After nearly eight years, the time has almost come for us to get our arses to Mars. That's how long it's been since we last visited the planet for shooty antics, in the original Red Faction. Of course, the scenery-chewing FPS did get a sequel back in 2002, but it was set on Earth. While the second game certainly had its fans, it failed to generate the same excitement and enthusiasm that greeted its predecessor. As a result, most people are probably hoping that this game will be something of a return to form, as well as to the planet itself.
Red Faction Guerrilla is set some 45 years after the close of the last game. Mars is now being ruled by the Earth Defence Force - the military good guys who showed up to save the day at the end of the first story. Unfortunately the EDF have since turned into a bunch of fascists who like to oppress people before shooting them in the head. You play Alec Mason, a troubled miner who heads to Mars in an attempt to turn his life around. Alec wants no involvement with the Red Faction, the infamous resistance group fighting the EDF, but then his brother gets murdered by a group of jack-booted thugs. Before you can say but-I'm-not-a-terrorist, Alec grabs his hammer and starts hitting soldiers in the face.
If you've read the previous previews we've run on the site, you'll know that this results in an open-world action game with a third-person perspective and a heavy emphasis on blowing stuff up. In the weeks immediately following the announcement of Guerrilla, a fair percentage of the series' fanbase started making unhappy noises about Volition's decision to abandon its first-person viewpoint. However, once more detailed reports of the game started to surface, most of the criticisms started to dry up - largely due to the fact that Guerrilla boasts some of the most impressive destruction physics ever seen in a video game.
I was pretty blown away by the effects when I first checked the game out last year, and during that session I was able to play through the whole of the first chapter in the single-player campaign. Rather than going over the same details again, I thought it might be more interesting to focus on what seems to have changed since then, and some of the other modes you'll get to play with when the final code is released in June.
The first thing to note is that the graphics seem to have been given a bit of a touch up. There's nothing radically different from what was on display last autumn, but the inhabitants of Mars and the surrounding scenery have both been given a slight makeover; this is particularly evident in the rocky outcrops that litter the game world, which now look a lot more rounded and naturalistic. At a guess, I'd also say that the textures have been a bit of a polish: human characters and vehicles both look slightly more detailed and less cartoony than how I remember them, although I freely admit that this may be my memory letting me down. There have also been minor changes to salvage - the scrap metal used as the game's make-shift currency. On the previous build I played, this was represented by large collectible cogs that showed up every time you trashed a building; now it takes the form of twisted bits of metal. It's a more sensible choice of appearance, and though the new junk is initially harder to spot, Volition have given these pick-ups a shiny blue sheen that indicates their value.
As welcome as these minor cosmetic changes are, the core experience remains very much the same. While Alec is largely free to explore the Martian landscape in the stolen vehicle of his choice, his Red Faction allies must work to move their rebellious operations across each of the planet's five territories. The player helps them take over each area by completing story missions and by taking part in various side quests that help to further the Faction's cause. Completing quests and destroying EDF property will damage the enemy's Control in a region, while simultaneously raising local Morale; the first value is required to unlock new assignments, while the second affects the amount of bonus salvage you receive upon completing a task. In a further neat touch, keeping Morale and Control low will occasionally result in random NPCs joining your cause. You'll be in the middle of a fire fight with enemy troops, and suddenly a passer-by will whip out a gun and help you out. It's a nice touch, one that greatly adds to the sense that you're part of a larger public rebellion.
It seems as if you'll need all the help you can get too, since the game seems to have been made a bit harder since the last time I played it. The run-and-gun controls are still fairly easy to handle, with their arcade-like free aim and optional over-the-shoulder zoom for precision shots, but the EDF themselves seem to be a bit smarter and put up more of a fighter. If you attack one of their vehicles with a thrown explosive charge (one of the core weapons in your arsenal) you'll see them do their best to get away or dive into safety. The missions themselves also seem a bit harder too. The first area of the game climaxes in a mission in which Alec must use a fortified truck to smash down 12 radio transmitters. Last time around I had no problem with this task, but on this occasion it took me a good five or six attempts. Then again, the van used to be armed with an infinite supply of proximity mines; now you're forced to rely solely on your own driving skills.
One thing that obviously hasn't changed is the pure buttery pleasure of taking down buildings. Whether you're using the remote charges or a big hammer, a rocket launcher or a pistol and a stack of explosive barrels, mass destruction has rarely been so satisfying. The vast majority of your missions require you to break something large, and you simply never tire of watching a building collapse in on itself as you destroy the final stretch of supporting wall. I'm no expert when it comes to physics (nor the principles of Martian architecture), but the way stuff falls to bits simply feels right. Outside of the main campaign Volition has wisely included a party game called Wrecking Crew, wherein players compete to do the most damage to preset structures using a range of pre-defined weapons. These challenges come in a range of flavours and variants, and I reckon they'll easily win favour with anyone who enjoys the main game.
On top of this, there's also a fully-fledged multiplayer deathmatch mode. I've only had a few rounds on this so far, but it seems pretty entertaining - and Wez certainly seemed to enjoy his hands-on when he tried it last year. Guerrilla's multiplayer benefits from the inclusion of several large backpacks that infer their wearers with special weapons and abilities. Jetpacks give a clear tactical advantage for players who like to snipe or set traps, while the excellent Rhino pack lets you charge straight through concrete walls. It's also worth remembering that this mode also has the full physics effects of the single-player campaign. This wasn't originally going to be the case, but Volition wisely reconsidered and put in the graft to make it work.
All in all, Guerrilla is looking like a fairly comprehensive package. There's certainly a lot of content on offer, and the core effects are still very impressive. More importantly, they're a lot of fun to mess around with - which is probably just as well, as they are undoubtedly the key attraction to the game. The original Red Faction made a decent name for itself back in 2001, and if the public takes the new effects to heart then Guerrilla may well prove to be a winning reinvention for the franchise.
Red Faction Guerrilla is scheduled for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC in the summer.