Red Faction Guerrilla is the best sandbox game on the market right now. Period. Sure Grand Theft Auto IV might have better pathos but Red Faction Guerrilla (RFG) is more fun, engaging, and enjoyable than Rockstar's blockbuster.
In RFG you play Alec Mason, a miner who's just moved to Mars to look for work. He's not looking for trouble, just an honest pay for a days work. The problem is that his brother is a member of the Red Faction movement, a guerrilla group who's trying to get rid of the Earth Defense Force (EDF) so they can rule Mars themselves. As soon as he shows up on the planet his brother takes him out, shows him the ropes, gets killed and forces Alec to join the movement. We've seen variations on this theme before but Volition executes the plot very well. As you play through the game you'll work to remove the EDF from Mars sector by sector. Along the way you'll have to deal with the EDF, their crates, and the desert people known as the marauders (who travel in straight lines to hide their numbers).
The game area is broken up into six different sectors and you must remove EDF control from one sector before you can move onto the next. Each sector shows how much control the EDF in a bar on the left side of the screen. Control is reduced by completing the core missions of the game, by taking out important EDF structures in the zone, or by completing the Guerrilla actions in the game (i.e. the side quests). When you've completed all the story missions in the game and reduced control to zero you're given one last mission to complete which allows you to secure the sector for the Red Faction.
Mission variety is solid and a cut above what we've seen in other sandbox games. Sure you've got escort and kill all of the enemies in area X type missions but you'll also be rescuing prisoners, liberating vehicles, and taking out targets of opportunity. What's great about these missions is that they all feed into the core story of the game and don't feel tacked on. OK, maybe some of the racing missions are borderline but they are fun and a bit of a challenge. In addition to the set missions in the game you'll be called in for Guerrilla Actions as you drive around the game. These are target of opportunity missions and they help pull you further into the game. There's nothing like tooling around the martian landscape and being called to take out a supply convoy that's getting to raid an area or helping to acquire a high priority vehicle in the area.
It's worth noting that you'll need to think about the long term con sequences of your actions. Some of the main control targets in the game are large bridges and once they are blown up they don't re-spawn. This is important because you'll want to take these out last because the bridges are also convenient for you as well as for the EDF so you might want to leave these things for last.
The other key part of the game is in the third word in the title. The game is all about guerrilla tactics. Even on the Casual difficulty level you can't just walk into an EDF camp and hope to survive. Instead you've got to come up with creative ways to beat certain missions as going in guns a blazing is the quickest way to having to reload the game. Instead you've got to learn to use the surroundings and the lay of the land to solve problems. Instead of barging through the front gates of a complex and blowing up an EDF garage you have to circle behind it and blow it up from the hills behind the base.
Another key feature of the game is the morale system. Because you are helping to free the population of Mars they have a bit of a stake in your actions. As you take out EDF and complete missions their morale goes up and they will start to join you in battle. Morale heads south when you have "friendly fire" accidents or get killed in action which results in fewer helpers. Do you really need the help? No necessarily but it's nice to have the added meat shields so the EDF can't concentrate just on you and they do provide some cover if you need to beat a quick retreat. High morale also provides a scrap bonus when you complete missions but we'll get to that in a bit.
The core of Red Faction Guerrilla is the next iteration of the Geo Mod 0 technology that Volition first tried out in Red Faction 2. The original technology was cool but limited to specific areas of the game which limited it's usefulness. That limitation is gone in Red Faction Guerrilla as every structure and vehicle in the game is built using the technology which means you have full control of how to blow stuff up. The technology goes well beyond what the folks at DICE did with Battlefield: Bad Company in that it allows you to raze entire structures in a variety of cool ways. Buildings can be destroyed with explosives or with the Nano rifle which dissolves parts of a structure. Of course you can use these things in tandem for all kinds of destructive fun.The Geo Mod engine isn't just limited to the weapons though as the vehicles in the game can also be used for all kinds of carnage. My favorite trick was to commandeer an EDF APC's and use it to drive straight through guard posts and the first floor of buildings. You can also jump out of the vehicles and the combination of remote detonated bombs and fast moving heavy vehicle proved to be a very effective way to take out large concentrations of EDF troops and vehicles. The game also features large mechanical walkers who sole purpose seems to be to show off how cool it is to walk through buildings and blow stuff up in large quantities.
What's great about the technology is that Volition actually built a complete game around the technology rather than just creating an engine and using it to show off the technology (like id has done in the past). The missions and everything else in the game use the technology rather than serving as a demonstration of the technology. There are a few demolition side quests that do force you to think about how to blow things up in a certain way but it never feels like you're having the engine shoved down your throat.
The controls for the game are perfect but do take some time to get used to. The biggest stumbling block is how you to switch between the four weapons you carry. To switch weapons you hold down the right bumper and then press a face button that corresponds to the weapon you are carrying. It takes a little getting used to but it works well. You can also tap the right bumper to switch between two weapons which is nice. The rest of the controls are what you would expect with the thumbsticks controlling movement and aiming and the triggers firing weapons or performing a melee attack.
You do have a fun arsenal of weapons to play with in the game. You have your standard assortment of machine guns, shotguns, and rocket launchers but the real fun comes from the mining weapons that have been modified to extract blood instead of ore. These include set charges, a saw blade launcher, and an electrical gun which zaps multiple enemies. Weapons and upgrades are purchased with scrap collected from destroyed buildings and vehicles, mined from the ore deposits that litter the landscape, or earned as a reward for completing missions.
It took me around ten hours to get through the single player campaign and I played maybe half of the side missions in the game. Completing the side missions does open access to additional weapons so they are worth playing but not a requirement. It's worth noting that the missions for a zone are locked once you clear a zone so you have to keep that in mind before you finish one off (the game unlocks all of the missions when you complete it though in case you just want to buzz through and then play them later).
The graphics in the game are stunning and big props goes to the Volition artists who have taken what was a very drab looking game and making it one of the best looking games on the market. The game world is beautiful and any concerns I had about the graphics were gone after about ten minutes of wandering around. The buildings are a little spartan on the inside but there are wonderful touches like the whirling dust storms you'll see scattered around the world.
Negatives for Red Faction Guerrilla are minimal. The biggest one is that the game can take a while to load at times which can be a bit excessive at times. You only see the load screen when you start the game, die, or use the quick travel feature to get from one safe house to another. Other than that there are a few minor glitches and camera issues but those are more intrinsic to the genre than to the game. The game also has the coat of polish that Saints Row 2 lacked as the game is free of the technical glitches that marred Volition's last sandbox game. I was also disappointed at the lack of Total Recall jokes in the game but I'm not taking away points for that.
I can't recommend Red Faction Guerrilla highly enough and I haven't even touched on the excellent multiplayer part of the game. If you're looking for a fun game that allows you to blow stuff up in cool ways then there's not a better game than Red Faction Guerrilla. It's a fantastic game that raises the bar for the entire industry and well worth your $60.