UNTITLED GOOSE GAME REVIEW – “HONK IF YOU LOVE CHAOS”

Any person who grew up near English parks knows that there is a strict hierarchy of power at play in every one. Starting from the bottom up, it goes: earthworms, woodlice, joggers, rats, pigeons, picnickers, wasps, creepy ice-cream sellers, ducks, foxes, wasps again, the scary Doberman who barks at everything, drunk groundskeepers, the damp porn magazines behind the bushes, more wasps, and finally the mighty goose. Well, at least until a cabal of swans show up and things get all Game of Thrones on you.

And developers House House have attempted to frame that superiority of honker versus human with the new Untitled Goose Game. No, that’s actually what it’s called. I guess naming things isn’t House House’s strong suit, as should be made clear by the fact that they called themselves House House.

Still, the game has become the hottest meme on the internet this week for its portrayal of loose-goose chaos in a quaint English setting, so I downloaded it for the Switch and decided to see how many goose puns I could think of for the review. I might’ve taken it to egg-stremes.

 

MOTHER (****ING) GOOSE

Untitled Goose Game starts off, suitably enough, with an untitled goose, whom the player controls from a high third-person perspective. Goose Springsteen pops out of the bushes, honks a few times – or a lot, if you play him like I do – then sets off into the neighbouring idyllic village to wreak meaningless havoc on the poor people who live there, including an elderly gardener, a small child and the befuddled patrons of the local pub. It really feels like somebody saw the swan subplot in Hot Fuzz and decided to make a game explaining what it was doing between fleeing Simon Pegg and mauling Jim Broadbent.

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One goose’s mission to ruin the English countryside is perhaps the most human and understandable motivation we’ve seen from a game protagonist in years.

None of the plot goes explained in any detail, but it really doesn’t need to – England has a proud history of wildlife that excels in being harmlessly but persistently irritating, and Ryan Gosling here is clearly just content to make his way through the world, sparking fury in his wake. The game itself is a series of small environments threaded together with a few NPCs moving around each one, and once you find a new area you’re given a checklist of tricks that’ll psychologically torment the local population. Wander uninvited into a garage sale and you’ll soon have a bunch of pointless cruelties to try – start stacking items into a shopping basket when the owner isn’t looking, steal somebody’s stuff and put it on the shelf so they’re forced to buy it back, or just run in circles around the aggrieved shopkeeper, honking and flapping your wings in a show of outrageous self-promotion.

It’s worth mentioning that I saw a lot of people comparing this to Goat Simulator, and I really don’t think that’s accurate. For one thing, I Love Goosey is a lot more structured, and more realistic – but in a way that makes it a lot more funny. The little town you come crashing into feels like a genuine place, which consequently makes ruining it a lot more satisfying as Goose Willis comes bursting out of the topiary with a cocky strut and malice on his mind. The village has a palpable sense of atmosphere and your antics somehow feel like both an extension and a cancellation of that same tone, as you run with somebody’s slipper held tightly in your beak, the owner hopping after you in desperate pursuit.

That being said, there is a big bald spot amidst these soft, downy feathers – the ending. Or rather, the time it takes to get to the ending. I managed to make it to the credits about two hours after I started playing, and though there are optional post-game challenges, that added up to about another hour of game. This would be fine if it cost about a fiver, but Untitled Goose Game cost more than fifteen pounds, which doesn’t lead to a great cash-for-value experience, despite the fact that the game is fun to play.

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Uh… this isn’t as dark as it looks, I promise.

It’s strange, because it seems to me that thinking of new areas shouldn’t exactly be hard. Three of the games four main locations are basically just variations on the theme of “garden”, and we never get to explore anywhere indoors – you know, where the greatest opportunities for chaos would definitely be. No kitchen level? No library? No schoolyard or village fete? Or what about the local am-dram, pecking at the heels of actors trying desperately to get through the next scene of Glengarry Glen Ross? There’s so much more room for this idea to breath, but it’s practically over before James Gander Beak has time to properly traumatise anybody. I worry that the comparative shortness of the game is really going to damage its reputation, because after the initial joke is over that’s the thing that looms largest in my mind.

 

THE WILDEST GOOSE CHASE

There are only four functions in the game besides basic movement – honk, pick things up, sprint and spread your wings, though I have no idea what the last one is for. Gannet Jackson can’t fly or even glide, so throwing your wings out just feels like an elaborate taunt that the game won’t admit is completely useless.

Still, the game makes the most out of the other functions. It turns out there’s actually a fair amount of stealth and chasing involved in being a goose, as you sneak up on an old man to knock away his chair, or hide inside a box Metal Gear Solid style to infiltrate a pub garden, waiting for the perfect moment to burst out like a stripper from a cake. There’s usually no way to win in a fight with a human being unless the game provides a context to do it with, but even then there’s no risk of death – they usually just shoo you away or snatch back whatever object you stole, gently resetting you to square one as you already begin to plan your next caper.

Where these mechanics fall down is in the fine details. It’s got the occasional programming error – it’s quite easy to run in circles around people and watch them spin in place, ironically paralysed by their pathfinding A.I.. Another time I watched someone carefully and painstakingly stack several bags of compost I’d knocked over, then immediately walk into them and send them flying further than I ever could. It’s also hard to say there’s any replay value here – the game is essentially a series of puzzles, working out how to orchestrate events to your advantage (and to everybody else’s disadvantage). Once you know the puzzles, you’re only really in it for the honking, though there’s always going to be a joy in showing it to other people and getting their bewildered first reaction.

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The simple cruelty of bewildering and irritating the people around you translates well into a layered gaming experience.

Still, the game makes the satisfaction of solving a puzzle palpable, the wing-spreading and frantic, exuberant honking a wonderful cherry on the cake. There’s something like a prank show about the experience, seeing somebody get sprayed with a sprinkler and having Goosey Liu explode out of the bushes to taunt them, whooping: “You just got GOOSED! Honkhonkhonkhonkhonkhonk-

And yet it’s also very zen despite that, weirdly enough. The clean, flat aesthetic and tinkly piano music that runs throughout the whole game keeps things feeling innocent and low-stakes, but with a good level of challenge. It’s relaxing, a Sunday-afternoon of a game best experienced with biscuits and tea as you sink into the sofa. It’s certainly not deep, but it is nonetheless clever, and is perhaps close to the best possible version of what it’s trying to be.

 

IS BIRD THE WORD?

I definitely enjoyed Untitled Goose Game, but it was a quick and fleeting thing, to the extent that it plays a little sour in my mind now. I feel confident in advising others to check it out, but I can’t suggest a full-price purchase unless you’re feeling especially flush. The adventures of Goose Willis won’t tide you over for a week, only an evening – though I can assure you that it will be a fun evening.

That being said, I’d like to elaborate briefly on something I noticed over the last fortnight. See, several “big” games have recently come out at time of writing – Gears 5, Borderlands 3 and Link’s Awakening among them, flashy triple-A titles promised for months, if not years in advance. And yet Untitled Goose Game is the one I keep seeing mentioned most, the one that’s gotten the most actual coverage and keeps cropping up on social media. And yes, this may just be a coincidence, but the game is definitely holding the world’s attention, with dozens of positive articles in major news sites over the last week, going above and beyond the obligatory reviews. How many indie games can say they got that? House House has given the world something it didn’t know it wanted…

.. So why does this all bother me as much as it does? Because it does bother me, it bothers me a lot. I don’t resent Goose Game’s success in any way, and I always love when an indie success eclipses the bloated mega-mainstream releases. No, I resent the media for focusing on it as much as it has, especially when superior games have only been flash-in-the-pan trends that lasted for a week and then died quietly. The comparison to Goat Simulator might’ve been what started those alarm bells – Goat Simulator was a game designed to be a meme, to be carved up into Twitter Gifs that fly around the internet like picture postcards. And yes, I’ll say again that UGG is better, but the internet is still largely approaching it on that level, and that’s the problem.

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Timmy is in the well, but only because you probably pushed him.

When Valve made Portal 2, co-writer Erik Wolpaw specifically made an effort to write dialogue that was difficult to make memes out of, and they were mostly successful (with the exception of Cave Johnson’s diatribe on combustible lemons). No more cake talk, no more deliberating on the Companion Cube. “We want to tell an interesting story,” Wolpaw told Gamasutra. “We didn’t jettison everything, but I absolutely do not want to try and resurrect a three-year-old meme. That seems like it would be kind of sad. It’s not a good idea.”

He was right. And yes, clearly Wolpaw was also just tired of hearing the same jokes over and over, but he wasn’t wrong about it being a bad idea. Memes are easy and accessible by their nature, internet in-jokes that anybody can get nonetheless. But what worries me is that indie games are going to start courting meme humour in order to get any kind of media profile, counter-intuitively taking the lower path for the higher result. I can’t even blame them for this – game development is a cutthroat industry, and if this sort of thing will keep the lights on, you might have to forgo depth for your own sake. No, the blame is with us for encouraging this sort of thing. There’s nothing wrong with being accessible or even shallow once in a while, but all I can think of are the great indie games that eschewed meme humour or even humour of any kind – Return of the Obra Dinn, Quadrilateral Cowboy, Katana Zero – and I feel a little bleak about the fact that none of my friends knew what they were until I told them.

Still, it’s just a thought – albeit one that gives me goosebumps.


AN ENDEARING COUNTRY ROMP THAT ENDS ABRUPTLY AND WITHOUT MUCH FANFARE, UNTITLED GOOSE GAME AIMS FOR THE BEST POSSIBLE VERSION OF THE SIMPLEST POSSIBLE IDEA, AND IS MOSTLY SUCCESSFUL IN THE PROCESS.

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DEAD BY DAYLIGHT vs. FRIDAY THE 13th: THE GAME – “SMASH BROS. FOR HORROR ICONS.”

INTRODUCTION

It’s always interesting to see when two games are held as direct competitors, even if they don’t want that. Ever since the Genesis supposedly did what Nintendon’t in the 90s, there’s been a whole history of “my X is better than your Y”. Mario versus Sonic. Call of Duty versus Battlefield. Fornite versus PUBG. It’s even more painful to watch when the winner is obvious, such as when Overwatch did to Battleborn what a hungry fox does to a baby rabbit.

And one of the more recent sudden slapfights in gaming memory was between Dead By Daylight and Friday the 13th: The Game, which on the surface does make some amount of sense, both being asymmetrical multiplayer games in which a bunch of teenagers try to sneak around a hungry murdered controlled by another player, all until they either escape with their lives or end up as a small aperitif.

And though having played both before, it was only in the wake of the last Steam Sale that I found myself in possession of both titles, curious to see which was the superior time-killer (no pun intended). I’ll admit right away that I wanted Friday to be better, partly because Jason has always been my favourite movie slasher, and also because the internet seemed to have collectively given up on it, and I’m nothing if not a stalwart contrarian. Either way, let’s put them in a series of arbitrary competitions in order to see which one is the fresher kill.

 

PREMISE

I know nobody cares about plot in a multiplayer game except for me, who as ever is determined to find context where none exists and frame the ever-looping cycle of butchery as something more profound than a constant grinding of in-game resources, but for what it’s worth both games do have something of a backstory, though take very different approaches to it. Dead By Daylight is a nigh-incomprehensible jumble of vaguely Lovecraftian lore assembled to explain the contrived nature of its own gameplay, focused around some sort of spider god and multiple serial killers with way-too-long text boxes in the menu explaining their particular origins, histories, motivations and favourite pet, as well as the victims’ different thoughts, fears, relationships and preferred show to binge watch…

… Whereas in Friday the 13th, there are a bunch of campers by a lake, and Jason would rather they not be there, so he decides to murder them.

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“Ma, I think we need to talk about the monthly candle budget.”

I said it was different approaches, didn’t I? Neither is great, either eschewing detail or bloating on it, and in both the gameplay barely seems informed by the plot in the slightest. Sure, Dead By Daylight can go on about how Punky Tank-Top secretly likes the Dresden Files or how Snivels Stumblebum once got his tongue stuck to a lamppost, but none of the survivors really play any differently but for a few minor perks. And even despite not having a proper plot, I don’t think Friday really needs one, with over ten movies establishing the franchise and the basic movements for three decades in advance. So all Daylight can do is regurgitate prose at you in the waiting lobby and hope some of it sticks, which it doesn’t.

But why doesn’t it? I think part of the reason is Daylight seems very low on truly original ideas. All the playable killers have obvious one-to-one equivalents in the world of horror: knock-offs of Leatherface, the Ring girl, a Bioshock splicer, the Silent Hill nurses, even a Jason duplicate, and when they ran out of new ideas they just gave up altogether and started putting in famous horror characters via DLC, like Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers; this all leading to the odd realisation that both Leatherface and his dopey, just legally-distinct clone both share a game. Even the game’s title is a barely-changed reference to the Evil Dead.

The result of all this rampant “homage” is that there’s nothing new left to sink your teeth into, and you don’t think about the plot the moment the game stops actively showing it to you. Give this one to Friday, and next we’ll do a category that people actually care about.

 

MURDERER GAMEPLAY

So I fired up Dead By Daylight, slid into the shoes of one of several murderers and sat for about five minutes waiting for a match and twiddling my thumbs. Turns out when half the world wants to be a character type only permitted in ratios of 1-to-5, the waiting times can also be bloody murder.

Nonetheless I finally broke through into slasher central, set loose on the world with axe in hand, and immediately realised that this wasn’t going to be as much fun as it should be. Daylight’s murderers vary in powers and strengths, each one affording a somewhat different experience, but still all have one goal – chase and knock down the squishy humans, then pick them up and drop them onto any nearby hooks so Spider-God can have a nibble. They can be rescued by nearby friends, but if they spend too long waiting or get hooked too many times, they’re goners.

It’s a simple, carefully-refined system designed to have a certain amount of variation while never straying too far from a core set of mechanics, which is all good. It’s also not that fun to play, which is… well, less good.

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Moments of organic terror are common for Dead By Daylight‘s survivors, yet only annoyance and frustration awaits the killer.

The big problem is the human survivors. I get that developers don’t want to weigh things too far in favour of the killer, but it seems all too easy for players to do the run-around on a bit of wall like something from the Benny Hill Show, hooting and slapping their backside, the killer impotently swinging at them with fury in their eyes. Things get even worse when they find the flashlight item that can be used to blind you and force you to drop any player you’re currently carrying. I admit right now that I wasn’t very good as a murderer – art doesn’t always reflect real life, it seems – but that was mainly because I never enjoyed it enough to keep practicing. The whole experience seems to assume that the survivors are acting cautious, timid and are prone to panic, much like people actually being chased by a psycho, and when that is the case the whole thing is a lot more enjoyable, watching them scatter like mayflies as you come charging round the corner with bloodlust behind you.

But the moment they start acting like douchebag trolls playing a game of “keep-away” with their own organs, the gameplay becomes a lot more frustrating than fun, trying to slap down annoying little titnibblers who wield design flaws as weapons, rather than actually engaging in a stimulating challenge. And of course, half of them just up-and-quit the game the moment they get caught, which is like spending twenty minutes trying to reel in a fish only for it to inexplicably explode when you pull it out of the water. I eventually found myself playing solely as the splicer lady with the throwing axes, purely so I could split some skulls without having to physically catch the bastards.

On the other side of the court, Friday has a similar problem, but in reverse. Whichever form of Jason you pick (and no option to be Cyborg Jason from the tenth film, appallingly), you’re gifted with multiple superpowers and abilities that make dealing with sex-crazed campers a doddle. Teleportation, stealth powers, concealed bear traps, lethal grab moves, throwing weapons, another kind of teleportation, ripple effects on sounds, X-ray vision and a choice of affordable drinks and finger foods, all of which means that when some little twerp gets cocky and starts trying to do the kitchen-table runaround, you have a hundred methods just to end him in the next ten seconds. I’ve seen fighter jets that were less dangerous.

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Jason’s killing power would rival John Wick’s – so what hope do a bunch of lolloping teenagers have?

It’s the teleportation and x-ray abilities that end up being the real problem. When Jason picks a player to hound eternally there’s really very little they can do to shake him, as hiding is almost impossible and the only way to get rid of him for good is to lure him to other players and hope they look tastier than you do. You know what they say: if you and your friend are trying to escape a bear, you don’t have to run faster than the bear does – just run faster than your friend. And honestly, I started feeling a bit unengaged after a while, watching Jason hack his way effortlessly through jocks with the bored detachment of a substitute teacher on the last day of school.

So playing Jason is more of a hollow power fantasy, whereas getting shoved into a Daylight killer’s boots is akin to playing whack-a-mole with slow reflexes. Both games have their moments, but usually depend having the right kind of survivors. I like how Daylight’s smaller arenas offer a greater chance of random encounters and have more variation in design, but I also like how Friday’s mechanics double down on fear and constant paranoia. Call it a close thing, but I’m reluctantly tempted to hand it over to Daylight, because spittle-flecked, violent rage is at least more involving than passionlessly pulling heads off.

 

SURVIVOR GAMEPLAY

Even before I started either game I knew the one thing I didn’t want – I didn’t want Jason or Daylight’s butchery brigade to be killable, because I knew every match would immediately devolve into half a dozen knobheads going at one brute like the third-act musical number in Shaun of the Dead.

Thankfully, both games seemed to be very much on the same page, as the emphasis is always on finding an escape rather than putting the villain’s head on a plaque. Admittedly I’m told it‘s possible to kill Jason and end the match prematurely, but I never saw it happen even after half an hour of whaling on him with baseballs bats and shotguns, so either the person telling me that was lying or the Crystal Lake Killer is as hard to kill here as he was in Jason Goes to Hell.

However, the means by which you’re encouraged to escape in each game are very different. Daylight might have lots of maps, but the means of escape is always the same – find five generators spread out over the arena and repair them to unlock the exits, avoiding any murderers along the way via careful stealth and cooperation. Friday, on the other hand, presents multiple routes to victory but bumps up the individual difficulty and randomness associated with each one. Survive for twenty minutes for an automatic win, sure, but you could also try to fuel up a car or fix a boat to get out early, or even just repair a phone and call the cops to come rescue you, scavenging for parts distributed among the map and hoping that you can cobble together some form of exit strategy.

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Patching together generators is Daylight‘s only means of escape – but it never quite stops being tense and unnerving.

Let’s talk about the latter, which sounds clever on the surface but falls down when it comes to execution, much like how Jason does when one of his environmental kills glitches yet again. The randomness and absence of clues as to where to actually look means there’s no real strategy involved beyond just combing the world for petrol cans and batteries, and the fact that most of these escape plans require some level of teamwork means that you’re really screwed if you’re the last man standing, gormlessly wandering about the forest with a fan belt in one hand and your last will and testament in the other. It’s all a lottery, hoping against hope you’ll happen to stumble upon whichever functionally identical cabin just happens to have stockpiles of weapons and engine parts.

Daylight does the smart thing by taking the power away from the RNG and giving to the players. Generators don’t need anything to be repaired but your own two hands, but there are items to be found to give you an edge or an advantage in any situation. And even when everybody else on your team has gone up to that great big cobweb in the sky, you can still piece together an exit or find the special escape hatch that only opens up for the last survivor – provided the killer hasn’t found it first and sealed it closed.

If it sounds like I prefer Dead By Daylight’s system… yeah, that’s because I do. It feels more tightly designed, making up for a lack of variation with a core gameplay loop that’s easier to engage with, and changes the focus from fingers-crossed scavenger hunts to constant, calculated stealth. Jason nearly always gets his target the first time they meet, making things feel less frightening than inevitable, but Daylight allows you to be recover from failure, to use the environment in clever ways or find hiding spots in crucial places. There’s no tension higher than sprinting round a corner, doubling back into a closet and silently praying as something lumbers past only inches away, eyes glowing with bewildered, hateful anger… Until there’s the distant bang of somebody bollocking up generator repair, and you can almost see the monster’s ears prick up as it launches itself back into the mist, ready to begin the hunt anew.

 

TECHNICALS

Let’s get this right out of the way – as alluded to, both games have balancing issues that go beyond the small fry and end up as big fish. In Daylight’s case this is due to certain items and perks that allow the players to treat the killer like matadors abusing an angry bull, whereas Friday makes Jason a truly unstoppable killing machine; and consequently it’s barely worth trying to escape the bugger. Neither is forgivable, but there’s at least two minor mitigating factors in Daylight’s favour: 1) these offending items and perks have to be unlocked and equipped over time, not to mention requiring a bare minimal amount of skill, and 2), the game is still being patched and rebalanced from time to time, giving hope it might be fixed, whereas Friday is apparently trapped in some sort of lawsuit that means only minor alterations are being made to it, if at all.

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Friday‘s bleak, shadowed world is as quietly atmospheric as it is annoyingly glitch-ridden.

When it comes to graphics Daylight takes it again – Jason’s victims all look laughably like late-era PS2 models – but I’m reluctant to say it has the better visual and level design. Camp Crystal Lake feels like a real place, artfully designed to be eerie and unnerving, whereas the hunting grounds of Daylight just feel like video game arenas, full of chest-high walls, copied assets and no real logic or sense to the layout or environment. A better designer might’ve embraced a dreamlike sense of surreality, but this just feels fake, and consequently it’s hard to get truly immersed.

Finally, as alluded to earlier, Friday glitches like a cut-price Gameshark. Trying to perform an environmental kill always made Jason freeze like he had a bad case of stage fright, only for an awkward twenty seconds to elapse before the survivor managed to wriggle free of his grip and sprint for the horizon, loading screens would crash, and the world geography kept snagging players so often that it felt like a universe made of fishing hooks. Daylight had no such issues, cheerfully chugging along with proud, workmanlike tenacity, and consequently there’s no contest here.

 

VERDICT

Like I said at the beginning, I really wanted Friday to win this one, but to pronounce it the superior game would just feel dishonest. It has solid ideas, but feels patchy, like an early beta prototype that somehow made a full release. Daylight feels less ambitious, but better refined, with thought given at nearly every level and lots of nuances built in to make the challenging premise work. Giving the killer a first-person viewpoint and putting the survivors in third-person to emphasise observation versus situational awareness? That’s a good choice. Having sprinting survivors leave a temporary trail of scratches that can be followed to their location? That’s a good choice. Hiring Bruce Campbell to reprise his role as the bumbling, badass hero of Evil Dead? That’s a VERY good choice, and I can’t deny there’s something kind of brilliant about watching Ash “Hail to the King” Williams trying to evade both Freddy Krueger, the Saw killer, and Leatherface. It’s like Smash Bros. for horror icons, though sadly with no unlockable chainsaw hand to even the odds.

All that being said, I still don’t think Friday is without its charms, and also has a few really good ideas that Daylight could learn from. The way the chat volume tapers off the further you are from the source is genius, the environments somehow manage to be a lot more eerie through simple, silent, ominous subtlety, rather than smashing obvious horror visuals together until the whole place looks like an over-budgeted ghost train. Dead By Daylight is the better game, but either one might afford a fun few evenings – provided you can find the right people to play them with.

 


DEAD BY DAYLIGHT DOES WHAT FRIDON’T, WITH A MORE CAREFULLY DESIGNED SET OF MECHANICS THAT MAKE THE WHOLE THING FEEL A LOT MORE REPLAYABLE. JASON MIGHT BOAST THE BETTER WORLD AND AESTHETICS, BUT SOMEBODY’S STILL YET TO PUT A REALLY GOOD GAME IN IT.

RED FACTION: GUERRILLA RE-MARS-TERED EDITION REVIEW – “RED PLANET IS A DEAD PLANET”

If you told me last year to pick fifty games that might be getting remakes, I don’t think I’d have even come close to putting Red Faction: Guerrilla on the list. Hell, I don’t think it’d have crossed my mind at all. Red Faction: Guerrilla? The third game of a four-part series, as a whole barely remembered by history, with no noteworthy fanbase, but still new enough that the graphics couldn’t be significantly updated, and still playable on Steam to this day?

Actually, it’s only the last of those that means I’m reviewing this thing at all, as the developers were at least good enough to send free copies of the remastered edition to anybody who had downloaded the original. Oh, I’m sorry, I meant the Re-MARS-tered Edition, as somebody incorrectly thought it would be clever to call it. Personally, I don’t think I’ve heard a worse name since my cousin Earl’s ill-fated, nineteenth-century breakfast cereal, “Poli-O’s.”

But hey, who doesn’t want to hear back from a relic of the late 2000s, where gaming was in one of the least interesting periods it’s ever had in its whole history? And while we’re at it, why don’t we start reviving the music of 1990 and the cuisine of 1950?

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Alec’s story to blow up his own society in order to save it is… well, about as well-thought out as it sounds.

“OOH, BEING DISINTERGRATED MAKES ME ANGRY; VERY ANGRY INDEED!”

So… Red Faction: Guerrilla’s plot, story and characters are a load of absolute toss.

Alright, maybe that’s a little harsh. Howsabout let’s call it… I don’t know, Diet Toss? Toss Plus? Still kind of toss, though. You have to understand that we were still very much in the utterly-unaware, highly-grizzled, burly hero trend in 2009, as games like Call of Duty and Gears of War were leading the way in tedious protagonists (this being several years before the AAA industry would start sticking a grey-flecked beard and PTSD on every male character and partnering them up with a kid sidekick, like a crossover between Heart of Darkness and Last Action Hero).

Hence Alec Mason, our playable protagonist and a character who has all the scintillating personality of a bloodstained AR-15. In a distant future where Mars has been terraformed and now supports the dustiest, least interesting society imaginable, its citizens are being oppressed by a brutal militia, the Earth Defence Force; Earth having been utterly depleted of anything more valuable than sub-par Yu-Gi-Oh cards and therefore having to bully the next planet over for old scrap metal and handjobs.

That’s our premise, that Earth is picking on Mars for all its resources? Were we somehow short on gravel and off-colour stalactites? Seems a bit weird to me that the EDF considered a vast, dictatorial military campaign and frequent cargo trips between worlds to be a more viable option than just handing out the recycling bins, but I guess I’m giving this way more thought than the writers did.

So Alec shuttles over to Mars to work for his brother in the demolition business, and despite witnessing the EDF’s incredibly one-dimensional evilness the moment he arrives and big bro’s insistence that they should help fight the good fight, Alec TOTALLY isn’t interested in joining the resistance movement and liberating the Red Planet with a group of scrappy, racially-diverse freedom fighters against a totalitarian group of smirking, power-hungry stormtroopers in face-obscuring helmets.

Nope. Nuh-uh. Don’t care. Ain’t none of MY business, it’s not like the EDF have gunned down my beloved brother for no reason or anythi- OH NO!

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An emphasis on propaganda feels a bit lacking when the EDF act so cartoonishly evil. I don’t think any amount of catchy TV jingles are going to make the violent massacres more palatable to the population.

I can’t convey just how rushed this first bit is. You’re dropped into the tutorial mission, go off to test the hammer and trigger bombs on some nearby buildings, and by the time you come back less than five minutes later your brother is filled with more ammunition than an army supply truck. Alec then gets rescued by the resistance and the whole thing precedes as exactly as you expect it to, with him rising through the ranks to become the hero of the rebellion, and already I can feel my eyes flickering closed just thinking of it.

The real problem is the characters. Hell, the cliched plot might gave been tolerable or even amusing if Mason and his allies weren’t such a bunch of humourless prats, but there’s a clear sense that the story is a secondary, low-effort element when compared to just about anything else, existing only so far as to try and establish a sense of progression as we go to blow up even more buildings and goons in yet another sun-blasted wasteland. In fact, I’m not entirely sure why this story has to be taking place on Mars at all, as nothing in the plot really requires it to. There’s no aliens or spaceships that we can use, no sci-fi themes to explore, nothing unique to the landscape beyond a muddy reddish tint, three-quarters of the weapons are the standard shooter fare (shotgun, pistol, assault rifle, rocket launcher, other shotgun, etc), and on the whole it feels like nobody’s more bored with the idea of Red Faction than Red Faction: Guerrilla itself.

Lastly, I really don’t buy Alec as the de facto hero of the revolution, because history has taught us that such figures are charismatic, dynamic individuals able to inspire and motivate the underclasses, and Alec is about as charismatic and dynamic as a Roomba with a frowny-face drawn on it. He never interacts with anybody if he doesn’t have to, hardly makes jokes and doesn’t even think up plans for himself, all his objectives being given to him by supporting characters who clearly recognise him for the glorified attack-dog covered in explosives that he is. There’s a moment where he seems to lose motivation in the rebellion – gee, maybe our lifeless hellscape of a world ISN’T worth dying by the thousands over – and it’s clearly meant to be the act two moment of uncertainty, except I was just sitting there with arms folded, waiting for the moment where he would obviously leap back into the fray with more gusto than ever.

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“And stop trying to make the audience emote! We all know it’s a hopeless cause, so just give me more trigger bombs and we can get back to business!”

In short, it’s a plot that elicits so little emotion that it comes right back round to being annoying because of it. You’d think a game blending tropes from Flash Gordon, Mad Max, Doom and Les Miserables would manage to have a bit of spirit in there, but like so many games where plot is an afterthought, Red Faction: Guerrilla uses these elements without any seeming comprehension of what makes them fun, and thus the story can never be anything other than a series of checkpoints and mission briefings.

 

“WHERE’S THE KABOOM? THERE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE AN EARTH-SHATTERING KABOOM!”

One of the things I was wondering as I downloaded Guerrilla Re-MARS-tered was what kind of Re-MARS-tering I was in for. Was this the rare kind where the whole thing is rebuilt from the ground up, refining and tweaking elements to update it, like what they did with Leaf Green/Fire Red? Was it the Secret of Monkey Island or Leisure Suit Larry kind of reboot, where the updates are both cosmetic and stylistic in nature, also allowing you to switch back to the old graphics for comparison?

Nope, nope and double nope with a side of nein. Re-MARS-tered is little more than a texture pack, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Everything is exactly how you remember it, bar a minor update to the graphics (VERY minor, I don’t think I’d have noticed if nobody had told me), but what we gain on the pretty pictures, we give up for on the structural integrity. To put it simply, THIS GAME IS GLITCHY AS HELL.

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Graphics aren’t terrible, but it doesn’t really matter when the landscape – and those hammer pants – are so grim to look at.

Brief freezes were frequent and crashes were never far behind. Frame-stuttering was downright common, as the game struggled to keep up with anything as strenuous as Alec standing on his own by the roadside. NPCs glitched around the battlefield, firing at empty air in the moments when they weren’t getting stuck on the scenery. Vehicles were especially tricky; at one point an enemy was lightly tapped on the arse by an open door and shot up into the air like he was needed on his home planet, landing several seconds later without a speck of damage on him. Another time I tried to leave my own vehicle, only for Mason to be spat out like a watermelon seed and dashed to death on a nearby cliff, his nose leaving a wet smear behind him like a dog dragging its bum on the carpet. I tried to break open one of the collectible ore deposits for my free scrap metal, only for the damn to resolutely sit there, refusing to crack even when I started throwing trigger bombs at it. Whole buildings refused to fall down even when supported only by two matchsticks and a toaster oven. My controller vibrated ferociously even when nothing was going on. Now I see why they call this game Re-MARS-tered; telling us it had been normally remastered would feel like a classic example of flagrant false advertising.

And let me clarify that none of this is down to the rig I was running it on. My computer is a money-draining beastie that can handle any modern AAA game on the highest settings without issue, so I refuse to believe that a game from 2009 (albeit one that looks like a game from 2011) is somehow too much for the damn thing to handle.

 

“I’M GOING TO BLOW IT UP. IT OBSTRUCTS MY VIEW OF VENUS.”

Now without its gameplay, I would suspect that Red Faction: Guerrilla might very well have been the last of the franchise, and not Armageddon after it.

See, things break in Guerrilla. They break a lot. If it’s artificial, you can damage it. You can tear down buildings, blow up cars, collapse bridges, smash walls to pieces. Just about anything can break. You can crush it, detonate it, hammer it, dissolve it, grind it, attack it until you’re bouncing up and down on the rubble in impotent, spittle-flecked fury; a USP that we don’t see that often even today.

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A shot from the Nano Rifle eats away a section of wall like a very determined termite.

And to Guerilla’s credit, it lives up to that promise, as organic solutions to problems present themselves in the midst of the action. I’d find myself backed into a corner under a barrage of gunfire, and use my sledgehammer to punch a hole in the wall behind me and escape through that while whooping and slapping my bum at the enemy. Missions call for you to bring down certain, heavily-guarded buildings, so I’d lure as many guards as into the place as possible and trigger the mines I’d thrown around to bring the edifice down on them. The Nano Rifle that dissolves anything also does a lot to help, vaporising walls with laser beams and so on, though the game only starts you off with a fanny pack’s worth of ammo for the damn thing and you’ll be running dry after two minutes and change.

But beyond that… well, there’s not really much beyond that. It’s an open-world game where districts are only distinguishable from what faded shade of dirty red-brown the rocks are, with a third-person over-the-shoulder view that feels like Gears of War by way of the original Borderlands.

But the thing I found peculiar is that Guerrilla is a cover-shooter, except it isn’t. Or it might be? It’s more like it can’t decide. There’s the option to stick your hip to the nearest wall or vehicle in a manner of which Nathan Drake would be proud, but good cover is rare and enemies tend to swarm you from all sides, so running comme un poulet sans tête is the name of the game in most cases. There’s a jetpack you can get later on that theoretically should make fighting more interesting, but in reality it’s slower than running and usually leaves you hanging in the air like a clay pigeon launched over a rifle range, so poor Alec can only shriek in protest and drift about like a drunk Mary Poppins as the EDF tear his undercarriage to bits with machine gun fire. And the only weapon you can’t swap out is a colossal sledgehammer that nearly always kills in one hit, so I found the most expedient option when pinned down was to charge towards the enemy and pulverise them into the dirt like Thor playing Whack-A-Mole.

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Cover shooting is an option, but not an especially helpful one. About two seconds after this image was taken, a new threat started unloading into Mason’s back from behind.

And that’s it, really. There’s stuff beyond it, like the bouncy moon buggies you can drive around with optional gun turrets hanging off them, but that’s somehow nowhere near as fun as you might think it would be. Perhaps because you can’t drive and aim weapons at the same time, so it’s just a stream of ammo blazing out directly in front of you and you just have to hope anything you want dead is polite enough to stand in the way, at which point you may as well just run it over.

Oh, and there’s a mechanic wherein increased morale in a district might mean that civilians will come to help you out in a firefight, but there’s never anybody in the really dangerous areas where it might actually be helpful. And even then their biggest contribution is usually trying to headbutt bullets out of the air, or sitting on the grenades like farmyard hens with a strong work ethic. And then the game would tell me off for letting another batch of useless nosepickers get killed over half an acre of blighted rock quarry thirty-four million miles away from the nearest Starbucks, and all I could do was protest that not only did I not want them there in the first place, but remind it that this shit is going to happen when some schmuck runs into a battlefield with nothing more to protect himself than a bachelor’s in advertising.

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YOUR PUNY DRILL IS NOTHING COMPARED TO MIGHTY HAMMER, MORTAL!

But sometimes all these mechanics come together. It does happen and I won’t say otherwise. Enemy bases tend to be open-ended and approachable from any angle, and all the toys in the box can be rearranged to your needs and desired before blasting your way in. If there’s an office building that needs reducing to rubble, you can crouch from a distance and start picking off support beams with your Nano Rifle, try to firefight your way in backed by a team of confused accountants with potato guns, attack on your own with sledgehammer and trigger bombs, or just drive through the walls in a truck and try and knock the damn thing down with the undeniable cosmic power of a second-hand Jeep Cherokee.

So it can be fun… but then it’ll stop. Maybe it’ll be a glitch, or a boring, overly-long story segment, or a linear story mission that doesn’t make use of the open world properly, or just all the fun weapons running out of ammo, leaving you plinking at enemies with half a dozen pistol rounds and a whiffle bat. It’ll happen, and then you’re left with the distinct understanding of why this game was forgotten by time – it’s just not very exciting at its core, and no amount of weak revolutionary rhetoric or destruction physics can really change that.

 

“I’M NOT ANGRY. JUST TERRIBLY, TERRIBLY HURT.”

As some of the more savvy of you might have realised, I’ve used the opportunity of this review to puncture the whole thing with quotes from Marvin the Martian, Looney Tunes’ beloved extraterrestrial terrorist. And to be honest, it feels like the perfect retaliation to a game like this: something funny, likeable, with recognisable stakes and wit – all things that Red Faction: Guerrilla lacks. The gameplay can appeal on a moment-by-moment level as you drive your hammer through heads and concrete alike, but it’s fleeting and hampered by a thousand annoyances and trials to get over in the meantime.

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It’s not so much LAWS of physics as… general suggestions for physics.

Meanwhile, the plot can’t do anything to make up the shortfall, barely making the effort to show up and just scratching its arse when it does. Why do we care about Mars and the EDF? Mars itself is a featureless desert, the population are boring non-entities, and Mason’s brother leaves so little impact in the nanoseconds before he’s butchered that I can’t even remember his name. For all my snark about the Papa Bear/Baby Bear themes that now swamp modern AAA narratives, at least they’re trying to have an emotional impact.

But in a lot of ways, Red Faction: Guerrilla feels like an early adopter of the modern sandbox formula. Liberate the districts, kill the goons, spiced up with a single gimmick to try and make it more palatable, in this case the destruction physics. I don’t hate this game, not even close, but I don’t think it did itself any favours by coming back and demonstrating how badly it’s aged in the past nine years.

And that’s the sad truth – whether you call it a remastering or a re-MARS-tering, the implication is that the game you’re bringing back was, at some point, mastered at all. Yeah, sometimes that’s true. Shadow of the Colossus was mastered and remastered. Zelda: Wind Waker was mastered and remastered. Bioshock was mastered and – er, well, it was mastered the first time, that’s my main point. But Red Faction: Guerrilla was kind of a scrappy game (pun not intended) even when it came out, and there’s no avoiding that fact now, as all the mediocre texture packs and bugs can’t hide poor plotting and gameplay that never really surpasses ‘functional’, and struggles to reach even that lofty goal.

COMPARATIVE RATING: KEEP SPLITTING ROCKS AND THERE’S A CHANCE YOU’LL STRIKE GOLD – BUT YOU’LL MORE LIKELY JUST EXHAUST YOURSELF GETTING THERE.