When Red Faction: Battlegrounds hit my inbox, I immediately started to reminisce about the original Red Faction’s revolutionary gameplay. I was excited to take a trip back to Mars, detonate some heavy explosives, and admire the new man-made craters dotting the landscape. Imagine my surprise when I booted up Battlegrounds and found it to be a car combat game. I was even further astounded to discover that THQ seems to have fond memories of R.C. Pro-Am and Iron Man Ivan Stewart’s Super Off Road (kids, ask your parents).
Red Faction: Battlegrounds plays like a cross between those classic racing titles and a dual-stick shooter. On paper, the blend of these two designs should breed an enjoyable multiplayer experience. Unfortunately, due to a frustrating camera, bland colors, and touchy targeting, Battlegrounds ends up disappointing.
The controls are fairly simple. The left stick moves your vehicle and the right stick aims your turret. In dual-stick firing mode, the right stick also fires your cannons. There is an alternate firing mode that requires you to press the trigger, separating the targeting from cannon discharge. I found it to be cumbersome without solving the core problem of imprecise targeting. No matter how powerful your instrument of destruction, all weapons are fired simultaneously. Some depth could have been added by offering multiple loadouts or even just two different weapons to switch between for each ride. This is mitigated slightly by collectible explosives, shields, speed boosts, and reconstructors that repair destroyed environmental objects.
The visuals provide additional frustration as the overhead camera occasionally makes it difficult to tell where ramps are to higher levels or even if you are on an elevated platform. Worse, when the camera pulls back it becomes extremely difficult to discern where your vehicle is. The most enjoyable visuals in the game come during large explosions, most often caused by the detonation of environmental objects. You certainly don’t want to be caught in the blast radius. I often wished that the death of my opponents were as flamboyant. Especially if an enemy dies due to an environmental explosion, it can be hard to tell until the smoke clears that they are gone. The status messages in the lower-left of the screen blend in. Between that odd font/color choice and the on-screen chaos, it’s often hard to tell what’s going on.
Explosions and gunfire sound as you would expect them to and vary across vehicle types. The music is solid, but not remarkable. There are no voices at all in the game. This is a significant omission, as arena combat games are so frantic that taking your eyes off the action to read a status message can often lead to an untimely end.
There is very little story to be found in this downloadable title. The single-player mode consists of 15 missions that come in four flavors: flag delivery, survival, stationary object destruction, and enemy destruction. Performance is rated based on time, with the standard gold/silver/bronze medals and experience points awarded for success. As you rank up through the 20 levels, you’ll unlock access to more vehicles and mechs in multiplayer and upgrades for the ones you already have. Each time you level up, you’re treated to the same text bubble of your Red Faction commander telling you that he’s not the touchy-feely type. At the very least, THQ could have varied the text a bit.
Once you’ve completed the 15 single-player missions, there’s little reason to return unless you want to farm XP by increasing your performance. In no way does it provide a reasonable alternative to the multiplayer as the AI is either brutally aggressive in survival mode, or brain-dead in the other modes. In fact, in the enemy destruction mode, the AI thinks it’s actually playing R.C. Pro-Am, running predictable laps regardless of your position in relation to them. The same shortcuts will always set you up for the kill, making their cowardice more annoying than challenging.
When you do take things online, there are a number of modes to experiment with including Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill, Capture the Flag, and Flag Frenzy. The suite of configuration options is impressive. Nearly everything is adjustable, including vehicle movement rate, turret rotation rate, level of aim assist, fire rate, frequency of pickups, and more. Both the Red Faction and the EDF have access to the same vehicles. They are woefully unbalanced, such that the light vehicles speed in no way compensates for the lack of armor or firepower. Speedier rides have some utility in the flag modes, but even then, if the aim assist and/or damage output are set to “high,” one or two well-placed shots from a tank are enough to nullify the movement advantage. I think that THQ missed an opportunity here to create an asymmetrical combat experience. By offering different combat vehicles for each side, players would be forced to employ different techniques depending on which faction they are placed with. Instead, the only difference is color, making each game a free-for-all with no team strategy.
The combat takes place across a nine stages that span the planet from the Martian wastelands to industrial and military complexes. In the Deathmatch modes, all nine maps are available. Some modes, like Capture the Flag, only take advantage of two, though. Moreover, the game only supports up to four players, which leads to team matches feeling anemic. It’s clear why Red Faction: Battlegrounds only supports so few players. With the full four, the camera is pulled out so far that I frequently got hung up on jutting rocks in the environment that I couldn’t see. The screen is cluttered, your vehicle is minuscule, and most of the time, I had no idea what was going on. It simply wasn’t any fun.
Of course, these complaints assume that you’ll be able to find a game online. When I played, there were only two lobbies available, one of which was just one guy sitting around, refusing to start the game. I kept running into the same few players in each match. Every time I tried used the Quick Play function to find an open lobby, I was dropped in with the same players. No one was using their microphones. A multiplayer-only game lives and dies by its player base. I think it’s safe to call this one dead on arrival.
In the end, Red Faction: Battlegrounds left me confused. It carries the Red Faction name and is sprinkled with minimal narrative connection, but it is such a departure that I wonder why THQ even bothered. Perhaps it has something to do with the SyFy Games logo that shows up and the imminent release of their Red Faction movie.
There are times when taking a familiar property into a new genre pays off by attracting a new audience. This is not one of those instances.
Review copy provided by publisher.