Red Faction: Battlegrounds is in an enviable position. As a downloadable spin-off to a well-established franchise, it has the freedom to take a unique slant on the dominant themes of its forebears, without the financial pressures and public expectations that saddle retail products. And developer THQ Digital Warrington certainly doesn't shy away from this task. Instead of offering a stripped-down version of the explosive destruction the series is known for, Battlegrounds goes in a completely different direction--it's a dual-stick shooter mixed with vehicular combat. Unfortunately, this drastic detour neither caters to longtime fans of the Red Faction franchise nor welcomes newcomers with a creative gameplay hook. The action varies between mundane repetition and anarchistic chaos, and there isn't enough single-player content or multiplayer diversity to keep you invested. Battlegrounds had the potential to take Red Faction in an interesting new direction or at least offer an enticing tease for the soon-to-be-released sequel, Armageddon, but it fails to take advantage of either angle.
Battlegrounds does offer a tenuous link to the retail Red Faction games, though the connection is little more than an aesthetic similarity. You once again take control of the freedom fighters known as Red Faction and square off against your imperialistic foes, the Earth Defense Force. There isn't context explaining why you have to compete in capture-the-flag and deathmatch duels against your oppressors, only the cliche remarks of a berating commanding officer speaking down to his lowly subordinate. You play as the lower-ranked soldier and slowly unlock more vehicles and better equipment as you make your way through the 16 single-player training missions. You gain access to new weapons for the competitive mode, so at least there's a reason to take part in these extended tutorials. Also, the vehicles each have unique strengths and weaknesses that affect not only their firepower, but how they control as well. The sluggish tank is a sharp contrast to the nimble walker, and figuring out how to succeed with each takes a bit of time.
There are four mission types in the single-player portion of Battlegrounds. Each objective takes place in a compact arena that echoes the desolate, alien feeling you would expect from Mars. The red ground beneath your tires is a constant reminder that you're not on your home planet, and the primordial foliage sweeping across some stages further cements this image. However, there isn't much time to examine the flora when you're taking part in the high-energy activities. Speed Trial is the most exciting of the included mission types, and it's also the only one in which maneuverability, and not firepower, takes priority. Racing around hostile worlds is exhilarating because the tight controls make cornering a breeze, and the varied terrain is composed of enough ramps and bends to keep you engaged. The small courses hide few secrets, but that doesn't lessen the fun of striving to beat your best time.
Unfortunately, there are only three Speed Trial missions, and the rest of your single-player experience isn't nearly as interesting. Survival and Annihilate events pit you against waves of enemy attackers. The shooting controls are as seamless as racing around a corner, letting you vanquish your foes just by pointing the right stick at what you want to kill. You don't have to worry about elevation or distance either because your gun automatically adjusts to ensure your shot hits true. In the early going, it can be fun to rain down fire on your hapless foes and bathe in their fiery remains, but that pleasure quickly dissipates when you realize just how repetitive the experience is. There's little strategy in how you destroy your attackers, so you need only drift around the arena opening fire when enemies materialize. Survival mode is particularly tiresome. Your goal is simply to live as long as possible, but the lack of depth means you have to rely on luck as much as skill to complete your task. Waiting for the appearance of a crucial health power-up to save you from imminent death is a large part of the strategy, which makes this a dull and aggravating mode.
Shooting Range combines the racing and shooting action that make up the bulk of the game. You cruise around the same arenas as before, only this time, you have to destroy purple land mines that materialize in out-of-reach places. Taking tight turns is as fun here as it is in Speed Trials, though because your vehicle can be damaged by the blast of an exploding mine, you have to use more caution to get around. Striving for high scores is still mildly entertaining, though it lacks the frantic energy that the pure racing mode offers. This sad medley of modes is all you'll find in the perfunctory single-player campaign. You can breeze through all of these missions in less than an hour. Though you can always strive for higher completion scores to earn bonuses such as a speed increase for your tank or a better leaderboard time, this is a skimpy package nonetheless.
Once you've tested your mettle in the single-player offerings, it's time to challenge intelligent foes in competitive play. You can take part in four-player matches either online or offline, and you have a new set of objectives to try your hand at. Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and King of the Hill (along with team variants) are the available modes, though they sadly offer even less entertainment than the forgettable solo endeavors. Deathmatch is too chaotic for its own good. Explosions fill the screen, and it's difficult to tell where you are and who's whittling your health down. Death is frequent and unavoidable, and you never quite know whom to attack or how to stay alive for more than a few agonizing seconds.
The other two modes are more focused than Deathmatch, though no more fun. In Capture the Flag, you need to bring a flag to your opponent's base. It's a simple enough concept made aggravating by the flag bearer's tendency to drop the flag at inopportune moments. When your health goes down to a random level, you inexplicably drop your treasure, and this happens with such frequency that it can make matches stretch on until long after the excitement has worn off. In King of the Hill, you have to stake out a specific portion of the map while your friends try to unseat you. But the hill doesn't move, which means everyone just converges on one spot, shooting their guns and creating death, without much strategy. Your vehicles aren't agile enough to make these battles interesting, so you just mindlessly lob bullets into the center and hope you come out on top.
Battlegrounds had a chance to provide a unque twist to the classic Red Faction action, but this tired dual-stick shooter fails to create an engaging experience. The flimsy connection to the mainline games is hardly enough to lure longtime fans into the fold, and the dull action has little chance of engendering goodwill for anyone who previously ignored this franchise. Shooting enemies and competing in races are fun for a little while, but there's not nearly enough content to justify the $10 price tag. Battlegrounds is a disappointing spin-off that does nothing to build on the Red Faction name.