There are certain things that some games excel at. GTA has some of the best characters in any video game we've ever played, Saints Row has its tongue firmly in cheek for its duration, Gears of War made cover systems cool, and well, Red Faction Guerrilla lets you blow stuff up. It might seem rather odd to focus this preview on something so simple and barbaric, but turning massive buildings into piles of rubble in THQ's and Volition's open-world Mars adventure is what's going to catch your attention when it's released in June. This is destruction like you've never seen before.

That's really quite a hyperbolic statement to make in the opening paragraph of a preview for a game that we've still only scratched the surface of, but until you actually get to plant a group of timed grenades around a structure and detonate them in unison to topple a tower, or simply smash through a wall with a hammer and witness the brick fall away in the place it was struck, it's hard to appreciate just what Volition has achieved here. We were a little concerned that previous Red Faction trademark GeoMod ground deformation was absent here (so you can't tunnel any more), but we've been so busy experimenting with the game's superb physics model that it rarely became more than slight irk.

Although we've seen and played the game numerous times over the last year or so, this is the first time we've been able to take the time to see what Guerrilla is really about. As we've mentioned before and you're probably now bored of reading about, this third game in the Red Faction series casts you as Alec Mason, a man who joins rebel group Red Faction after his brother is murdered by the Earth Defense Force (EDF). This shady organisation has been kidnapping civilians and setting them to work in camps, so Mason sets out to liberate the people and recruit new Red Faction soldiers along the way.

Visually it's the best looking game Volition has ever created

As with Volition's previous title Saints Row, Guerrilla is set in a large, open to explore expanse of land, although Mars isn't quite as densely populated. This play area is split into sectors, with each sector containing missions that must be completed in order to liberate that area. The rebels don't have the money or resources that the EDF has, so they make do with scrap called salvage. The cause has skilled engineers that can use this scrap metal to create new weapons and other technology, so effectively it becomes a kind of currency for Mason. As well as being able to gather up this salvage from destroyed buildings, completed missions reward you with a little extra to spend in your safe house.

Joining these key missions are plenty of secondary tasks and challenges that will reward you in various ways. By destroying EDF buildings you can get more control in a sector, especially if you manage to take down the key buildings that are marked on the map (which includes a GPS-like system that works in a similar way to what can be found in Saints Row, with added on-road arrows). Doing tasks like this helps your side's overall morale, which in turn increases the amount of salvage you receive in the sector.

Seeing big structures crumble never gets old

House Arrest missions see you rescuing kidnapped civilians, with Mason and any followers taking on the EDF soldiers that are protecting the area. Our favourite missions so far, though, are the Demolitions Master challenges, which task you with taking down certain buildings with limited offensive tools and within a time limit. Early on you simply have to down small buildings (the first sees you using gasoline barrels to destroy a tower) and have plenty of time to do so, with success earning you some much needed salvage points. Later challenges are far more elaborate and there's an added high score edge thanks to Goal and Pro completion times - from the few we've sampled Pro times are far from easy.

While there isn't a wanted level or your typical cops to worry about, there is an Alert Level. If Mason does something a bit naughty, like smack an EDF soldier in the head with a sledgehammer, or remotely blow up one of their patrol vehicles, this level will rise. As it edges from green to red the EDF becomes progressively more aggressive towards you, and Mason isn't exactly Marcus Fenix - a few bullets without respite and he's a goner. As in all open world games, death is far from disastrous, but you are returned to the nearest safe house and morale will drop, meaning less salvage. If the Alert Level gets too high your best option is to hop inside one of the readily available vehicles and attempt to get out of the EDF's sight. Just as in Saints Row, evade them for long enough and you'll be home free and the Alert Level will return to a safe green.

Mason can put up a decent fight, but a lot depends on the cover you can take and the weapons you have at your disposal. The gun-play feels similar to that found in Saints Row 2, meaning a careful headshot will down enemies instantly, but things feel slightly tighter here than the fairly loose aiming in Volition's previous game. There's a cover system too, with Mason able to do what you'd expect if you've played any one of the cover-based shooters released over the past few years. It doesn't feel compulsory as it does in Gears of War and Rainbow Six, but it most certainly helps.

The cover system isn't as slick as that in Gears, but it does its job.

From what we've played we're pretty confident that Red Faction: Guerrilla is the best looking game Volition has ever made. The lighting model used here creates some stunning moments and the Mars locale has been crafted quite wonderfully. Even without the destruction we'd be looking at one of the smartest looking next-gen games to date, but being able to blow a great big whole in a building or drive your massive truck straight through the front door never fails to be great fun and a visual spectacle. If Volition can iron out some of the frame rate issues (which are admittedly minor, even in this work in progress build) and the screen tearing, this could rank alongside the most impressive titles the Xbox 360 and PS3 have seen.

There's a lot to see in Red Faction: Guerrilla, far more than what we can cover here, but rest assured that we think Volition is onto a winner - perhaps an even bigger winner than the extremely fun Saints Row 2. Destruction might seem like a buzz word, but its implementation here is unquestionably a massive step forward for physics in video games. Thankfully there appears to be a very strong game to go with it, and we can't wait to get our hands on the final version.

Ref Faction: Guerrilla is due for release on Xbox 360 and PS3 on June 5. A PC version will follow.