Card-carrying Socialist that I am, it’s hard for me to find many videogames that run concurrent with my own vocal political views, especially when it comes to FPS. More often than not, these shooters are glorifications of fascism and machismo, a one-man-army versus some anonymous brown people in a shooting gallery designed to let people live out their own Red Dawn fantasies. There have been some notable works, most importantly I think the stellar Spec Ops: The Line, but the modern shooter, it just lacks that populist feel that I absolutely wish would occur more often in gaming. However, if we go back a decade and a half, we have a perfect example of how we can use the one-many-army archetype and throw out the burdens of racism, sexism, and imperialism that too often come to the fore in the FPS genre. I speak lovingly, of course, of Red Faction.
Initially released in 2001 for the PS2, Mac, PC, and of all things the N-Gage (who the fuck remembers the N-Gage?), Red Faction was the child of Volition, under the aegis of the now defunct THQ. It takes place on Mars (a favourite planet for sci-fi if ever there was one) in the not-too-distant future of 2075. From the outset, the game paints itself as the struggle of the everyman against the corporate Powers That Be. Our logo, a black fist holding aloft a miner’s pick against a red background, is nothing if not reminiscent of any number of socialist resistance forces, most notably the Communist faction. You, the player, are Parker, a miner who came to the red planet looking for a change of pace and who found himself, like so many miners do on our own world, under the thumb of the company. In this case, you work for the Ultor group that you may recognize from the Saints Row franchise. While not a direct continuation of the same, it’s not impossible to imagine the fascist regime that mercilessly exploits the miners as being in line with their goal of profiteering on the backs of organized crime and, now and then, Satan.
In the vein of the Everyman tale, you are not a direct instigator of this violence, but a not so hapless bystander at the moment of revolution. Getting off of a long shift mining…whatever it is you’re mining? (It doesn’t really go into that) you hear the cry of freedom, and then all Hell breaks loose. The guards are none too hesitant to break up the revolution by force, and quickly swarm in, forcing you to fight or die at the end of an electric baton. During this tutorial-ish section, you learn all about the game in the classic style: pay the fuck some attention to your surroundings and figure it out, loser. There is no map, mini or otherwise, and your limited HUD (a nice Vitruvian man for health, and your standard weapon/ammo display) has no time for giving you an arrow pointing you toward your next objective. I’ve backtracked more than once for want of a way forward, but poke around enough, and you’ll make your way. Especially helpful in this first learning section are the painted markers on the ground which occur next to some remote mining explosives, and which gently guide your hand as to what you’re expected to do: blow shit up and crawl on through.
The Geo-Mod tech used in the game allows you to often make your own way, quite literally, through obstacles with a generous application of blowing things the fuck up. As a game featuring a mining protagonist, it’s a genius fusion of gameplay elements and story, as why wouldn’t Parker be more than capable of setting off a charge to progress through the levels? There are even moments where, when presented with a locked door and no obvious way forward, you’re allowed to blow up the adjacent walls and waltz right on through. How fast would the RE games be over if we could apply those same principles? Of course, not everything is destructible, otherwise you might as well just enable No-Clip and warp to the end, but where’s the fun in that? Skipping the hallways in a linear hallway shooter kinda defeats the purpose of the game. Making your own hallways, though…
So, back to the main story. You’re contacted by the leader of the resistance, a woman by the name of Eos, who puts out a general call for aid. As you’re not an NPC, you don’t die immediately, and become a key element of the resistance: a gun with a brain behind it that can pick up health packs and armour and also dodge. Essentials, really. Of course, immersion may break for the thinking player who wonders why a random miner suddenly possesses the ability to use any and all weapons dropped by the enemy with greater efficiency than trained guards and some seriously evil mercenaries, but there you go. It’s a videogame. Relax a bit. While it doesn’t revolutionize the first person shooter (if you can play Half-Life, you can play Red Faction), it does bring revolution to the FPS.
While you do still play as a brunette white male, he takes his orders from a plague-stricken woman, and receives his guidance from a black dude in glasses, Hendrix. Oh, and spoilers for a game that’s almost able to get a driver’s permit, while it is nice to see people of colour in a videogame composed mostly of white folks shooting at you, it might have been nice for Hendrix not to die to help get you to the end. As we fade to black, the bodies left standing are white, leaning as they are against a recently defused bomb. Baby steps, I guess. At least one of the characters has tits. But it’s a very limited cast to choose from. If you ignore the faceless mobs, within the miner’s revolution, the only named characters are a woman (Eos), a black man (Hendrix), and some random higher-up dude who is supposed to matter but you only escort for a bit, a white dude named Gryphon. Two out of three honestly ain’t that bad.
Of the villains, if you again ignore the cannon fodder, you’ve got the bizarre twisted mad scientist and proponent of severe body modification Dr. Capek, and the mercenary captain Masako. And…that’s pretty much it. So a 50/50 split for gender representation there, an even better score than the revolution. As far as racially, I mean, it’s rather difficult to tell. Capek is a deformed, freakishly large headed white dude, and Masako, while her name implies Japanese heritage, doesn’t really come through as looking all that Asian. Could be a limitation of the graphics of the time, could be they just thought it was a cool name. And although we do get a mercenary badass lady, considering how easy Masako is to take down over the painfully difficult fight with the flying, energy-blasting Capek, we don’t have much equity in bosses. Still, it’s not often you get to kill a woman in a videogame, so I guess points for progress go to the Red Faction team.
Final boss fight aside, the game doesn’t have many segments where you’re let down for difficulty. To the contrary, even on Easy mode for capturing footage, I found myself loading and reloading through certain sections toward the end of the game multiple times. In one long section leading up to the Capek fight in his secret lab base, you go through several caverns very sparsely populated with health packs, ammo, and armour. While this makes perfect sense as far as the game’s logic is concerned (why would a secret, and largely abandoned, submartian passage be equipped for combat) it does amp up the difficulty, considering the weird, alien gremlin looking monsters you fight down there largely seem to ignore armor with their physical attacks, knocking out what precious little health you’ve got. This continues on through the more populated section, where your armour doesn’t seem to do very much against the mercenaries guarding the lab. I had to take precise sniping shots with the basic pistol from a good distance a lot of the time in the underground base to avoid losing the one or two points of health I had left. If you’re impatient, you’re going to die, a lot. The difficulty did feel arbitrary at times, especially when you’re trying to infiltrate underwater and get attacked by a…psychic fish thing that completely ignores armor to burst down a quarter of your health at a time, but honestly, I’d prefer a hard game that made sense in its own context, to an easier game that just had you regen your health or shield or whatever gimmick that made you a super soldier. You’re a miner, plain and simple, and though you may have a bizarre proficiency with weapons, you’re no super-human. Take a shotgun blast to the back, you’re going to go down. I put a lot of stress on F6 and F7 to quicksave myself through some sticky situations. It may be immersion breaking for some, but if you came of age with these sorts of games, you’re going to be more than happy that you can at least quick-save at all. The definite lack of checkpoints basically makes it essential. The Restart option you receive upon dying is just that: Go back to the first cut scene and try again, sperglord. So, like I said, not a lot of revolution in gameplay. That’s all in the iconography and the story.
Really, if you haven’t played this game by now, you’re more than likely not going to pick it up. If your intro to Red Faction was with Guerilla, you’re going to be very much at sea, as it is absolutely a hallway shooter, just like its sequel and the maligned swansong of the series Armageddon. But if you want a passable shooter with a message of revolution against an oppressive corporation led by a workers uprising all decked out in red, well, you can do a lot worse than getting a copy of the game on Steam and playing through. You owe yourself the few hours (and a bit of frustration) it takes to get a unique experience in what is usually an otherwise bland and repetitive Call of Bro: Shoot the Brown People landscape we have today.