Monday Spotlight – Farewell to the Red Faction

Revolutions are often short-lived, and when they expire they may do so with a bang or a whimper. Red Faction, a series of games revolving around Martian uprisings, finished with the latter, as last week THQ officially announced the demise of their Mars shooter franchise after a thoroughly underwhelming first six weeks at retail for Red Faction: Armageddon. Reporting company-wide, first quarter losses of $38.4 million, THQ made public their decision to shelve the brand after it failed to reach their sales expectations. CEO Brian Farrell had the final word on Red Faction: "Given that that title, now in two successive versions, has just found a niche, we do not intend to carry forward with that franchise in any meaningful way” (this and all subsequent quotes are taken from

Thankfully, RF developer Volition lives on and currently has its hands full with Saints Row The Third, due later this year, and is expected to be move over to the InSANE project thereafter; a joint venture between movie director Guillermo del Toro and THQ. The Illinois based developer has found success with a number of titles since 1996, but they are probably best known for their work on the now defunct RF franchise.

Released in 2001, Red Faction quickly became one of my favourite games on the PlayStation 2. With its “Geo-mod” destructible environments, it was a great showpiece for the relatively new PS2 and the possibilities of the sixth generation. A first person shooter that bore more than a passing resemblance to Total Recall, RF places you in the role of Parker, a miner-turned-revolutionary who leads Mars' subjugated labour force in bloody revolt against the evil Ultor Corporation in what is, for an FPS, a rather meaty campaign.

The silly plot was little more than window dressing for the GeoMod engine which allowed the player to destroy the vast majority of their surroundings. It positively encouraged you to collapse buildings, blast through walls and tunnel through the Martian bedrock. Partnered with an explosive arsenal of futuristic weaponry, including a powerful rail gun which allows you to see and shoot through walls, RF introduced many of the elements which came to define the series.

In 2002, Volition followed-up on the critical and financial success of Red Faction with a direct sequel. The series moved to earth, but remained consistent with the events of the first game. Taking the role of one member of a squad of super soldiers, all of whom have very specific specialities (vehicles, demolitions, needlework etc), and with voice acting provided by B-movie staples Lance Henricksen and Jason Stratham, RF2 was proud to be a straight-up action game. It offerred non-stop thrills and destruction from the outset, including larger and more memorable set-pieces than its predecessor. The console version boasted improved graphics, and although the returning Geo-Mod technology had lost some of its initial charm, it was still central to its appeal. RF2 also featured multiplayer, limited to a variety of split screen and bot populated levels.

After a seven year hiatus, Red Faction would return with Guerrilla – an open-world, third person action game. Although it shunned its FPS roots, it retained and greatly expanded upon the GeoMod engine, creating a game that quickly established a niche audience and has subsequently become somewhat of a cult favourite.

The story remained as forgettable as its predecessors, but that matters little when you have absolute freedom to traverse a colonized, Earth-like Mars, laying waste to its infrastructure in whatever way you see fit.  It is at its best when tasking the player with taking apart the Red Planet's infrastructure in the most imaginative ways possible, and the other less enjoyable elements of the game, such as the plot, rarely get in the way. You can tear down a building piece by piece with your trusty sledgehammer, a handy tool which I wrote about last week, or use a well-placed charge to bring it all down in one fell swoop. Or if you prefer all out mayhem, why not crash an explosive-laden vehicle into your target, hopefully leaving yourself enough time to make good your escape before all hell breaks loose.

Although it was overlooked in many Best of lists, RFG was one of the best multi-platform titles of 2009, making the subsequent direction of the series a bit of a head scratcher. Earlier this year we got the download-only, vehicular-based, top-down shooter Red Faction: Battlegrounds, whose release was so low-key that I had completely forgotten it even existed until I started writing this post. Red Faction: Armageddon followed in early June and was greeted with solid, if not spectacular, reviews, yet it failed to perform at retail, leading to THQ's decision to can the series.

I have yet to play Red Faction: Armageddon, so common sense dictates that I refrain from giving gameplay opinions, but I struggle to get to grips with the direction THQ chose for the the latest and final RF. Clearly, the move back to its roots by way of the FPS in no way betrays the themes of the series thus far, but I still cant fathom the move away from Guerrilla's formula. RFG had its fair share of rough edges, but it enjoyed a certain measure of success thanks to it being different to the competition. We have seen destructible environments before, especially in shooters like the Battlefield series, but rarely have they been implemented in an open-world and utilized as successfully as in Guerrilla.

Guerrilla was unique and assured itself an audience, even if it were a "niche" one. Armageddon, on the other hand, joined a market saturated with FPS where only the most polished truly succeed. With its dull palettes and, from what I understand, less focus on the freedom of fully destructible environments, it never appeared likely to succeed. Even a battle-hardened Red Faction veteran like myself chose to sit it out - at least until the inevitable 75% discount that's surely just around the corner.

In announcing the demise of RF, CEO Brian Farrell looked to elaborate upon some of the issues of making games in today's ultra-competitive market. In light of the publishers latest losses, he stated that: "In today's hit-driven, core gaming business, even highly-polished titles with a reasonable following like Red Faction face a bar that continues to move higher and higher". A very salient point. He added: "Moving forward, our core game titles must meet a very high quality standard with strong creative and product differentiation, appeal to a broad audience, and be marketed aggressively." 

I think his last statement should not have been applied so directly to RF, a series which he openly admitted enjoyed success within a niche. Why aim for the stars with an expensive project directed at a broad audience, when a more affordable game in-keeping with the style of Guerrilla would have been guaranteed a warm reception from an already established fanbase? If the bar keeps moving higher and higher, as Farrell suggests, surely at some point you need to re-evaluate what you are putting out there and what you are hoping for.

With so many quality, big budget games failing at retail, isn't it about time that large publishers like THQ took a step back and counted the costs of constantly chasing that massive hit? I'm not sure what they were expecting from RFA, but if its already clear at the six week mark that it has fallen well short of expectations, then surely they must have been over-reaching and grossly miscalculated the appeal of yet another FPS.

Whatever the case, I'm sad to be saying goodbye to a series that has given me over a decade of solid entertainment, and catered to my most destructive impulses. Perhaps one day the uprising will be born anew, but for now we should spare a thought for the once thriving Martian construction industry that, with the lack of sledgehammer wielding revolutionaries, is about to embark upon a period of unprecedented inactivity.


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