“Never bring a knife to a gunfight” – a wise saying that’s kept Cowboy duels the world over interesting for years. That cardinal rule doesn’t say anything about stone-shattering mining hammers, though, and there’s a very good reason for that. To quote an enemy from Red Faction: Guerrilla: “Snap! Crack! Sounds of brain splattering like wet spaghetti against a wall.” Hey, I never said I was quoting something that came from the poor guy’s mouth.
Battering EDF goons into Mars-flavored space-paste isn’t the only thing my hulking steel hammer does, either. It can render years of architectural progress futile in a few powerful blows, taking chunk after chunk out of buildings until all that remains is splintered scrap. As you can imagine, the practical applications for this futuristic form of Building Neutralization are endless. Wall in my way? Knock it down. Gun emplacement in my way? Knock it down. EDF fortress in my way? Well, you get the idea. But aside from the novelty of being able to run through walls screaming, “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch,” the ability to homerun-swing the entire environment around me into chalky dust – to never be impeded or have to take “the long way around” – is incredibly liberating. In fact, other shooters now feel limited and strange to me because they lack that feature.
Clearly, Red Faction developer Volition is onto something here. Completely destroyable structures give me all kinds of new options, keeping missions endlessly fresh. What Volition created, then, is a good, well-implemented game mechanic. It brings me endless amounts of joy and – even more importantly – I can’t imagine playing other games of its variety without it. As much as the game’s destructible environments have been pushed and marketed, they aren’t some big gimmick. In fact, interestingly enough, Red Faction: Guerrilla’s also a perfect example of how to both define and avoid cheap gimmicks – lessons that, if cranky, keyboard-bound gamers are to be believed, are quite important.
Usually, I dread the very beginning of a new game. Blah, blah, blah long-winded story intro blah, blah, blah tutorial that you have to gulp two Monsters to stay awake through blah, blah, blah. You know the drill. Red Faction, however, doesn’t make that mistake. The rundown: You’re on Mars. Your brother gets killed by the EDF. You have motivation. You also have a big hammer. And that’s it. The game immediately introduces you to its central gameplay conceit (destroying everything) and turns you loose. No muss, no fuss, no convoluted cut-scene.
Fortunately, the game proceeds along that same minimalistic path. Missions are introduced through quick, entirely optional briefings and cut-scenes are kept to a minimum. Or, if you’d rather not bear the heavy yoke of commitment, you can simply choose to rampage about, kicking down EDF buildings like a bully in the big red sandbox this is Mars.
In this case, story never gets in the way of fun. Volition knew what would attract players to its game and designed it accordingly. Unlike many games of its ilk (inFamous and Prototype, I’m looking at you), Red Faction doesn’t attempt to shoehorn “Powerful, emotionally involving storyline” onto the back of the box of what’s clearly a summer blockbuster. After all, if it did, its story would merely be a gimmick, perhaps initially interesting, but ultimately detracting from the overall game experience.
And that, I would say, is the dividing line between gimmicks and legitimately excellent new game mechanics. A gimmick may be – and, in fact, should be, if it wants to succeed – fascinating at first glance, but eventually, it grows tiresome. Meanwhile, a high-quality game mechanic begins just like a gimmick – luring players in with its loud cries of “New!” and “Different!” – but never makes players wonder what they ever saw in that good-for-nothing game. So, for instance, compare my love affair with Red Faction to gamers’ quick and ugly burnouts on many waggle-centric Wii games, quick time events ala God of War, and tacked on stories in games that didn’t need them.
Unfortunately, many of today’s games are quick to make a deal with the devil that is gimmickery in search of the almighty dollar. Multiplayer modes are popping up like zits on the backs of single-player games that could easily succeed without them, “edgy” stories now serve as black clouds over many potentially great gaming experiences, and, well, I could write a whole series of editorials about my thoughts on motion control as it’s being applied in today’s games. And these are only a few examples.
If there’s a silver lining to all of this, it’s that we already have tangible evidence that great games don’t need gimmicks to compete in a crowded marketplace. Portal was only two hours long, Crackdown chose to focus on Big Ups instead of force-feeding us a convoluted plotline, and BioShock passed on a half-baked multiplayer mode in favor of adding extra spice to its single-player proceedings. As always, by and large, good games sell. People are naturally curious about gimmicky things, sure, but there’s a reason we don’t like reality TV anymore. Believe it or not, consumers are actually pretty smart.
So come on, developers, don’t bloat your games with gimmicks when you can instead – knowing your game’s limits – streamline experiences to highlight what makes them great. Really, seeing a good game unable to achieve greatness because some lame gimmick is weighing it down makes me want to break things – mostly out of anger, but also because I really just want to play Red Faction. Such a great game.
Note: Red Faction: Guerrilla is only available on Xbox 360 and PS3 right now, but will be PC-bound in August. Please don’t scream at me because I discussed a game that isn’t on the PC… yet.