Filled with the sort of over-the-top violence and cheeky futuristic propaganda seen in Paul Verhoeven's popular sci-fi films Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers, Red Faction II is a successful sequel to last year's popular PS2 first-person shooter. It's got all the stuff that made the previous game a hit: lots of powerful weapons, lots of enemy fodder, a number of vehicles you can ride in, and some good multiplayer features. Red Faction II doesn't stray far from the first game's formula, but it improves upon the original while presenting a new storyline with a new cast of characters. And while the single-player campaign is pretty short, and the multiplayer portion has limitations of its own, Red Faction II is still one of the year's best console shooters, and it's sure to please fans of the first game.
Red Faction II takes place in the same universe as the first game: the 22nd century, where humankind is ruled by an evil dictatorship, and only the freedom fighters who call themselves the Red Faction are able to stand in its way. Parker, the hero of the first game, is nowhere to be found here. Instead, this sequel introduces a nanotech-enhanced soldier called Alias, whom you'll play as during the course of the single-player campaign. Alias is part of an elite squad developed to suppress insurgents like the Red Faction--but the squad has turned coats and now seeks to rid the world of Chancellor Sopot, the man at the root of the Commonwealth's strife and poverty. The plot is pretty thin, and the twist that's thrown in about halfway through seems ridiculous, but at least the story doesn't get in the way of the action. In your mission to assassinate Sopot, and then quell an even greater threat, you'll travel by air, sea, and land while taking on droves of enemies and numerous challenging situations in a diverse and tightly paced series of levels.
Most single-player first-person shooters aren't very long, and Red Faction II is no exception. Even though you'll run into several tough boss battles when playing through the game at the normal difficulty setting, expect to get through the campaign in approximately seven hours. As if to make up for the relatively short length of the campaign, the designers made sure that there's never a dull moment in it. The very first mission has Alias blowing an enemy base to bits using a weapon that fires both rockets and grenades, and things never really let up from there. The flow of the action does slow down on a couple of occasions, such as when you'll be forced to outwit enemy snipers using your own high-powered long-range rifle, but even those sequences are intense. If you've played a ton of other shooters, you won't find much in Red Faction II that's completely different from what you've seen before, but the game hits all the right notes, doesn't ever get boring, and packs in lots of variety.
Much like in the first game, the variety in Red Faction II comes largely from having an occasional in-vehicle sequence to break up all the action on foot. Each of the four vehicles in Red Faction II is remarkably powerful, and they all make for some highly entertaining shooting sequences. The vehicles aren't simulated with the nearly same level of realism as the vehicles in last year's superlative Xbox shooter Halo, but they make up for it with good looks and raw firepower. When you're flying high through the air between skyscrapers in the gunship or crashing through war-torn city streets in the tank, the game effectively becomes a rail shooter--you're just the gunner, and your job is to blow up any enemies that get in your way as Shrike, your squad's vehicles expert, steers you through some seriously hostile territory. But when you're in the submarine or the battle armor, you actually get to navigate as well as shoot. All the vehicle sequences are fun while they last, even though they're relatively easy and simple compared with the standard action. You'll especially like the battle armor, which is basically an assault mech bristling with Gatling guns and missiles. You'll take on entire armies in this thing.
Then again, you'll take on entire armies on foot, too. Though you'll sometimes fight alongside one of your squadmates, you'll usually go at it alone, and a slew of high-powered, over-the-top weapons are available for quickly eliminating enemies individually or in groups. Fans of the first Red Faction game will be pleased to find that most of their favorite weapons have returned and are joined by a number of new ones, making for well over a dozen different weapons in all, ranging from deadly small arms to devastating artillery. Speaking of which, as in the first game, in Red Faction II you can use explosive weapons to literally blast through walls. The developers made a really big deal of this with the original game, even though the ability didn't come into play very often. It's put to better use in the sequel, where at times you'll end up making yourself an entryway if you can't find one that suits you. The fact that your character is a demolitions expert certainly justifies all this.
Explosive or not, every weapon of yours has an alternate firing mode or some other special ability. For instance, fans of Red Faction will know that the rail driver allows you to target and shoot enemies who are on the other side of walls or obstacles. They'll also know that the precision rifle points you to enemies in the vicinity when you're looking through its scope. All this hardware packs a satisfying punch and looks great in action, though the weapon that will likely get the most use is the NICW, an assault rifle with rocket-propelled grenade launcher and a built-in targeting system, evidently modeled after the US military's next-generation Objective Individual Combat Weapon. An all-purpose firearm, the NICW can get you through virtually any encounter. You'll appreciate that this and most other weapons in your arsenal are so effective, though you might find it odd that you can carry all the game's weapons simultaneously.
Red Faction II controls like most any other console first-person shooter these days, with the left analog stick controlling movement, the right stick controlling your aim, and the R1 and L1 shoulder buttons controlling your weapons' primary and secondary firing modes. In a great touch, these buttons are also used to independently fire smaller weapons (such as pistols or assault rifles) that can be wielded in pairs. The gamepad controls are as responsive as can be expected in a console shooter, but you also have the option of plugging in a USB-compatible keyboard and mouse into your PS2 so you can play the game using the sort of control scheme that's extremely popular among fans of first-person shooters for the PC. It's a nice option.
Too bad the game doesn't support online play. Red Faction II does offer a fully featured multiplayer mode, accommodating up to four players in a split-screen view. But the potential of this mode--much like with the recent TimeSplitters 2--is dampened since you can't take on challengers over the Internet. Neither does the game support the iLink feature that, in a few other games, allows you to network up several PS2 units--though this wouldn't have been practical for most gamers anyway. While we're complaining about what the multiplayer mode doesn't do, it also bears mentioning that there's no option to play the campaign cooperatively. At any rate, Red Faction II's multiplayer mode still adds to value of the game, especially since it features computer-controlled bots that you can play against either alone or with others.
Eight different multiplayer game types are available, ranging from standards like deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture the flag to variants like regime, in which one player is the "dictator" and must try to survive as long as possible as all the other players try to bring him or her down. These are all pretty standard multiplayer shooter variants, involving either all-out shooting mayhem or goal-oriented, team-based objectives. The team-based modes can be fun if all human players join the same team and pit themselves against the AI, and if you find that some of the game's extremely powerful weapons unbalance the multiplayer game, you can remove them from play. Numerous other options, decent bot AI, and a variety of serviceable maps make multiplayer Red Faction II a well rounded experience overall.
Red Faction II looks better in many ways than its year-and-a-half-old predecessor, most notably in the design of the game's environments. The cutscenes still aren't particularly good looking, though the one played when Alias finally catches up to Sopot is memorable. And while the original game's settings mostly consisted of bland tunnels and sterile laboratories, the sequel's rundown urban environments and sophisticated military installations tend to be a lot more colorful and detailed. Enemy characters are brought to life using realistic motion-captured animations, and not only do these animations look good, but you also won't really notice any repetition in them as you keep shooting down bad guys. The weapon models are diverse and look appropriately hefty and high tech. The game also sports some very nice explosions--as well it should, for a game starring a demolitions expert. Plus, as mentioned, all the vehicles are portrayed convincingly.
All this comes at the cost of the game's frame rate, which isn't particularly smooth. The frame rate is rarely detrimental to the gameplay, but it gets unflatteringly slow at times. Also, Red Faction II proves that low screen resolution and long-range shooting aren't a good combination, as you'll be looking for nothing more than small off-colored specks on the screen during the game's sniping sequences. It still looks great for a PS2 game, though, and it offers exactly the sorts of white-hot pyrotechnics and visceral action that you'd want to see in a game like this.
Audio is another strong suit of Red Faction II. Though the cries of enemy soldiers repeat a bit too often and some of their lines are pointlessly profane, the sounds of all your various weapons and explosions are loud, clear, and effective. A high-tempo electronic music score pumps in the background beneath the near-constant roar of your firearms and helps maintain the game's fever-pitch intensity level. The quality of the voice acting is mostly good, with the highlight being Molov, the squad leader of Alias' unit, who is voiced by Lance Henriksen.
Red Faction II is a great shooter overall, offering up a short but sweet single-player campaign and a solid multiplayer mode for the long run. It's a must for all those who liked the original, as they'll find in Red Faction II a similar yet much more intense experience. Meanwhile, those who might have missed out on the first Red Faction game might as well start with the sequel, which improves on most aspects of its predecessor. It's true that the game is limited both by the PlayStation 2's graphical rendering capabilities and also by the absence of online multiplayer features, at a time when online play ought to start becoming standard in console shooters. Nevertheless, Red Faction II is still one of the better first-person shooters for any console to date.