The Ryan Lambie column: Fatally addicted to hammers

Huge powerful hammers, particularly in Red Faction: Guerilla, have saved Ryan's week...

Mr Ryan Lambie's amazing joypad.

I’ll admit up front that I’m having trouble writing this week’s column, and not for my usual reasons; for once, I don’t feel particularly tired or virulent, or even mildly hung over. Instead, I’m distracted by hammers. Hugely powerful hammers wielded on Mars by a skinhead anarchist.

Red Faction: Guerrilla is a game I’d heard little about; I’d played none of its FPS predecessors, and until I booted it up I was expecting another dull wandering-about-shooting-things adventure. Which is precisely what I got. On the face of it, RF: G should be a rusting bucket of mediocrity. The lead character has all the charisma of a wardrobe, while the Martian environment completely fails to capture the imagination (who knew that Mars looks like an abandoned Northamptonshire gravel pit?).

It’s the hammers that save Guerrilla. Huge, absurdly powerful hammers which, when married to some neatly implemented damage modelling, allow the game’s faceless hero to demolish an entire Georgian manor house (or its Martian equivalent) in less than a minute. In fact, I’ve spent several hours simply walking around the virtual hick towns of Mars and hitting things to see how they react – and it’s a revelation. You can knock down the wall of a hovel and horrify the inhabitants within; you can shatter supports, making entire walkways collapse in a heap; you can take a few swings at a parked 4×4 until it’s little more than a smoldering cube.

Destructible environments aren’t an unusual sight in videogames, of course, but there’s something perfectly liberating about Red Faction‘s hammer that’s rarely seen. Being able to knock a few leaves off a palm tree here and there is one thing, but missions based on random property damage? Genius!

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Of all the vicarious thrills that games can offer, breaking things has to be one of the most satisfying. I still remember the first time I saw a Rampage coin-op, and to my impressionable young mind it was a game from heaven: I can be a Godzilla-type giant lizard AND smash up skyscrapers? Another genius concept, and one that cunningly papered over the game’s sluggish controls and lack of variety. And who cared about varied gameplay when you could pick up and eat tiny soldiers for breakfast, or punch a colossal office building to the ground?

Given the sheer childlike glee that breaking virtual objects can provide, it’s surprising that more games don’t feature them to the degree that Red Faction: Guerilla displays. The largely forgettable Mercenaries 2 and the Battlefield games aside, few games allow for much more than purely cosmetic damage (a wooden crate, or a window here and there).

There are technical reasons, I suppose. Give the player the ability to break everything, and they’ll more than likely end up in parts of the map the developer didn’t want them to end up in, or they’ll get stuck in a huge crater of their own making. It would become extremely easy to destroy things by mistake – firing a rocket at a building could result in the deaths of both bad guys and hostages for example – resulting in an automatic and frustrating mission failure. The player could become trapped under rubble and falling masonry and unable to escape.  These are all, you may have guessed, frequent problems in Guerrilla; firefights can quickly degenerate into a chaotic flurry of collapsing polygons and smoke effects, while the idiotic AI will occasionally have you cowering as armoured cars repeatedly crash and explode all around you.

But these failings, and numerous other sundry issues, are mere peccadilloes when balanced against the majestic might of the giant hammer – possibly one of the most ridiculous but guiltily pleasurable creations in gaming history.

So there you, have it: a Ryan Lambie column with little more to say other than “destructible environments. They’re great!”

Oh, and a brief appeal to the video game industry: more big hammers, please.

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Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.