Jun. 24, 2009 - Issue #714: The Rural Alberta Advantage
Infinite Lives: Red Faction - Guerrilla
If I had a hammer
Summer solstice! Longest day, shortest night ... terrible screen-glare
conditions; unless you foil over your windows or make a lightproof fort out
of blankets and chairs, the Earth's own orbital mechanics conspire against
any kind of serious videogame playing. But will finds its ways, and while all
across the hemisphere other people were barbecuing, strolling, makin' out on
creeksides or prancing blissfully around bonfires in neo-pagan celebration of
the ascendancy of the Sacred Sun Cow or whatever, I holed up in my
well-shadowed office-nest with a copy of Red Faction: Guerrilla, demolishing
Martian factories with a sledgehammer.
This isn't really a review of Guerrilla; I don't think I've actually "played" the "game" enough to fully comment. See, Guerrilla wastes no time laying out for you its scenario, and the core of its appeal: you're a disgruntled mining engineer on Mars, a corporate semi-slave colony in the throes of a brutal police crackdown, and the only way to get the tyrannical boot of Earth off the workers' collective neck is to destroy the living fuck out of all their installations. Here's your hammer, kid, and a goodie-bag filled with explosives; go out and literally smash the state. After the first time you take down a hundred-foot cooling tower by hand, things like missions and objectives and storylines sort of take a back seat to freeform monkeywrenching.
One of the great Grails of gaming is the "fully destructible environment," a gamespace where things like rocket launchers do to buildings and walls what they do to enemies and such. It's natural for gamers to want this—as the resolution and fidelity of games' virtual spaces increase, it seems more and more "fake" when, say, you toss a grenade into an office occupied by fascist stormtroopers, blowing them all to hell, and, like, the coffee-maker's still sitting on the countertop—or when you're carrying enough ordnance to face down a tank division and you can't get past a flimsy wooden door because you haven't found the right keycard. Since its PlayStation 2 debut eight years ago, the Red Faction series and its "Geo-Mod" technology has been leading the way toward making this right: you're a miner, the game says; go right ahead and freakin' mine.
From a level-design perspective, putting this kind of barrier-busting power in the hands of players raises a bit of a problem: if, given enough boom, the player can brute-force their way through anything, how do we then control their experience—how can we keep them colouring within the lines without building a frustrating rat-maze of arbitrarily indestructible fences? Guerrilla avoids (mostly, I think) this problem by making wreckin' shit not just a method by which an objective may be achieved but the objective itself. It inverts the play ecology; rather than presenting an interior environment of fragile material bounded by impervious walls, it offers vulnerable targets surrounded by open space ... and guys with guns. Dealing with vigilant gunsels can be a challenge, sure, but rarely does a physical barrier piss you off: if it's standing in your way, you can knock it down.
Ah, the knocking-down. It's pure anarchic joy, right from the beginning. Guerrilla doesn't force you to piss about for hours before you get some satisfying wrecking gear; right from the beginning, you're given the most satisfying weapon/tool in the game: that sweet sledgehammer. With one swing, boom—there goes a section of wall. Boom—there goes a structural support. Boom, boom, boom—the scream of twisted metal as the whole building collapses. There is such an intimacy, an intensely pleasant physical connection to this hands-on demolition. Like I said, I haven't really done much in the way of structured missions in he five or six hours I've been playing; it's been enough just to run around swinging my hammer at everything in my path, cackling with glee as wreckage tumbles around me. And even kicking it freeform like this, I'm making some kind of progress: the miners see me going to town, doing my Mighty-Thor-on-PCP routine, and they're inspired to do likewise. I'm getting a rep, inciting direct action by example.
Really, the only disappointment I've so far felt with Guerrilla came after I shut the game off and went to bed. Of course I had Red Faction dreams; I knew I would, after that much endorphin-pumping intensity, and I was quite looking forward to a night of cathartic hammer-swinging in the Realms of Sleep. But it didn't turn out like I'd hoped: sure, I dreamed I was a space-miner, had the hammer and everything, but in the dream I was stuck at the bottom of a thousand-foot cliff. Spent the first half of my dreamtime dicking around at the cliff-base, arguing with my Junior High math teacher over how best to proceed, and the other half laboriously hacking a stairway into the stone until I got halfway up and stumbled off the edge, plummeting awake.
Just goes to show, I guess: as freeform and open-world as they make it, no amount of "escapism" is going to free you from your own crazy head. V
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