Playing the recently released remastered—excuse me—“re-mars-tered” edition of Red Faction: Guerrilla hammers home just how radical that 2009 cult classic was all those years ago. At that point, big-budget games had barely explored their ongoing obsession with open worlds, a design style so uniquely predispositioned to enable players to unleash utter chaos. After all, this is a format that really broke through with Grand Theft Auto III and its offshoots, games that so many played primarily as “hold up in a hospital and shoot as many people as possible” simulators. These days, flexibility and unpredictability have become the lynch pin of how some of them are designed, with series like Just Cause and Far Cry priding themselves on generating unscripted scenes that avalanche into unpredictable zaniness. But even after all these years, it’s hard to find any that went as far as Guerrilla to embrace the way we play these games, which is to say, like total assholes.
Everything about it was built to accommodate, accentuate, and reward our wanton violence. Guerrilla’s Martian landscape is almost a literal sandbox, a bland brownish-orange expanse peppered with nondescript buildings and enemy encampments to blow up. The heart of the whole game is, of course, the way you can tear apart just about any structure you can find. The game communicates that freedom immediately. You start with nothing but remote bombs and a sledgehammer, both of which are capable weapons for fending off the armed goons of the corrupt, tyrannical Earth Defense Force (EDF). But really these are demolition tools, and the first thing the game tells you to do is to use them to level a building.
Your magic hammer tears through metal and concrete with a single swing, sending debris flying every which way as you carve a path through your target. And structures collapse logically when you knock out their supports, eventually imploding into a heap that you can look upon proudly with the knowledge that you did that, that you worked to tear it down bit by bit. Unless, you know, it falls down on top of you. Then there’s a chance, if even a slight one, it’ll take you down with it, but those final moments of standing among the raining debris are spectacular in their own right.
That kind of free-form, ground-up destruction—itself an evolution of environmental damage you could cause in the older first-person Red Faction games—was incredible and gratifying in 2009, and without any other games really stepping up to iterate on what Guerrilla accomplished (even its own sequel went in a completely different and boring direction), it remains something uniquely indulgent of our worst behaviors.
But it doesn’t just stop at allowing us to rip this world to shreds. Guerrilla also tries its damnedest to contextualize and reward our hunger for destruction. It explicitly casts the player as a freedom-fighting terrorist taking up violent rebellion against the EDF, a military organization that’s forcing colonists into unpaid, life-threatening labor in an attempt to provide a struggling Earth with more resources. That premise is remarkably blunt about your role and actions, and it provides a logical consistency to all of the havoc you’d be wreaking anyway, rather than just glossing over the mayhem and pretending you’re yet another squeaky-clean, scruffy-faced hero. (Looking at you, Nathan Drake.) What’s more, many of those random acts of violence actually feed back into progressing through the game, funneling the blows you deal to the EDF—whether through major story missions and set pieces or just stopping to knock down some executive housing for the hell of it—into a meter charting the rebellion’s rise and its oppressors’ fall.
Aligning the violent, unpredictable, impulsive things players do with the reality a game is presenting is something with which developers still struggle. Red Faction: Guerrilla has always been an impressive technical feat and empowering exercise in violent indulgence, but today, it also stands out as a forward-thinking solution to that nebulous issue. It doesn’t just politely ignore our ridiculous, awful tendencies. It embraced them into every fiber, from the premise to the progression and weapon upgrades to the way sympathetic colonists begrudgingly give up their cars when you “commandeer” them to the design of its bumpy, barren Mars, perfect for hectically throwing plans out of whack and drawing attention to the next juicy target of your violent whimsy.