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Red Faction: Armageddon review: Enemy mine

Justin McElroy

Genius playwright Anton Chekov was famously aghast with some of the earliest productions of his play Three Sisters, which he, according to director Constantin Stanislavsky, considered to be a "happy comedy." It was staged then, as it is most often staged now, as a fairly gloomy drama, though a brilliant one.

Now Stanislavsky was probably exaggerating a tad, as much of Three Sisters is far too heartbreaking for anyone to mistake it as a gigglefest, but it illustrates an important point: Often the creator of something isn't the best judge of what makes it work.

In Red Faction: Armageddon, developer Volition has run from everything that made Red Faction: Guerrilla great, and is left with a drab, heartless lump of competence for its efforts.

Gallery: Red Faction: Armageddon (characters) | 9 Photos

It's been 50 years since Alec Mason disintegrated the EDF and Mars has been a paradise ever since, save for the fact that it's dusty and still kind of sucks. That's all thrown into disarray by Adam Hale, a terrorist that destroys the Terraformer (the device that makes the planet's surface habitable though still pretty dusty) and driving the people underground. Alec Mason's soldier grandson Darius has to watch with only partially dust-initiated tears in his eyes as he fails to stop Hale's act of terrorism.

His self-loathing isn't helped much a decade later when he accidentally unleashes a buglike mutant menace called The Plague into the caves of Mars. Though he's been using the Nanoforge he inherited from Grandpappy Mason as a miner by trade, he taps into his soldier training again to set things right.

Though this likely sounds ... if not inspired, at least functional as a premise, know that it's at the very center of everything that's wrong with this game.

Let's get the lesser sin out of the way first: The relatively promising premise could not be told with more droning ennui. It's as though a SyFy Original Movie scribe was hired to write the script, and he subcontracted the gig out to his nephew, Stupid Kevin. I tried to write down some of the dullest lines, but they were so generic my memory couldn't cling to them long enough for the neural impulse to make the trek from my brain to my wrist.

The bigger problem is how the game's premise is dictating its structure. Rather than traversing the surface of Mars and fighting countless battles to turn the tide of the downtrodden's struggle, you're running down a completely linear tunnel for eight hours and shooting the bugs you see.

I understand wanting to try a new direction for a franchise, but if you spent any time with Armageddon, you're going to feel mighty claustrophobic playing exterminator in the planet's bowels. Maybe there's a way to put the open-world genie back in the bottle (the Spider-Man franchise got close in the transition from Web of Shadows to Shattered Dimensions) but this certainly isn't it. Things open up a little bit later in the game, providing a little more space to play with your destructive toys, but it's just not enough.

Even if you had free reign of the tunnels, it would still be a poor setting for the destruction-centric action that's at the heart of the Red Faction franchise. You can still use the Geo-Mod 2.0 tech to destroy buildlings, but most are built into rock and utterly uninhabited. They just aren't as fun to blow up, a critique that goes double for the insectoid denizens of sub-Mars. If I can't pretend my enemy is that manager at Foot Locker I hate, what's the point of dropping a building on him?

The oppressive dullness is only slightly alleviated by a suspense-free Horde-style co-op mode called "Infestation" that would be wholly uninspired were it not for really base objectives like "survive" and "defend the object" that set it slightly apart from the pack. The "Ruin" mode, which lets you brainlessly blow things up in a contained area as you try to maintain a destruction multiplyer, fares better, but doesn't require enough strategy to keep interest.

There are, you'll be happy to hear, glimmers of light shining down through cracks in the cave ceiling. The Nanoforge's new "repair" ability, which can reconstruct any object or surface you can destroy, is great when you're on the run, creating cover and rebuilding bridges and staircases to flee pursuers. The other big draw is the magnet gun, which lets you shoot a wall or other object and then send it hurtling into wherever you fire your second blast. As in, "I like this floor but I'm gonna attach it to the ceiling and kill everything in this building."

The magnet gun is also hugely satisfying when used to pin enemies to ceilings or hand-deliver an exploding barrel (great choice for the mine, guys) to a bug's face.

They're both very cool, but they're also both in the demo. I don't mean that to be as flippant as it sounds, but if you've given those weapons a spin once you've pretty much seen all they have to offer, as they're not used in more interesting ways as the game progresses.

The one good bit about going underground is that it removes much of Guerrilla's graphical jank, an upgrade that's partnered with solid lighting and explosion effects. I'd like to say that the graphical variety of Armageddon is a nice change of pace from Guerrilla's vast world of rust tones, except most all of Armageddon takes place in a cave, so I'd be lying.

This, however, is no lie: Red Faction: Armageddon manages to strip most of what was good about Guerrilla and fill the vacuum left behind with only mediocrity and a cool magnet gun. Your money would be better spent as mine has been: Extensive memory building classes that allowed me to beat the odds and recall a snippet of Armageddon's dialogue. It is, I think, a fitting epitaph in the form of witty repartee between Darius and a computer that lives on his wrist called SAM.

SAM: "There appears to be one alternative route into the facility, however --"
Darius: "Lemme guess, it's crawling with bugs?"
SAM: "Yes."
Darius: "Well, never a dull moment."

... Except all of them, Darius. Except all of them.

This review is based on retail 360 code of Red Faction: Armageddon provided by THQ.

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