Red Faction Battlegrounds review: Get your half-ass to Mars

Man, is there anything more pretentious than a game reviewer? Just look at him, stirring his whole leaf Darjeeling tea with a gold-rimmed monocle, sneering at any game that doesn't aspire to turn Roger Ebert into a weepy Gamestop customer. Why can't he just enjoy a four-player vehicular combat game for its simple pleasures and stimulating explosions?

I tried, between sips. Despite ticking some appealing boxes and crates of TNT, Red Faction Battlegrounds is a tepid pursuit of the bare minimum, resistant to the creative nudge that could have made it feel like something worthwhile. Everything works, it does what it says on the tin, but there's not a spark of personality in there. Even the ties to Red Faction are superficial -- the tanks, armored cars and bipedal mechs could have been from any game and any planet.%Gallery-120476% The franchise's spontaneous destruction is acknowledged, not embraced, in numerous explosive containers that litter the arenas. Detonating them while an opponent is nearby will do major damage, though rarely to the layout of the environment. These glorified exploding barrels are taken out of play too quickly (usually through errant shots) to make a long-term difference, and a power-up that instantly restores all obliterated structures just makes it feel like you're flitting between two, slightly altered versions of the maps: hazards on or hazards off.

Movement through the game's cramped battlegrounds is, at least, a little different from what you might expect from a twin-stick shooting setup. Rather than controlling the usual well-armed hockey puck, you'll have to get a feel for each of the different vehicles and their weapons, and come to learn that they need some time and space to turn. You'll also need to allow yourself a moment to locate said vehicles on the screen -- when the overhead camera zooms out to accommodate four vandalistic players, things get awfully small and very difficult to decipher. An unnecessary shaky cam effect renders the whole scene as if you're squinting at it from a satellite bumping into a stream of space junk. As disconcerting as this is to say about a party game, the chaos is more readable with fewer players.


The best matches I had were outside of the repetitive Deathmatch modes, in Capture the Flag and King of the Hill. You only get a measly two maps for each of them, but they do encourage some deliberate (albeit minor) strategy. In King of the Hill the capture point is surrounded by volatile objects, ensuring a quick death for the lazy camper, while Capture The Flag places an emphasis on quick navigation and delivery. If you squint -- that is, if you squint a bit harder -- it almost looks like Micro Machines V3 with missiles. Or: Micro Machines V-2.

That's kind of a rocket joke.

*sips*

Battlegrounds' simplicity is not an endearing trait in the purely combative modes. The death-respawn cycle becomes like clockwork, with the mindless shooting unable to benefit from pick-ups that are too few and too bland. In terms of offense, you only have the option of deploying a devastating singularity bomb, or one of two kinds of mines. And just in case you expected there to be some thought in choosing between multiple secondary weapons, the game cuts you off: you must fully expend a second pick-up before you can access the first again. (It's a shame, you know, because a mine is a terrible thing to waste.)

Given the lack of perceived effort and marketing put into Battlegrounds, I doubt THQ will be offended if most players opt to get it as a free Red Faction: Armageddon pre-order bonus in May. In the meantime, the Red Faction brand has to suffer a listless spin-off and THQ Digital has to convince us that it can not only reach for the stars, but bring back more than two.

This review is based on final Xbox 360 code provided by THQ. Red Faction: Battlegrounds is available on PSN and XBLA for $10.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.