Red Faction: Guerrilla is an extraordinary game. I’ve never before seen such a collection of bland mediocrity hauled quite so far by a single great idea. This being the Red Faction series, that great idea is destructible terrain, and Guerrilla is the first title where the technology has finally matched the intent. The Geo-Mod engines used for Red Faction 1 and 2 were rather haphazard implementations of the concept with rockets scooping out huge and unrealistically-shaped geometric spheres from the surrounding terrain, and they never came close to their full potential due to coding limitations (realistic physics engines weren’t even a thing when the first Red Faction game was released, for example). Guerilla takes advantage of improved technology in that regard, but it also wisely narrows the focus: rather than making the entire world destructible, Guerilla just lets you blow up all the buildings in it instead.
Guerilla is an open world game that reminds me very heavily of Saints Row (and in fact it explains the blatant re-use of the Mars assets towards the end of Saint’s Row 3). Your dude is inducted into the resistance movement against an oppressive and totalitarian Earth government, and is sent out to fight for what’s right by… destroying everything he sees. Really, it’s the flimsiest possible plot setup, and one that’s rendered almost irrelevant by the fact that you spend most of your time engaged in generic challenge missions. Did you know that the liberation of an entire planet from the grip of tyranny can be achieved by one man running car delivery missions over and over again? It’s almost painful how indiscriminately Guerrilla borrows from the GTA/Saint’s Row formula without stopping to consider whether or not it’s going to be a good fit for the game; in Guerrilla’s case it imports many of the genre’s weaknesses – a forgettable world, meaningless fights with never-ending waves of enemies and interminable drives from place to place to place – without doing much to help Guerrilla itself.
As a result an overwhelmingly huge portion of Guerrilla’s gameplay is bland and tedious tripe. Apart from the aforementioned car delivery missions there’s turret missions, where you ride around in the back of a car shooting at thousands of chasing vehicles, and hostage rescue missions, where you have to put up with the awful, awful shooting system that all GTA-alikes have, and then finally demolition missions, which are the game’s sole saving grace. For a game that’s built on top of some very impressive building destruction technology and whose unique selling point is that you can blow shit up, it’s amazing how much of Red Faction: Guerrilla ends up being this time-wasting filler content. It works in a Saints Row game because the vehicles in Saints Row are fast and responsive and because the city is a pleasant environment to travel around. By contrast the Martian landscape of Guerrilla is bleak and depressing, while the cars and trucks trundling over its surface both look like bricks and handle like them too. Driving in Guerrilla is just inherently unenjoyable, and when a good two-thirds of the game is based around driving it ends up being a fairly significant issue
This is Red Faction: Guerrilla’s problem, then: it plumps for being an incredibly average GTA-alike with some destruction technology built on top rather than a game built around its destruction technology. Yes, most missions will require you to blow something up, but you’ll still spend more time driving to the mission site than you will engaged in demolition operations. Even when you do finally get to break out the mining charges you’re going to be interrupted every five seconds by endless waves of goons – and your character is just fragile enough that ignoring them is not an option. If by some miracle you manage to fight them off long enough to get something useful done they’ll irritate you even further by sending in annoying flying gunships that are next to impossible to destroy without heat seeking missiles; once one of these things turns up your only option is to run and hide somewhere until the AI’s attention span timer runs down and they go off to find something better to do. It is amazing the number of barriers Guerrilla will put in between you and Having Fun.
Which is a shame, because there is definitely the core of a good game in here, clearly visible whenever you’re tasked with destroying a building within a certain time limit, or with only a limited selection of weapons and explosives. During the demolition challenge missions the AI goons are turned off and you’re just left to get on with it; the fact that you’re not dodging white hot laser beams means you finally get a chance to appreciate the destruction tech for what it is and you get a glimpse of the name stencilled along the side of that core, spelled out with the letters B-L-A-S-T-C-O-R-P-S. It’s never about wanton destruction in these missions. Instead, you have to figure out which bits of a building to destroy to bring the rest down, and how. In one mission you have to tunnel inside a building with your hammer and then place your one explosive charge on a weak spot to bring the whole thing down. In another you have to throw an explosive barrel up onto a platform and then shoot it with your pistol, breaking the building in two. In yet another the building is far, far too large for you to destroy even with the thermobaric rockets they’ve helpfully supplied as a red herring; instead you have to use a nano-rifle to disintegrate the supports holding up the very heavy ornamental thing on the roof, sending it plummeting down through all ten storeys and totalling the entire structure.
The destruction tech also allows for some great unorthodox solutions to problems, as well as some rather unexpectedly emergent situations. Smashing through walls like the Kool-Aid man is the standard way of entering a building in Guerilla, but if it’s filled with bad guys it might be better to do it in a car. Or an APC. That guard tower with the mounted gun can be taken out with just one hammer blow to each of the support struts, although you’ll have to be careful that the falling wreckage doesn’t squash you flat. You get used to using the overhead swing inside so that the hammer doesn’t catch on any nearby bits of scenery, but this can backfire badly if you accidentally smash the ground underneath your feet and fall into the midst of the angry swarm of soldiers on the floor below. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of the system that everything in Guerrilla seems like it’s made out of papier mache and styrofoam; I once tried to drive over a bridge only to have the bridge surface disintegrate underneath me thanks to driving over it a little too fast, leaving my vehicle balanced precariously on an iron support girder.
Basically, any time you’re stuck out on the wide-open Martian surface Red Faction: Guerrilla is as dull as ditchwater. Any time you’re near a populated area, however, it has the potential to liven up immensely simply by ploughing your vehicle into a building. Note that what happens will not necessarily be intentional, or even necessarily good for you as a player, but it will usually be entertaining in some way. I wasn’t particularly bothered about advancing the plot, but I did want to find new and interesting megastructures to blow up like bridges and shopping centres. I wish they’d done more with the engine’s potential – dump the open world, focus on challenge/puzzle level design and populate the game with more interesting destruction targets and less pre-fab structures repeated a hundred times. Certainly I wouldn’t wait until six hours in to hand the player their jetpack and most of the interesting weapons; this is supposed to be a game about destructive mayhem and the tools you need to effectively wreak havoc should not be rationed out in such a miserly fashion.
I mean, basically what I’m saying here is that I want a new Blast Corps made with the Geo-Mod 2.0 technology. Blast Corps was a game that revelled in destruction, and for whom no scenario was too ludicrous if it meant the player was going to be having fun demolishing stuff. Red Faction: Guerrilla takes the opposite view: that the glory of blowing up buildings somehow isn’t enough to carry the game and has to be diluted with two parts driving and one part godawful combat against never-ending waves of AI goons. It can still be fun, but it’s a very tepid and watered-down kind of fun, and one that lost my interest well before the end thanks to all the pointless hoops it was making me jump through before it would let me at the good stuff. I’m not sure what’ll happen to the Geo-Mod engine now that THQ has gone down the pan, but I hope the change of ownership of Volition will give them the opportunity to make a better game out of it than this. Until then Guerrilla is the best we’ve got. It could certainly be worse, but it’s definitely nowhere near good enough.