Reviewed: July 11, 2003
Released: June 17, 2003
With the exception of Indiana Jones, RTX Red Rock marks the first LucasArts game we’ve reviewed that doesn’t have “Star Wars” in the title. Rather than traveling to a “galaxy far, far away” we’re sticking closer to home for this adventure that takes place on our red neighbor, Mars.
The date is 2103 and you are Wheeler – a bio-mechanically enhanced soldier outfitted with a robotic arm that serves as the Swiss Army Knife of the future, as well as an electronic eye with multiple vision modes that would make the Borg envious. Your skills and your equipment will be put to the test when you must stop an alien invasion on Mars.
At first glance it is all too easy to dismiss RTX (radical tactics expert) as yet another third-person action game in a sea of similar titles, but there are plenty of innovative gameplay features that really distinguish this game from the rest. Of course the main hooks are the vision modes and the various devices in Wheeler’s robotic arm. These make up a major portion of the puzzles and overall gameplay.
The vision modes include futuristic enhancements like bioscan, thermal, electroscan, and naviscan. With the exception of the self-explanatory thermal scan that lets you see in the dark and lights up heat sources, the other modes are a bit more cryptic in their use and their implementation, which at times is needlessly clunky.
Naviscan allows you to access downloadable maps, mission objectives and waypoints, but for some reason you are not allowed to move in this mode, so you will constantly be switching back and forth between the game and the maps to check your progress. The remaining vision modes check for electrical malfunctions and control systems and foreign life forms, and their use is required throughout the game to solve puzzles and advance the story.
Your cybernetic arm can be upgraded throughout the game to support a wide variety of tools including a torque wrench, taser, plasma cutter, grappling hook, and even a catapult you can use to launch butane tanks for explosive results.
You are accompanied on your adventure by IRIS, an AI construct that travels with you in a portable electronic device that can be plugged into various data terminals to download information and into robots enabling you full remote control. Wheeler has programmed this particular AI with a strong female personality that offers plenty of humorous conversations throughout the game.
You can use IRIS to jack into a variety of robots and other vehicles then pilot these devices for some nice diversionary gameplay. The designers wisely chose to keep the controls simple and consistent with the human movement scheme, so you can quickly adapt to any new device in just a few seconds.
RTX Red Rock encompasses ten chapters that take place above, on, and below the surface of Mars. Each chapter offers a new and exciting environment full of specific puzzles and objectives that must be met before you can proceed to the next chapter. You begin the game on Phobos Station, an orbiting spaceport that acts as a tutorial of sorts. By the time you are acclimated to the interface and gameplay mechanics it will be time to abandon the station and head for the surface.
Exploring the surface of Mars is quite remarkable. You are in an EVA suit that looks quite similar to Buzz Lightyear (minus the wings), at least from the rear. Air is an important commodity in RTX and you must always be on the lookout for additional O2 canisters to keeps your reserves topped off. Air seems to deplete at a fixed rate rather than being based on your actions; running, climbing, jumping, etc. I thought this was a missed opportunity at adding some additional challenge by having you monitor your type of movement based on your air reserves, but the concept still works, only to a more limited degree. Air is merely a timer to keep you from wandering too far from the beaten path that is clearly outlined with meticulously placed O2 tanks.
I was impressed with the level of physical accuracy used in modeling the gravity on Mars. Wheeler bounces around in low-gravity, is able to make daring leaps across chasms and fall distances that would be deadly in Earth’s gravity. Once inside or beneath the surface of Mars artificial gravity is in place and the game plays just like your standard action title.
With all of these cool concepts in place RTX Red Rock fails to achieve greatness for several reasons, the first of which is just a downright clunky interface that seems to place all of the most frequently used commands several button-presses away. Despite the implementation of Quick Switch commands to access frequently used weapons, items, and vision modes there is just something overly complicated about the entire process that has you “thinking” about which buttons you need to press more than the game. Needless to say, this can often ruin the “immersion” you need to put yourself in Wheeler’s shoes and live the adventure.
The other contributing factor to the game’s failed attempt at excellence is that the story and missions simply aren’t compelling enough to get you involved with the characters or the events. You’d think it would be hard to miss with a good story about alien invasion on Mars, but somehow the game just leads you by the hand through some very linear and unimaginative levels that seem more designed around the puzzles.
Red Rock is a visual treat that surprised me on multiple levels ranging from character design to both indoor and outdoor environments. Despite the lack of any creative level design, the levels that are present are all very well modeled and highly detailed with colorful (sometimes too colorful) textures. The Wheeler model is particularly well constructed, both indoors and outside in his detailed EVA suit.
The surface of Mars was breathtaking, partly because of the welcome relief of getting out of the tight confines of the spaceport, but more so due to the sprawling vistas with abundant textures that failed to repeat. There were all sorts of jaggy rocks and deep chasm and Wheeler kicks up puffs of pinkish powder as he plods along. Outdoor levels have that red tint to them that is popular in movies about Mars (Red Planet, Mission to Mars).
You have your standard library of visual effects like colored lighting, particle effects, and such that all add to the total graphics package. For the most part RTX maintains a fluid and playable 30fps but at times – especially outdoors – the framerate can dip dangerously low, but never to the point where it hurts the gameplay.
The interface looks much better than it functions and the vision modes are all color-coordinated so you instantly know which mode you are using by the color of the screen. The semi-transparent HUD is well designed and features intuitive meters and icons giving you instant access to critical information.
And last but certainly not least are the amazing cutscenes that kick off the game and pop-up between the various missions to carry the story forward. These are some of the best movies you will see in any action game, but we expect no less from the wizards at LucasArts. It’s just a shame that some of the narrative and motivation from these movies doesn’t carry over into the actual gameplay.
Sound and music are generally pretty good. We don’t have any John Williams’ goodness going on in the background but the techno theme music during the movies and ambient tunes during the game all get the job done.
Sound effects are a mixed bag with all sorts of futuristic bleeps, buzzes, and R2D2 droid-like effects. I was rather unimpressed, nay, disappointed with the weapons effects from both Wheeler and the bad guys shooting at him. Come on guys. You have the largest selection of sound effects ever compiled at Skywalker Ranch and this is the best you can come up with?
The dialog and speech is excellent both in content and performance. Wheeler is your typical tough-as-nails commando and IRIS is the ditzy bimbo computer AI constantly giving him grief throughout the game.
RTX features a Dolby Pro Logic II surround mix that sounds really good during the movies but only serves to accent the limitations and quality of the in-game sounds. There just wasn’t a lot happening in the rear channels even when things – noisy things - were obviously behind me during the game.
There are ten levels in RTX but this can be deceiving since one level is the opening tutorial on Phobos and takes about 15 minutes to finish. The second level took about 90 minutes to complete but once you know what to do that same level could be finished in about 30. This means that the more intuitive player can zip through these levels and the entire game in under ten hours. Everyone else will get 15-20 hours of enjoyment from Red Rock.
There are no real bonus objectives, quest items, pick-ups, or branching plot paths to make this game fresh for future replays, so RTX is basically a one-trip wonder that you can probably finish in a normal rental period.
RTX Red Rock is an ambitious project, not so much because of the resulting product, but more because LucasArts is trying to diversify and escape their Star Wars rut. RTX combines some unique gameplay elements to enhance a traditional third-personal action game, and while it might not be the best game out there, it does offer a certain charm and will certainly pave the way for future non-Star Wars LucasArts games like Full Throttle, Sam-n-Max and others.