. So you'll be restricted to the characters that are provided with the game. Boynton explained that the Red Faction editor was actually one of the easiest to use of any that he had worked with in the past, but at the same time, it gave him the ability to do almost anything he wanted with the world.
Red Faction will also have various multiplayer modes, such as deathmatch and capture-the-flag. Geo-Mod won't be available in each mode, though, as in some, such as capture-the-flag, Geo-Modding would be actually "inappropriate" for gameplay, explains Lawrance.
With an involved story, a variety of levels, vehicles, weapons, and of course the Geo-Mod system, Red Faction seems to be well on the way to achieving Volition's goal of providing a new and fresh first-person shooter experience. Release is scheduled for sometime in the first quarter of 2001. Work is proceeding concurrently with the game's PlayStation 2 version, which will actually be released first. "We don't want the PlayStation 2 version of Red Faction to just seem like another console port," says Philip Holt. Whether on the PC or the PS2, Red Faction looks set to Geo-Mod your current view of first-person shooters.