Welcome to Mars, where violence has erupted at a corporate mining colony outside the jurisdiction of the Earth government. This lawless environment is the setting of Volition's Red Faction, a first-person shooter from a company known most recently for Summoner, an innovative 3D role-playing game for the PlayStation 2 and PC. In Red Faction, Volition attempts to combine the best elements from notable first-person shooters such as Valve's Half-Life, Rare's Perfect Dark and GoldenEye 007, and Raven's Soldier of Fortune into one game. It's heavy on story, has a wide variety of tasks for you to accomplish, and involves combat that's visceral and strategic at the same time. Although Red Faction rarely outstrips the games it draws inspiration from, the fact that there are times when it shows them up at all is pretty impressive.
In a story reminiscent of films like Total Recall, Outland, and Blade Runner and books such as Greg Bear's Moving Mars, you play as Parker, a young man who came to Mars to find himself, only to find himself beaten down. You and the others who've come to the planet to become miners for the Ultor Corporation--either for the promised riches or just an escape from Earth--are forced to work 10-hour days in harsh underground conditions under armed guard. During your off hours, you're crammed into a room with eight other workers, and you have to time-share bunks with those on the other shift. If that weren't enough, a mysterious plague is causing miners to die on their feet, and Ultor doesn't seem to be too worried. Finally, angers flare and a group of your co-workers rebel against the oppressive guards. You quickly find yourself a notorious fugitive, hunted by the corporation that wants to destroy you and by a rebel underground movement known as the Red Faction, who wants you to join their ranks.
You'll soon get to know members of both groups through in-game story sequences, scripted events, and communication through your headset. Much like in Half-Life (the game to which Red Faction bears closest resemblance), the action doesn't always totally revolve around your character. You'll come in during the midst of battles between rebel and company forces, intercept messages meant for others, and overhear conversations that hint at deeper mysteries behind the plague. Also similar to Half-Life, Red Faction lacks defined levels. Instead, new sections load once you progress far enough.
Espionage and stealth elements pioneered in first-person shooters like GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark are found here as well. In one section, you need to sneak into an enemy complex, disguised but still careful not to let anyone see your face (at this point, emblazoned on a thousand wanted posters). Your only weapon is a concealed and silenced 12mm pistol, which has to be used, if the occasion arises, away from the watchful eye of company security cameras and outside of the course of security personnel making their rounds. There are even a few times when you'll need to drag the bodies of dispatched foes out of sight in order to keep them from being discovered by fellow guards, as in Looking Glass Studios' Thief series.
There are also instances when you commandeer special vehicles, such as submarines, tanks, and gunships, but most of the time the gameplay revolves around straightforward battles with the game's extremely intelligent enemies. You'll gather weapons such as remote mines, automatic shotguns, flamethrowers, riot shields, rocket launchers, sniper rifles, and machine guns to help you fight them. Many weapons have auxiliary functions as well. As such, you can dislodge the fuel tank from your flame thrower and toss it like a napalm grenade. Meanwhile, the rail launcher's primary function is much like the railgun from id's Quake series, while its secondary function allows you to see and shoot through walls similar to the Farsight laser rifle in Rare's Perfect Dark.
You'll find that the powerful weapons at your disposal make for a respectable arsenal, and they're all quite necessary to defeat the enemies you'll encounter in Red Faction. The game's artificial intelligence even rivals that of Monolith's PC first-person shooter No One Lives Forever. Soldiers duck behind objects, dive into craters recently created by rocket blasts, provide cover fire for each other, and cautiously come after you if you've been hiding out too long. And if the environment lacks objects for your enemies to conceal themselves behind when their clips run out of bullets, they'll often run away yelling, "Don't shoot! I'm unarmed!" only to come back once they've reloaded. You'll need to think your attacks through, though--while the combat is as primal as in Raven's Soldier of Fortune, the only thing that running into a room and blasting away like John McClane will get you is a quick trip back to the "reload your last saved game" screen. The enemies are that smart.
Though Red Faction has traits similar to many other first-person shooters, it can boast of one fairly significant innovation for the genre. Its Geo-Mod technology lets you destroy a good number of the objects in the game's environments. In fact, many of the environments themselves are destructible. Shoot a rocket at a cave floor and a crater appears. Blast a pipe and hot, damaging steam spills out. Not every area in the game supports this feature (in fact, fewer than you'd like), but when you can take advantage of it, it's fantastic. Early in the game, caverns and tunnels fill the mines, and many walls can be demolished to reach other areas. Sometimes you'll discover a secret area, or your mayhem might unveil a shortcut or a way around a jammed door. The damage you've done to the game's environment after a major battle is a wonder to behold. At times when catwalks or stairs have been accidentally destroyed in a firefight, you can often create stone steps by repeatedly blasting chunks out of the floor or wall. This provides one of those great Metal Gear Solid-type moments when you say to yourself, "I wish I could do this," only find out that, yes, you can.
Your prospects for exploration are enhanced by the destructible environments, but they're not reliant upon them. There are also many different areas and rooms to discover off the main path. For example, you could finish the first section of the game in five minutes or spend half an hour checking out every side path and room in detail. In the barracks level, you'll miss an incredible battle where you use a rocket launcher turret to defend a location against more than a dozen enemies if you don't investigate every room thoroughly.
Red Faction's graphics aren't as clean and crisp as those of other console first-person shooters like Quake III Arena on the Dreamcast, or even those of other games on the PlayStation 2, but they're often quite impressive. The game's excellent textures give a "grimy construction equipment" look to the numerous metallic surfaces found in the mines. Many graphical elements of Perfect Dark are present here, but they've been much improved, such as the first-rate shattering glass effects, breakable hanging light bulbs, blast marks, and bullet damage. The developers also managed to keep various sections of the game stylistically unique. Rooms are rarely laid out in the same way or populated by the same objects. Different propaganda posters are displayed throughout game, sporting slogans such as "Horseplay equals death." Perhaps most importantly, the game's frame rate is consistently fast, save for a few rare chugs.
The game's soundtrack builds to appropriately cinematic heights during key moments, dropping back down to provide an atmospheric feel at other times. The voice work is well done (save for the nasally Midwestern-toned Red Faction leader, Eos) and adds greatly to the game. In some cases, the voice-overs give you direction by way of instructions from your informant within Ultor. At other times, such as when a corporate announcer commands miners to drop their weapons and proceed to the nearest security center, it simply adds to the reality of your surroundings. The only real problem with Red Faction's music and voice work is an occasional lack of variety. The soundtrack has some excellent songs, but not enough of them for a game this big. Similarly, you hear many of the same voice actors speaking different parts. The sound effects, however, are spot on, from the swoosh of a rocket as it flies past your head to the rumble of falling debris that follows soon afterward.
The game's controls utilize both sticks on the PlayStation 2 Dual Shock 2 controller--the left for movement and the right to look around. The shoulder buttons handle primary and secondary weapon fire, jumping, and ducking, while the triangle reloads, square and circle select weapons, and X opens doors. It's an elegant setup once you get used to it, and it makes for the first shooter since Perfect Dark that you're not going to wish you had a keyboard and mouse for. The interface is very instinctive, and the save and load times are even short.
Though the game's single-player mode is its main focus, Red Faction does have respectable multiplayer options as well. You can either play alone or with a friend against up to six computer-controlled opponents in nine multiplayer-specific arenas. Many of the levels are well designed, and some even hide health power-ups and high-powered weapons behind destructible walls, but none of the maps really stands out within the genre. While the multiplayer mode may lack the configurable bells and whistles found in similar shooters, it's fun and definitely extends the life of the game.
It's tempting not to judge Red Faction solely against other console first-person shooters, since it's brought Half-Life-style gameplay to video game platforms before the ports of Half-Life have arrived for either the Dreamcast or PlayStation 2. Red Faction might suffer the comparison once those games ship, but right now the only similar style of shooter on the market is Acclaim's Turok 3: Shadow of Oblivion for the Nintendo 64, which it beats hands-down. And while GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark aren't the same kind of shooters Red Faction is, it's safe to say that fans of those games will find plenty to like here.
Red Faction may draw inspiration from a handful of distinctive first-person shooters, but unlike games that appear to do the same, such as Turok 3, it feels less like it's copying from them and more like the developers are just "keeping up with the Joneses." It has its share of drawbacks--an anticlimactic ending that leaves much of the plot unresolved, a dull stretch of gameplay roughly halfway through, and a few moments that are less challenging than they are just painfully hard--yet in the end, it's a great big game with much to explore and enemies tough enough to make it worth playing through more than once. PlayStation 2 owners will be happy to know, in the very least, that there's a great game for their system that they won't be able to finish in a weekend.