I’d like to think you can’t play a game wrong, but in certain situations, it can feel like you are. Some game mechanics make more sense in specific contexts than others. Call of Duty’s entire scheme, from its rapid gunfights, to its tactical equipment, fit better in its online, competitive multiplayer than its narrative-focused single player campaign. The systems thrive on the dynamics of having human players firing with and back at you, not the scripted sequences in the story. If all you do is play Call of Duty alone, you’re missing out on the series’ real draw. You might be doing it wrong.
This is a problem for The Red Solstice, a multiplayer-focused game that mostly offers ways to play it solo. There are many abilities, classes, stats, and items to use in its two single player modes, but their use is never fully realized. They feel like they’re built for a team of players, not the computer-controlled allies you’re stuck with offline. Unfortunately for me, I don’t know four to eight people who could join me fighting aliens on Mars. So, I partnered with strangers instead.
It turns out, The Red Solstice with strangers is nearly impossible. The game’s hordes of aliens overwhelm any uncoordinated team, and, if you’ve played any high-difficulty multiplayer game with randoms, you know how miserable it is to demand organization from people you don’t know or trust. The game punishes wanderers, deserters, and newcomers–the most likely types of players that you’ll meet, effectively punishing the use of its own matchmaking system.
Before your brutal death, you can start to see some of the game’s depth. The marines are built like an MMO’s trinity: tank, healer, and damage dealer. They work best together, tossing protection, cover fire, and healing between each other. It’s the only way to deal with the walls of human-mutated enemies that attack you while chasing various objectives, protecting beacons, or fighting through waves. You can set up turrets and land mines to lessen the impact, but they will push you back sooner or later. That means positioning matters too. Warcraft 3-style unit-based, strategy game controls combined with an auto-fire mode that shoots at anything close enough turns you into a walking sprinkler of bullets. A lot of your tactics depend on when to push forward or to pull back.
But if these don’t happen in unison with a team, the encounters go haywire quickly. The marines you play as in The Red Solstice are inevitably doomed when fighting alone. You can revive dead teammates but it takes too long mid-battle. And since your ammunition is constantly ticking down, with very little refills to find in the large maps, you need everyone alive. Boss monsters, for example, soak up so many bullets that victory against them will be a net loss if you don’t dole out the shooting to several people. When you do run out of ammo, and you will, you become almost entirely useless. There’s little time to scavenge after the opening of a match, so it’s vital that a team shares. That, as expected, doesn’t go well with people you don’t know.
Those are the small, but integral barriers that make me respect Destiny’s decision to disallow random groups from tackling its raids. A high-level of difficulty requires the kind of execution you’re rarely going to get that way. That The Red Solstice doesn’t require the same is strange.
The story has no drive and no motivation, especially from its characters.
It’s also strange that it glues a tired sci-fi story to its clearly multiplayer-based systems in its single player mode. As a concession, it gives you the ability to slow time and control your computer-controlled squad individually. This throws the game’s rhythm out of whack, halting frantic fights and slowing what would otherwise be quick and efficient situations with other players.
And the last thing the campaign needs is a way to drag its already-stale narrative down. The story has no drive and no motivation, especially from its characters. You’re dropped on Mars to save its colony from a virus outbreak. There’s no friction to its character’s’ goals other than more action. You just do what you’re told over and over. That’s not to say multiplayer-focused games need incredibly engaging stories, but even as texture to support all the visceral action, The Red Solstice fails.
As a result, it seems like you’re at a disadvantage when playing either by yourself or with random people. None of the intricacies, like temporary power boosts or Call of Duty-perk-like abilities, factor into those scenarios. You need people you know to experiment and prod with its mechanics, but the game suggests that you don’t through most of its options of play. There’s one, potentially satisfying way to play it. And any other way feels wrong.