On Mars, Red Is The Color Of Death

HIGH Using air strikes to absolutely crush a monstrous boss.

LOW Getting the same convoy defense mission for the 20th time.

WTF Oh, so the zombie biomass is thinking now? Fantastic news!

Putting characters in a hopeless situation is a perfect way to establish stakes. People who desperately need to win but knowing they likely won’t make it is a strong way to hook an audience, and this is exactly where Red Solstice 2 starts.

The opening is one of the most dramatic tutorials I’ve ever encountered. The Martian province of Tharsis is completely overrun by mutant zombies. The player takes on the role of the Executor, a genetically-engineered cyborg tasked with leading a team of soldiers on a suicide mission to activate the solar cannon, an orbital weapon that will destroy the colony, killing millions of people and tens of millions of zombies. While the player is learning how to control their squad and interact with the world, they’ve got a horrible countdown in the back of their minds — each completed objective brings them one step closer to the end of this suicide mission, and the Executor doesn’t have an escape plan once the solar cannon is triggered.

After the colony is gone and the tutorial ends, the game opens up and reveals its main influence. RS2 owes a huge amount to the original XCOM — from the globe with different regions where missions can crop up, to the research bay where weapons are developed and corpses are dissected, to the main authority that periodically refreshes their resources, everything outside of the combat missions is a loving tribute to one of the best titles ever made. Instead of building a base, the player is equipped with a giant land ship that serves as a headquarters. It can move slowly around the planet, unlocking new regions where missions can take place, and building outposts to improve the various items they receive during the weekly resupply.

Most of the story in Red Solstice 2 is told via documents in the world map’s archives section, or through NPC conversations that the player — a freshly-built Executor taking over for the one who got cooked in the tutorial — eavesdrops on via the communications systems. While it’s a fairly rote tale, the game manages to keep the bleak tone going without becoming too oppressive. There are even a couple of moral decisions they’ll have to make over the course of the campaign, in which they’re given the opportunity to gain an advantage against the endless hordes of zombies at the cost of many human lives. There’s no easy answer or obvious reward for prioritizing survivors over winning the war, and in fact, the Red Solstice 2 often makes the argument that being kind is a fool’s choice, since losing the war means the complete extinction of humanity.

Red Solstice 2‘s tactical combat mechanics are well-designed. The player uses a mouse to move the Executor and their team of up to three marines around the map. The marines automatically fire at any threat to defend themselves and the player can decide between letting the Executor fire freely, or manually controlling shooting themselves. This isn’t just a question of playstyle preference, though — manual shooting has an increased rate of fire over automatic, so in hectic swarm battles or boss fights, jumping in and controlling the action is a huge advantage.

The Executor is extremely moddable. As the player levels them up, they’ll unlock a variety of powers that can be mixed and matched in the pre-combat loadout screen. This lets players decide whether they want to focus on defense and healing their troops, or to put all their focus on becoming a grenade-tossing creature of vengeance. This feature becomes especially useful in multiplayer. While someone playing solo can only bring three AI marines on missions, playing online raises the squad cap to eight, giving seven other players the chance to help out and grind a little experience for their characters. Neither way of playing is an obviously better one, though — team players will find that missions are much easier with a few extra hands, while solo players get a huge advantage in that AI marines have unlimited ammunition.

Red Solstice 2 only has one significant flaw, but it’s a pretty big one — there’s not enough variety in missions. There are plenty of story missions, but the vast majority of missions the player will take on are randomly-generated jobs where they grab supplies, lower planetary infection levels, or recruit new specialists so they can build enhancements to their landship. The problem is that there aren’t enough types of missions, and they get repetitive incredibly quickly.

The mission types basically boil down to search locations, escort VIPs, or blow up an area. Red Solstice 2 tries to mix things up by changing where the missions happen on the map and by having optional side-missions pop up while the player is busy doing something else, but these tweaks are incredibly limited as well. By the time I was ten hours in, I’d seen nearly everything the mission generator had to offer. I kept playing because the story interested me and the play is solid, but the only innovations that crop up before credits roll are a few new enemy types from time to time.

Red Solsitce 2 is a bleak ordeal, but it’s not without its charms. There’s a real sense of frantic desperation created as the player scrambles desperately from one mission to the next, helplessly watching the global infection meter always climbing. Whether it’s zombie biomass, sinister corporations, or environmental catastrophe, for the entirety of Red Solstice 2′s play time I was sure that we were only ever a hair’s breadth away from extermination — which only served to make fighting against it feel all the more satisfying. If the developers could ease the repetitiveness from their random mission generator, this would be one of the best successors to XCOM’s legacy, but in its current state it’s just an extremely solid squad-based RTS.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Ironward and published by 505 Games. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 45 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. Two hours of play were spent in multiplayer modes.

Parents: The game was not rated by the ESRB, but it contains Blood and Gore and Extreme Violence. This is a game about space marines blasting former humans to pieces. Not safe for kids at all. Also, there’s plenty of mass murder (for a supposedly good purpose) and human experimentation in the story.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles cannot be altered and/or resized. I played most of the game without sound and encountered zero difficulties. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: There is no controller diagram. No, this game’s controls are not remappable. The game is played with a mouse and keyboard, with the mouse selecting options and directing troop movement, while the keyboard offers shortcuts to speed up certain actions.

Daniel Weissenberger
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