Red Faction Guerrilla is all about control, and more importantly how you gain control. It's one thing to liberate a sector on Mars using your machine gun and a few remote charges, but it's a completely different kettle of fish when you're inside a massive building-destroying robot that can tear through anything that stands in its way. When you're experiencing the best Volition's game has to offer, Guerrilla is tremendous fun and a great example of next-gen power, but some irritations and a weak story prevent it from being an explosive masterpiece - but then multiplayer rears its destructive head.
Guerrilla's selling point is without question the way you can decimate all structures in the game world. You've been able to do this in other games to a degree, but here they are blown apart in a way you'll have never seen before. It's a sight to behold and the wow factor is unlikely to wear off until well after you've worked your way through the campaign and played hours of multiplayer. Whether you're trying to take down massive buildings by strategically targeting support beams with your sledgehammer or going for a more brutish approach with rockets, this one gameplay mechanic will be enough to tempt many gamers.
Before we get onto the really good stuff in more detail, a quick word on the story and why you're blowing up buildings in the first place. You play as Alec Mason, a man who joins rebel group Red Faction after his brother is murdered by the Earth Defense Force (EDF). This shady organisation has been kidnapping civilians and setting them to work in camps, so Mason sets out to liberate the people and recruit new Red Faction soldiers along the way. It's a decent enough setup for the action that follows, but attempts to tell the story are infrequent and unconvincing. Cutscenes will play at key moments (which isn't that often) and there are frequent radio messages, but compared to Volition's other open world series, Saints Row, there's little in the way of narrative or character development to latch onto.
This is a big disappointment and means that it's hard to get into the mindset that you're a man who is effectively liberating a planet, but it's not the end of the world. The core game Volition has created is so action-packed and full of glorious unscripted set-pieces that you'll often be too busy fighting for your life to worry about who the various characters are. Liberating sectors isn't easy, so you'll need to build up support from the civilians while slowly reducing the EDF presence. Thankfully this is all handled by a fairly traditional story and side-mission structure, in which you'll partake in a variety of activities - some being far more entertaining than others.
Story missions have a little back-story to them and tend to be grander in scale to the rest, but there are only a couple of these in each sector, with one final mission unlocked once you've completely depleted the EDF force. There are far more Guerrilla missions, which are effectively optional but are required if you're going to build up the sector's morale and earn salvage. Salvage is the currency in Red Faction, used to buy new weapons and upgrade them, and to get hold of the more advanced tools. The higher the morale in a sector, the more support you'll get from Red Faction soldiers while on missions and the more salvage you'll earn - so unless you want a hard time of it you'll want to complete as many of these tasks as possible.
When they're good they're really very good, but a few too many are tedious. Missions that see you blowing stuff up are generally great fun, especially if you happen to be inside a devastating tank or missile-wielding mech - think the yellow walker from the end of Aliens only even more bad-ass. The tedium sets in when you're asked to drive a vehicle across the map to one of your safe houses within a time limit or to rescue civilians in House Arrest missions. The driving missions do away with practically everything that makes the game fun and the rescue missions often end in frustration as you lose track of where your comrades are and accidentally crush them beneath some rubble.
Far better are the timed destruction challenges, which sadly are few and far between. These puzzle-like missions give you a set amount of ammo for a limited weapon load out and ask you to completely total a building within a time limit. Getting the salvage for finishing in time is usually fairly simple, but going for the Pro times will keep you playing for far longer. We'd have loved there to be more of these, and we expect THQ will fulfil our wish with DLC. Again, though, these superb missions are countered by on-rails shooting challenges, in which aiming is tricky and the destruction targets (in terms of cost of damage) seem punishingly high.
Punishing is a fair word to describe Guerrilla on the whole. When you're not doing side missions or key story missions you're trying to take down EDF buildings, but it's not easy. Mason looks hard, but he dies very quickly, especially if you're surrounded by enemies - which happens an awful lot towards the end of the game. There's a cover system, presumably designed to help you stay alive in fire fights, but enemies come at you from so many directions as soon as the alert meter hits red (which it will once you start blowing up buildings) that it's almost impossible to use effectively. Taking down massive buildings, such as a huge bridge that docks the EDF a massive 80 control points, is thrilling stuff and a wondrous sight, but dying over and over again isn't fun. If Mason had just been a little tougher (or worn even more armour) the game would have been less frustrating and even more enjoyable.
Don't take this the wrong way, Red Faction Guerrilla's single-player campaign is great and will provide hours and hours of fun, but it's just not as good as it could have been. Mars has been created quite superbly, with the various sectors each having their own unique look and atmosphere. Driving around the open world in one of the many well-designed vehicles will really make you appreciate the work that's gone into creating the alien landscape, but a little more activity and some subtler transitions from one sector to the other wouldn't have gone amiss. On the whole the presentation is top class, though, elevated to another level thanks to the stunning destruction physics - all the time managing to run at a decent frame rate too.
Whereas the single-player campaign is slightly flawed, but good fun, Guerrilla's multiplayer offering is really quite superb. Volition has taken advantage of the game's key asset, its destruction, and built the various multiplayer modes around it. The most basic is Wrecking Crew, a four-player local play game mode selectable from the main menu. Here you take turns trying to cause as much damage as possible within the constraints decided on at the outset. This might mean limiting the ammo supply and giving you three minutes to plan a careful assault, or simply being handed a mega-powerful explosive-rocket launcher and letting loose for one minute. It's great fun and results in some truly staggering moments of next-gen physics.
This is just a small part of the multiplayer package, though, with a selection of full-on sixteen-player modes on offer. With the destruction from the single-player carried over there really isn't a multiplayer game on the market like this. Combined with some superb backpacks (something you can buy in the single-player campaign), each with unique abilities, we might finally have a new multiplayer game with some legs. Take the Rhino pack as just one example. This little beauty allows its user to charge straight through buildings like Juggernaut from X-Men, or simply into opposition if they're unlucky enough to get in the way.
These backpacks effectively give the game a very strong class system, so team games will require the right amount of offensive, scouting and healing players. With the destruction, rebuilding mechanics, backpacks, a decent levelling system with unlocks and some superb weapons, Guerrilla is one of the best multiplayer games of the year.
Had Red Faction Guerrilla's campaign been at a consistent high throughout we might have had a real game of the year contender on our hands. Even with some flaws, though, Guerrilla is a great game that comes highly recommended, in no small part to some superb multiplayer game modes that should see the game gain quite a following. More importantly, blowing things up is cool, and no game lets you see the destruction caused better than Volition's latest.