The trouble with producing an accidental masterpiece is that it’s tough to deliver an encore. And in the franchise-driven world of video-game development, a sequel that’s vastly better than its predecessors can make players hate the series even more when the following installment returns to mediocrity. That’s exactly the misfortune that befalls Red Faction: Armageddon, an adequate corridor-shooter that dashes expectations raised by the brilliant Red Faction: Guerilla.
My disappointment with Armageddon began from the very first cutscene. In Guerilla, you played a miner driven to revolution by the bourgeoisie’s colonialist indifference to the working man, who sneaks into the colonizing power’s military bases and luxury housing, plants bombs, then escapes to the mountains to evade the occupier’s superior military force. Let me repeat that: Guerilla was a Bush II-era game in which you repeatedly downed tall buildings and then fled to a cave in the hills, all in the name of proletarian revolution. The decision to make a game in which the Red Faction is a mishmash of the Wobblies, Al Qaeda, and the crew of Firefly was so insanely audacious that I couldn’t imagine a cautious, AAA-game studio would do it deliberately; it could only have been written by people blissfully unaware that they were playing with historical fire.
Sadly, Armageddon proves that Guerilla’s punk appropriation of all the things an American boy isn’t supposed to identify with was nothing but a fluke. It’s a bog-standard cowboys-versus-Indians scenario, with the natives played, as they so often are in colonialist sci-fi, by a bunch of bugs. There are even evil suicide cultists running around to further bury any dangerous memories of Guerilla’s identification with the Other. I don’t mind games playing to right-wing fantasies instead of left-wing fantasies, but the conservative conventionality is a real letdown after the metaphoric outrageousness of Guerilla. It doesn’t help that Armageddon, a game that’s supposedly a stalking-horse for an upcoming Syfy network drama, has some of the worst writing I’ve heard in this-gen gaming, with a lead who bounces between gruff soldier, wise-cracking Nathan Drake manqué, and Duke of Emo, depending on what stupid catchphrase the writers want to introduce next.
None of this would matter if the gameplay were solid. But there, too, Guerilla raised expectations that Armageddon can’t fulfill. Environmental destruction has always been the distinguishing gimmick of the Red Faction series, but that often made for awkward design choices in the RAM-limited consoles of yore, when you couldn’t risk the player opening up more area than your system could cache. Guerilla took advantage of modern console power to create a giant open world where every building begged for the melting touch of your nanites, with worthwhile rewards for destroying anything that struck your fancy. Armageddon drops you back into the corridors, surrounds you with indestructible rock walls, and gives you strictly limited choices of what to destroy and little reward when you do. There’s an extra mode for idle building-busting, but that doesn’t make up for taking the game’s most unique characteristic out of the main campaign.
Worst of all, the abandonment of open-world design leads to countless missions where taking cover in a perfectly obvious corridor results in the game hysterically insisting that you need to return to the main area in 10 seconds or it’s game over for you, mister! This is the definition of bad level design (if going down this corridor is such a game-breaker, then just don’t let me go down it!) and I’d expect that the developers of a series about destructible terrain would have figured out by now how to limit options subtly rather than with an ugly HUD kludge.
The one thing that hasn’t changed from Guerilla is the lack of creative mission objectives. Most of the time, it’s “go here/shoot that,” with occasional “go here/shoot that with your repair gun” to break things up. The Red Faction series still has the very best pathfinding and UI guidance of any game out there (Guerilla’s easy-to-find objectives were a potent rebuke to Grand Theft Auto’s stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge the player’s goals), but it’s not all that valuable when the open world has shrunk to a series of hallways.
Despite all my complaining, Armageddon isn’t a bad game. The corridor-shooter formula means that it’s actually much more tightly paced than Guerilla, which had plenty of the longeurs that characterize open-world games. The guns have satisfying kick, augmented by genuinely terrific sound design, and the frequent use of a mining flashlight to illuminate dark corridors is effectively creepy. The game’s one new weapon, the Magnet Gun, is an gleefully satisfying toy, and magnetizing enemies so they’ll fly through the caves and go splat on the ceiling never gets old. Infestation Mode, Armageddon’s equivalent of Horde Mode, is reasonably fun, but since nearly every Xbox 360 game since Gears of War 2 has featured something like it, we now know that it’s hard to find a way to make co-op bug-blasting anything less, or more, than “reasonably fun.”
But it’s all so ordinary. Armageddon is a summer game appropriate to the summer of Thor: a desultory timewaster with no interest in challenging, or even surprising, its audience. If you’re looking for an unchallenging shooter that you can play with a sunbaked brain, Armageddon will satisfy. But it’s like watching a tadpole start to grow legs and then crawl back into the ocean; even as it swims away with a flourish, all I can see is how much more it could have done.