There's just something sad about videogame villain design. Take Red Faction II for example. The game is clearly set in a far-flung future, where dictators should be sporting snappier duds than today's. Designers can afford to take liberties on the villain's fashion sense because it's in the future. They wear whatever they want. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il looks like a villain for the times, and he doesn't need any character or costume designer for his fascist Don King look. Yet here we have Chancellor Sopot, leader of the Republic of the Commonwealth and frontman for the nano-technology that shaped thousands of the Republic's soldiers into supermen. Sounds like he's got quite a resume going, but you'd think he'd look a little more charismatic than stale. Come on Sopot, that M. Bison look died when Super Street Fighter II was released. It's so 16-bit.
Predictably, Sopot isn't the only thing out of date in Red Faction II, a perfect example of mediocre first-person shooting. After Sopot made his nano-men, he became afraid of their abilities and ordered their execution, declaring them enemies of the state. The player, demolitions expert Alias, is part of a six-man squad of nano-soldiers that have joined with the rebellious Red Faction, aimed to overthrow Sopot's rule. The plot, complete with backstabbing and ideological rhetoric, is obviously a vehicle for the action sequences in the game.
The much-publicized Geo Mod engine had plenty of promise. It allows for perishable environments, completely changing the tactical strategies of the player, forcing him or her to move both quickly and very often to survive. In Red Faction II, the Geo Mod plays like it is as fickle as Southern California weather. Some ledges and walls can be blown apart with damage that makes it look more like Swiss cheese than architecture, and some environments just can't be phased no matter how much firepower you throw at it. If the Geo Mod engine really were fickle, it wouldn't be so decided on what you can and can't blow up. This is far from a linearity issue now. This is just all frustration. When you proceed through a level being encouraged to blow walls up to progress, you're going to be wasting a lot of ammo on walls. But getting to a certain point where all the walls are perfectly stable just shows bad level design and progression. Likewise, if you go through an entire level discouraged to blow anything up because none of it is destructible, you could easily get stuck in a room wandering around for the next door until you realize that you have to blow up a small section of the room to proceed. In this case I don't care about choices. Either give me the power to blow down walls or don't. Changing up the program mid-level not only disorients the player, but also frustrates to the point of throwing down the controller.
For example, there were too many times were I was expected to know to blow up the floor so I can proceed through the underground. The previous sections of the level didn't encourage any sort of exploration until then, and it's a glaring flaw of misconceived design. Another area I was simply stuck in an area before a boss fight, blowing up every single piece of architecture around until I finally stumbled onto a simple solution. I must've spent about an hour trying to figure out where to go. And if you're hoping for heated multiplayer battles on Geo Modded maps, forget it. The Geo Mod is even more limited in that area, used primarily for finding weapons behind walls. And don't let the premise of a six-man squad fool you. Squad tactics are non-existent here. They are merely tools and prop pieces to progress the action happening on-screen as you watch.
Halo's influence floods into this game. Alias' life gauge can be replenished after a short amount of time after damage. He can even throw grenades with a button press without having to thumb through an on-the-fly weapons select menu, which isn't so bad in this game. But what's missing is the respectable artificial intelligence. Too often I would drop grenades at enemies' feet only to have them ignore it and explode. Sometimes they'd all file through a door, ripe for the picking. There's also a slight Perfect Dark influence, but with a nice twist. Players can go in blazing double-fisted, with the option of customizing the R1 and L1 buttons to their corresponding triggers. Unfortunately the hit detection from that game is nil, instead we have the illogical invisible life bars where enemies fall when their "life" has been depleted. Headshots don't always count, and I don't think enemies should be able to stand up to two shotgun blasts to the chest. As I commented in my Splinter Cell review, it's about time developers started utilizing more realistic hit detection in favor of merely shooting someone until they fall. Too many games now utilize proper hit detection now to be ignored, and Red Faction II's enemy damage system is antiquated.
One thing I enjoyed about the game was the ability to thoroughly customize your controls. I am not the biggest fan of the Dual Shock 2 controller and its inability to mimic FPS controls. But being able to customize the loose analog sticks alleviates the situation somewhat. This was probably the best controlling FPS I've played on the Playstation2. If it weren't for the game's other flaws, I would've had a very comfortable time playing through this game.
The game also includes some vehicle combat, including the ego-boosting battle armor, the well-handled submarine and on-the rails tank and chopper levels. Don't be too excited about any of these because they are just mere deviations from the core gameplay, albeit fun deviations. Otherwise the game is almost all run and gun. There is a refreshing lack of key fetching and door unlocking, thanks to strategically placed Geo Mod walls and doors. And the most complicated objectives ever gets are to get to one place, or to bomb another. Most of the other objectives (including the aforementioned) just involve killing more Republic soldiers.
The Geo Mod engine provides mere window dressing to what is nothing more than your standard FPS, complete with big freaking guns and explosions. It's a stronger case to say that the Geo Mod is actually detrimental to the actual game because it was so poorly conceived. If the game's focus was purely on action, there would never have been such jarring stutters of gameplay by trying to figure out whether the game allows the player to blow things up or not. Along with poor AI, shoddy hit detection and Neanderthal-like gameplay, this game feels even more outdated than Chancellor Sopot's fashion sense. And if there's anything this review may hope to achieve, it's to do away with antiquated concepts and villain design. Because dictators and lazy gameplay were never hip in the first place.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Playstation 2 version of the game.