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kjohnson1585 avatar 9:42 PM on 12.14.2009  (server time)
Love/Hate: Red Faction > The Sequels and Half-Life

I had randomly rented this game from Blockbuster during the early part of the 21st century, when Blockbuster still was relevant. At the time, games never really "meant" a lot to me. I figured that they were there to be played, and the experience was purely based on the interaction of the player's ability to press buttons at a certain time in a certain place, and how well a publisher and/or developer programmed the game to interpret those controls. Graphics and story took a back seat. Or so I thought.

I was blown away.

This was the signature game that elevated my opinion of the gaming experience into something from passive enjoyment into active interaction. Never have I truly felt part of the game as much as Red Faction made me. For a few hours over the course of a few days, I actually felt like I was Parker, frustrated by the Ultor's Corporation totalitarian control and lack of concern of the miners' welfare, losing it as I watched a fellow minor getting beat to death as the final straw. Mind you, this goes well beyond the hype of the Geo-Mod technology, which, to be honest, is used only about three times effectively in the game.

It was interesting to see the story played out so smoothly, so effectively, that I really felt like I was actively sneaking from base to base, plant to plant, building to building. The areas were so wonderfully interconnected that it seemed like a real place, like how a series of corrupt architects would indeed design a multi-level conglomerate on a distant planet. How later in the game, wanted posters of your character begin popping up all over walls and buildings. And I had to figure out many of the specific objectives of this enterprise myself - such as sneaking into one plant via an airduct high in the air, or another plant via a pipeline, or killing a giant robot via a well-placed garbage disposal - all without any spoon-feeding by outside sources or characters (now, to be honest, on the second playthrough, I was told how to kill the robot, but on my primary playthrough, I wasn't, which I much preferred).

I had played Red Faction prior to Half-Life and Half-Life 2. And even though I did enjoy my experience with Gordan Freeman through all his available adventures - even Episodes 1 and 2 - I will contest strongly that Red Faction is still the superior experience.

Now, I was indeed aware of the hype around Half-Life, but I did not have a computer capable of playing it nor did Blockbuster carry the PS2 port. I could have bought it, but I'm not really a "buyer" of games since those 60 dollar price tags are really hard to swallow. (This was also before I knew about "Steam".) It wasn't until I procured a Gamefly subscription that I managed to rent Half-Life 1.

I can't say for sure if the Red Faction experience left me disillusioned to the HL1 experience, but I was somewhat disappointed by the game. Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed it for the most part, but it seemed... off. I certainly understood where RF garnered its seamless gameplay style from - by escaping the "levelized" structure of most games (and removing or limiting cutscenes), both HL and RF create a world where the gamer is truly immersed in the occurrences that happen throughout. But while HL may have "started" the movement, RF perfected it. The only times I felt HL was pushing towards RF-like immersion was at the very beginning, when you're up against that huge tentacled creature, and when you're captured at the game's midpoint and stripped of your weapons. Otherwise, HL is simply a glorified, long shooter. There are no stealth moments, few vehicles to commandeer, no multiple paths, no major elements to figure out. Sure, there are "puzzle" areas, such as the moment where you control a satellite to bomb a doorway to progress forward -- but it seemed then that the "action" stopped to give you some air to think, while RF forced you to think and shoot at the same time, or at least think in terms of the overall objective, instead of a tricky way to get past an obstacle.

This notion was solidified with HL2 and its subsequent games.

HL2 blew its predecessor out the water. The characters were richer, the storyline heavier, the gaming experience more lavish, certainly. I really felt like I was in for a real treat when playing this. The beginning was really getting me excited -- having to outrun the Combine without a weapon was truly exciting (can I say I was hoping for about a full hour of this kind of thing?). But then... you get your crowbar, and your first pistol, and it's back to the same. Sure, the "same" was pretty awesome - avoiding a helicopter as it shot at you, racing across rivers and beaches in vehicles, Ravenholm - but still, it was all so structured. How odd am I? I was annoyed by the segue between levels. You exit one cave-shaft and suddenly, you're out of Ravenholm and racing across roads. One magical teleport has you out of the Combine's Citadel and - ONE WEEK LATER - commanding an army through a war zone.

Again, I must stress I had A LOT of fun with this game. But I was disappointed that the segues were so distinct; they might have well been structured levels. And, again, the action and puzzles were separate "hubs" - a game design decision that actually accepted and mentioned by one of the designers of HL2 (as mentioned in the Lost Coast addition on Steam). Not to sound like a spoilsport, but it's really lame to stop the flow of the game with a generic moment of "keep away" with a ton of Antlions in a mine shaft (HL2, Ep. 2). In other words -- I feel like I'm STILL protecting Natasha while she infiltrates some computer as German soldiers burst in from either side.

Another egregious example is in Episode 2, where you reach a section in a driving level that leads you to a part in which you're ambushed. That would be fine -- except the area is specifically designed to keep you within a building until -they- decide to blow open the door to the outside. I wish that I had the options - to bunker down and shoot within the building OR to sneak out by some other means, where by Alyx shoots from the inside, and I stealth kill them from the outside. Sadly, it doesn't exist.

For all the enjoyment I received from them, the Half-Life games seem to lack the intuitive flow and real-time decision making that seemed so organic in Red Faction. (Also, RF's vehicle use is better managed than Half-Life 2's, but that's more of a personal thing.)

Red Faction seemed to stress real thinking, the necessity to figure things out within the heat of the entire ordeal without the stop-and-go stylistic choices that Gordan Freeman's adventures seem to utilize. When you're on the surface of Mars, for example, no one tells you that, without armor, you suffocate and your health slowly depletes. You learn that on your own, and that's a gamer's delight.

So what happened with RF2 and [/i]Guerrilla?

Red Faction 2 espoused the seamless gaming experience for distinct level structure, and Guerrilla seems to emphases a violent, destructive "capture the base and destroy it!" sandbox mechanic. While I have yet to play Guerrilla (which still looks like a fun game), I know deep down inside that the only close example I'll get to that full experience I had with the original Red Faction is when Half-Life: Episode 3 comes out, and that same part may be disappointed then, if the developers still have that action-puzzle distinction mapped out.

I love Red Faction. It's my favorite FPS of all time, and it's sad that part of me believes that I'll never have an experience like it. I hear Thief is pretty close to it, so I'll probably give that a whirl sometime, and The Chronicles of Riddick has the right idea; I wish there were more different types of environments, had more variety, and was longer (and, uh, more shooting sections. I loved the stealth stuff, but it is a FPS, and that S does still have meaning). But until then, as gamers turn to their Freemans, Master Chiefs, L4D casts and so on, I'll always have a soft spot for Parker, the miner who both spearheaded a rebellion AND cured a disease. He knew how to pretend to be a doctor and a businessman, and went into a woman's bathroom to distract a guard and kill him (which was the best thing ever). He could drive all vehicles, and knew his way around an airduct just as good as any MIT graduate.

I love you, Red Faction. Just not in that way. In that other way.

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