As is becoming customary for all big franchise releases, Red Faction: Battlegrounds is a downloadable taster designed to get us excited for the upcoming retail release of Red Faction: Armageddon. Unlike other premium titles that have bookmarked releases such as Dead Rising 2 and Dissidia 012, Battlegrounds does not adopt the mechanics of its retail accomplice, instead assuming the guise of an isometric car combat game. Consider David Jaffe's PSN debut, Calling All Cars, and you've got the right idea.
Dispensing the colourful comic-book aesthetic of familiar isometric racers (Micro Machines, etc), Battlegrounds' closest tie to its franchise heritage is its moody aesthetic. The deep reds that became such a chore throughout Red Faction: Guerrilla are present, and balanced against new icy and industrial environments that will presumably keep the upcoming Armageddon fresh and varied.
Unlike other car combat releases such as Twisted Metal, you should not expect an in-depth single-player experience from Battlegrounds. The bite-sized downloadable title is geared towards multiplayer, and thus somewhat disappointingly the single-player is pared down into little more than a series of 15-or-so "training" missions. These sub-campaigns amount to little more than a sequence of bite-sized objectives spread across the game's small roster of maps. The single-player is acceptable for what it is, but despite the introduction of well integrated leaderboards will fail to keep you occupied outside of an hour. The survival missions — which challenge you to keep your vehicle safe from wave after wave of relentless foes — also feel significantly out of balance with the rest of the mode's challenges. While we regularly achieved gold on our first attempt in the time-trial and target practice objectives, we struggled to meet the bronze medal objective in the survival challenges.
The relatively sparse single-player component would be less disappointing if Battlegrounds was a stellar experience in multiplayer, but while its solid, there are a number of frustrations that restrict the title from reaching its potential. Despite being limited to a disappointing four-players, the arenas never feel big enough, constantly putting you in the pocket of competing players. Certainly this allows the game engine to shine, as fluid explosions erupt across the screen, but it ultimately results in the gameplay being far too chaotic for its own good. We appreciate that choreographed mayhem is a staple of the car combat genre, but in Battlegrounds it sucks out any of the game's depth. Deathmatches devolve into little more than the vehicular equivalent of circle-strafing, with the maneuverability of the cars at odds with the game's generous aim assist. Capture The Flag and Speed Run gametypes suffer from the same lack of structure, though its worth noting that the game's interpretation of King Of The Hill works better — providing the exciting breed of structured chaos that is clearly pivotal to Battlegrounds' design intentions.
But whether the multiplayer feels balanced enough or not, technical issues stop it short of reaching its full potential. The isometric view makes it difficult to judge depth, and with verticality a key component of Battlegrounds' maps, you'll spend a frustrating amount of your time cack-handedly crashing into a wall. Likewise, the controls can feel a little sticky. While the vehicles move with a satisfying slide to them, aiming with the right analogue stick can be less precise than you'd like, and the developers clearly recognised this before release. In place of the kind of immaculate shot placement we've come to expect from other dual-joystick shooters such as Super Stardust HD, Battlegrounds lavishes the player with aim-assist that ensures you're hitting targets at the expense of any skill. It just feels like a lazy solution to a less than stellar aiming mechanic.
Not everything about Battlegrounds is a negative though. The game looks sensational, running at a super smooth frame-rate even when the screen is laden with activity. Similarly, the amount of online lobby customisation options is startling, allowing you to tweak pretty much every aspect of the gameplay to your own personal preferences. This allows you to come up with some really cool gameplay combinations, and if you like tweaking you'll settle on some killer game-types. The addition of a "Random" button also allows you to explore different gameplay types without doing the tweaking yourself, though naturally the results will vary.
The whole package is brought together by a persistent ranking system that fails to really keep you intent on progressing. Some additional vehicle unlocks and the "reward" of increasing your rank are the only real reason to keep you playing. Maybe it's apathy on our part, but earning XP and filling progress bars doesn't really feel like enough to keep us playing anymore.
And yet while we can recognise Battlegrounds myriad flaws, we can recognise there's some enjoyment to be had here. Perhaps it's withdrawal symptoms from the dying car-combat genre, but with Twisted Metal still so far away, this is really the only replacement readily available. If you can look past the issues, there's some fun to be had from the game's chaotic breed of multiplayer. Just make sure you go in expecting frustration and fun in equal measures.