Perhaps it's just a sign of the times. When the original Red Faction emerged, back in the prehistoric mists of 2001, an angry political plotline was one of the game's notable features. Sure, most of us were preoccupied with the fact you could blow ruddy great holes in the levels - seriously, you can walk right through them and everything! - but the quasi-communist symbolism was interesting nonetheless. The series has evolved over the past decade, but for the past three games there's always been a dash of that activist spice, that tingle that makes you want to scream "THE UNION FOREVER!" while bashing your boss's brains in with a hammer.
Today, things have changed. Political apathy has spread to the Illinois offices of Volition Inc, and as a result this latest Red Faction is no longer concerned with taking down The Man, man. Instead, Armageddon finds you scrabbling about Mars's underground caverns, battling hoards of massive insects and attempting to deal with the naughty cult who's responsible for their unwanted presence. The impressive terrain destruction is still present and correct, but the politics have gone AWOL.
Or have they? Perhaps I'm missing the subtlety of Volition's vision, and the whole thing is a metaphor for life after the Credit Crunch. The gloomy caverns represent the dank housing we're forced to inhabit, and it's dark because none of us can pay our energy bills. Insects are the major threat, because we've all got to deal with the roaches that infest our neglected council flats. And the cultists? Why, they represent the Chuggers in the street, the pests in weird clothes who hound us for cash when we're already broke - our wallets barren, our overdrafts tumescent.
Either that, or someone's been playing Dead Space.
In any case, I don't really care what's motivated the change-up, because the initial signs are that the new direction is working well. Our hero and link to the past is Darius Mason - grandson to Alec Mason, star of Red Faction: Guerrilla. It's not entirely clear what role the eponymous Red Faction will actually play this time around, but Darius' character already seems fairly well-defined: he's a cocky adventurer type who's destined to have all sorts of misery heaped upon him.
The latest playable demo of Armageddon kicks off with Darius being confronted by a mob of extremely pissed-off miners. It seems that our man may have inadvertently released the aforementioned killer bugs, and the pickaxe-lovers are none too happy at the prospect of death by Space Woodlouse. Guns are drawn, bullets start flying, and Darius decides that discretion is the better part of valour - fleeing into (well, down) a rabbit hole that leads to a labyrinth of tunnels. Needless to say, these caverns are teeming with the killer insects that have everyone so upset.
Darius is caught between a rock and a hard place, and what with this being a Red Faction game, the only solution is to blow both to smithereens. The demo moves swiftly, with the player scrabbling through the caverns and the infested ruins of a colonial outpost, desperately searching for the path to safety. At every step of the way there are masses of insects to dispatch - little critters who crawl on the floor, snipe-y creatures who launch projectiles from the corner of the room, and strange, electrically-charged monsters who seem to have the power to teleport. The design of the insects themselves are relatively familiar - they look like they strolled out of Xenomorph College with a Diploma in spiky mandibles - but the sound design supporting them is very slick, filling the game's echoing warrens with sinister chirrups and clicks.
To despatch these beasties, the game provides a hefty selection of destructive tools. Shotguns, assault rifles and remote charges head up the more familiar end of the spectrum, but the star of Volition's arsenal is the Magnet Gun, a two-stage weapon that helps to demonstrate the game's physics. The first shot with this device lets you select something you want to move - be it an enemy or static object - while the follow-up shot determines a place for it to go; the first target is then pulled towards the second with tremendous force. You can mark your insect foes and then hurl them across the room, or you can pick out a heavy item of scenery and then launch it in the direction of the nearest threat. In the course of the demo, the Magnet Gun really comes into its own in a cave filled with blade-shaped crystals - allowing me to splatter the enemy with huge pointy missiles.
The Magnet Gun is a clear focal point for Armageddon's physics effects, but elsewhere the GeoMod 2.5 engine remains the star of the show. Guerrilla's sandbox environments may have been traded in for linear levels, but the apparent result is a world where almost everything can (and will) be destroyed by the player's actions. It's quite possible to completely devastate your surroundings, and given the constant stream of enemies Mason faces - in the demo, at least - it seems that this will invariably happen whether you want it to or not.
Naturally it wouldn't make much sense if the player were able to trap themselves by destroying the only way out of a room, so the developers have granted Mason the ability to instantly restore his surroundings. Tapping the left bumper will cause you to toss out what essentially amounts to a Repair Grenade, while holding the button down results in a slower but more thorough reconstruction of everything in Mason's vicinity. It's an important addition that allows the gameplay to breathe: you can lay waste to the world with reckless abandon, safe in the knowledge that you can fix the important stuff when you're done.
Freedom of expression is nothing new as far as Volition's output is concerned; both Red Faction: Guerrilla and Saints Row 2 were more than happy to let the player mess about, after all. Armageddon takes its cues from established sources - Dead Space and James Cameron's Aliens, to name the obvious two - but it's content to let the player off the leash. If you want to play it as a straight shooter, you'll be able to do that, but if you'd rather chuck you foes about with the Magnet Gun, that's fine too. You can even take a melee-focused approach by using the Maul, Red Faction's iconic sledgehammer. You're regularly given a chance to chance your four-weapon load-out too, switching your inventory at glowing consoles that crop up every so often. Similar devices also let you upgrade or tinker with Mason's Nanoforge abilities, which are essentially magic spells given a sci-fi makeover.
While the game's looks are nothing to complain about, you get a sense that the developers have been mainly concerned with ensuring the player has a good time. Rather than being entirely focused on cinematic flourishes, Armageddon openly embraces traditional design elements. The insects emerge from slimy hive-like structures that more or less serve as enemy generators; succumb to the hostile forces and you're greeted with a proper 'Game Over' screen, like mama used to make.
More than anything else, Armageddon celebrates the fun to be had in making lots of things go "BOOM!" in succession. Nowhere is this more evident than in Ruin mode - a rough follow-up to Guerrilla's Wrecking Crew. Here you simply choose a quartet of weapons and then set about destroying the scenery as fast as you can, working against the pressure of a strict time limit. Efficient destruction rewards you with multipliers and time extensions, and if you beat the target score you'll unlock the next map. That's all there is to it really, but it's a surprisingly addictive little diversion - particularly when you're running rampant with a gun that fires out black holes, or a plasma beam that can slice a building clean in half. If Red Faction has indeed toned down its political rumblings, its appetite for destruction remains undiminished.
Red Faction: Armageddon will be released on June 3 on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.