Red Faction: Origins logo

Ah, the promises of franchises gone dead.  Particularly in the video game world, where companies live and die (and are bought-out and sold-out) directly by sales numbers likely moreso than any other medium, franchises can reign atop the sales charts and in the minds of fans for years and then be abruptly gone in a matter of weeks or months, with no more than the occasional “whatever happened to…?” mentions from casual gaming fans.

Such was the case in the first decade of the millennium with ‘Red Faction.’ A series of FPS (first-person shooter) style games with a unique element to help it stand out: the games’ ability to provide wide-scale environmental destruction features via “Geo-Mod” (Geometry Modification), letting players enjoy destroying pretty much anything and everything in the “background” environments of the game, including the ground they were standing on.  A quartet of games was released across a decade starting in 2001, with a fifth game planned but never released.  THQ, the company responsible for the series’ creation, filed for bankruptcy in 2012, and while its assets (including ‘Red Faction’) were sold to other studios, there has been no further movement on this franchise since.

As the series prepared to release its third game, ‘Red Faction: Armageddon,’ the SyFy Channel teamed with developer Volition and publisher THQ to produce ‘Red Faction: Origins,’ a two-hour pilot film that bridges the gap between 2009’s ‘Red Faction: Guerilla’ and the then-upcoming ‘Armageddon.’ It’s not a coincidence that ‘Origins’ aired a scant three days before ‘Armageddon’ was released.

Taking place 25 years after the events of ‘Guerilla,’ ‘Origins’ follows Jake Mason – son of ‘Guerilla’s’ protagonist Alec Mason – rebuilding the Martian colonies that were destroyed during the overthrow of the oppressive Earth Defense Force (for further details, feel free to go play ‘Red Faction: Guerilla’ … I’ll wait). While investigating the wreckage of a crashed EDF ship, Jake finds a young woman who looks an awful lot like his younger sister, who was abducted from their home 12 years ago.

As he works to learn more about her disappearance, he stumbles upon a conspiracy to destabilize the uneasy peace that exists between the Red Faction colonists and the nomadic, uncivilized Marauders who live in the Martian wilderness. The conspiracy ultimately ensnares Jake’s sister, decimates Jake’s hometown, and threatens to spark a war that could destroy 200 years of civilization on Mars.

It’s likely slightly less easy for non-fans to follow, but for players of the ‘Red Faction’ series, ‘Origins’ is likely a welcome continuation of the Red Faction story. ‘Origins’ is a character piece, so it’s heavy on exposition and light on the frantically destructive gameplay – but there’s definitely enough action to keep things interesting. The filmmakers clearly understand the difference between a video game story and a television story, and the transition from console to cable box is reasonably smooth.

There are some “realism” issues in the story, though. Jake’s sister’s memory is conveniently terrible – we’re supposed to believe that she can recognize her older brother she hasn’t seen in over a decade, but somehow can’t remember the events of her abduction. Jake is too heroic even for a video game character  – he’s a skilled pilot, a master of hand-to-hand combat, able to negotiate the criminal underworld well enough to come out alive, and savvy enough to understand the political realities of post-revolution Mars, all at once. The other characters are similarly one-dimensional. It’s not that I necessarily expect more from my video game movies, but I want more.

There is a good balance in the film between the action of a video game and the character development required for a TV drama. There’s maybe too much exposition, but considering there’s probably a hundred gameplay hours of backstory to get through, it’s handled about as efficiently as possible. We get to see a blend of familiar characters from Guerilla and new characters that were at the forefront of ‘Armageddon,’ and the result feels like a changing of the guard. That seems to be exactly the effect they’re going for, so mission accomplished there.

For a TV movie, the sets and special effects are pretty damn good. Not spectacular, but it’s clear some work went into building a world that’s high-tech but rough. The sets for each side of the conflict are predictable but effective — Red Faction capital city Eos looks practical and industrial, a hardscrabble border town feels poor and dirty, and the inside of an EDF dreadnought is well-lit and sleek. There are still plenty of cheesy effects and unnecessary green-screens, but as made-for-TV movies go, ‘Origins’ is quite well done.

‘Red Faction: Origins’ is, at its heart, a two-hour commercial for a video game, with 90-second actual commercials interspersed. It’s shameless pandering, but it is well-done pandering, and the story that’s been set up by three previous games is interesting enough that I would have been interested in seeing this film go on to spawn a television series – but obviously, that ain’t happening now.