Say what you will about Red Faction: Armageddon, but Volition's third-person shooter packs some truly fantastic toys. Sure, it has all the usual shotguns, assault rifles and rocket launchers, but alongside them you'll find mighty hammers that can smash whole buildings apart, hulking, heavily-armed exoskeletons, nano-guns that disintegrate creatures and objects into their constituent atoms, and nano-units that can build them back up again.
We get grenades, remote grenades and energy beams, and - best of all - a magnet gun where you fire at point A, fire again at point B, and a beam of energy drags the two together. Allied with the series' signature Geo-Mod technology, which pioneered the idea of making all the scenery destructible, this armoury makes for a brilliant toolkit for creative destruction. Creature over there giving you trouble? Why not literally bring the house down on him? Or why not knock heads together by wiring two vicious critters together with the magnet gun, and watch them accelerate towards each other at deadly speed.
In theory, this should be great fun, but the thing about a brilliant toolkit is that it needs a brilliant world in which to work, or all that ingenuity gets pretty dull, pretty quickly. This, sadly, is where the latest Red Faction falls apart.
This is a shame. The previous effort, Red Faction: Guerilla, wasn't entirely successful, but its marriage of first-person-shooter, open-world and mega-destruction was reasonably innovative and enjoyable. Armageddon, by contrast, seems to settle for being a by-the-numbers action game with only its exotic weaponry to recommend it. It's an old story - space marine meets hostile inhabitants of planet - with the only real twist being that this marine is an engineer, the action takes place on a colonised Mars, and that it's sort-of his fault that those particular hostile inhabitants have been set loose. It's little more than a basic premise for a linear series of missions designed to put your hero in close proximity with horde after horde of insectoid Martian varmints.
There's nothing wrong with that if the game still works, but Armageddon starts off dull, steadily gets fun, then goes back to its default setting of, erm, dull. You've seen it. You've done it. You stopped wearing the T-Shirt several years ago and it's lurking at the bottom of your wardrobe. While Volition has made an effort to create a varied roster of baddies, each with their own moves, attacks and quirks, very few encounters are staged with much panache, and it's really only the weapon set that keeps the combat interesting. Soon one samey mission blends into another, whatever pretext there is to keep you moving from one place to another, and as the game progresses, the principal idea seems to be to up the numbers or just throw more of the more tricky Martian critters into the mix. Unless you think frustration is better than boredom, this isn't the way to go.
Armageddon also looks drab. Arguably, Volition's biggest mistake has been to set the whole game underground (a previous disaster, also caused by our hapless hero, has taken Mars's terraforming tech offline). You'd have to go back to the days of Quake II to see a game so uniformly brown, grey and unspectacular, packed with industrial decor and enlivened with only the occasional touch of scenic grandeur. The aliens themselves are spectacularly generic, as if the team had spent weeks researching what aliens look like in other games in order to come up with a collection that look just the same. Honestly, Armageddon couldn't be any less distinctive if it tried.
Of course there are good things to say, and we really should mention them. Obviously, all those cool weapons count for something, and the destructible scenery is fun. The music is consistently good, and some decent voice actors do their best to make the cinematic cutscenes dramatic (though there's only so much you can do with this stuff). We're also going to dish out a whole extra point - maybe two - for the Infection multiplayer mode. It might just be another spin on the classic “four-men against a mass of nasties” theme, as seen in Gears of War's Horde mode or Halo: Reach's Firefight, but it's a good spin, made frantic and hilarious by all those weapons and all the chunks of scenery flying around. The secondary Ruin mode, where you have a time limit to smash things up in, is a nice showcase for the game's destruction, but nothing more.
Look, it's 2011 now. Do you really need another unremarkable shooter in your collection? Have you exhausted all the other sci-fi action epics to the extent that you really must have something new? Well, Red Faction is a perfectly acceptable genre effort with a great set of weapons, but one that that still gets stale with time. While it has its moments and the multiplayer is fun, so many other games have done this so much better, and with so much more drama and excitement.