Don't worry everyone! I know we're living underground, that most of us have been eaten by violent Martian insects, and that we're next on the menu - but that's no reason to panic! Darius Mason is here, and he's almost certainly going to save us. Probably. Just try not to look at that woman over there, the one he utterly failed to rescue. She's currently having her head twisted off by a Space Grasshopper.
In fact, it's probably best if you just accept that a lot of innocent people are going to die from here on in, because in Red Faction: Armageddon this appears to be par for the course. My last hands-on with the game found Mason attempting to battle a small army of Martian bugs while simultaneously fleeing from an angry mob. Now, having had the benefit of a lengthy taster of the game's early chapters, it's easy to see why the populace were so pissed off. From what I can tell, it's Joe Public's job to get hopelessly slaughtered while Mason haphazardly tries (and fails) to save them. As saviours go, he's a likeable guy - but on current evidence he's only marginally more effective than a gun-toting Mr Bean.
My latest demo kicked off a short way into the game, at a point where Mr Poo is already very much acquainted with Mr Fan. Everyone has been living under the surface of Mars for several years, and more recently a hoard of insects has shown up to massacre anyone who's not already died from severe S.A.D. (that last part is a guess). The preceding chapters will explain how both of these situations came to be, but for now all you need to know is that Mason has a direct link to both events.
As you can imagine, this leaves him feeling rather guilty. The majority of my demo time found Mason working in and around Bastion, the main hub settlement of what now passes for civilization underground. While everyone has yet to work out that Mason was partly responsible for releasing our friends with the mandibles, his heavy conscience prompts him to be a good Samaritan, resulting in a series of missions where you run about trying to sort odd jobs in a bid to keep Bastion protected. The thing is, it's hard to escape the feeling that you're all ultimately doomed. Escorted convoys get destroyed, people wander off on errands and get their face bitten off, and generally the action is laced with a bleak, claustrophobic feeling.
Obviously there's a good side to this, in that there's no shortage of Martian bugs to shoot. Armageddon generally maintains a hectic pace, swamping you with enemies and forcing you into exhausting battles that present a pleasingly high level of challenge, even on the default difficulty. In the lulls between fighting you'll invariably be searching for salvage that you can then use to fuel upgrades to your weapons and Nano Forge powers. Mason can only carry four weapons at once, and you may find it surprisingly hard to settle on a load-out, since you'll invariably use everything you're carrying during the longer running battles. It seems that your choice of upgrades have a significant effect on combat, too. While one other journalist I spoke to said he found the basic firearms to be useless, the shotgun soon became the mainstay of my armoury: when powered-up, it's capable of despatching lesser foes with a single blast.
Between the widespread arsenal of potential attacks and the chaotic nature of combat, I often found myself forgetting about Mason's Nano Forge powers. The basic repair functions have an obvious use, reassembling life-saving cover whenever you're taking a beating, but it's easy to overlook the other cooldown abilities at your disposal. While there are powers that buff Mason's attacks or which drive away bugs who have crawled a little too close, the most useful trick is Shell - an instant, dome-shaped forcefield that provides an opportunity to recover your health (and your breath).
Shell proves particularly useful in an early set-piece where Mason defends the rear of a slow-moving platform as it crawls down a lengthy tunnel. As the dome remains in place once you've deployed, it's possible to use it to temporarily block up the tunnel, shielding you from projectiles and enemy advances alike. While the field is up you can deploy remote mines and fix up the one section of the platform that offers minor cover, although naturally it's only a matter of time before the bugs tear it down again.
Unsurprisingly, it's the GeoMod destruction effects that remain the highlight of the game's appearance. The novelty factor has yet to wear off, and it's unashamedly fun to completely decimate a towering building using the range of lasers and explosives at your disposal. Dynamic carnage aside, it's fair to say that Red Faction: Armageddon won't be winning any prizes for its looks. In terms of its ambiance it feels less like a Summer Blockbuster and more like one of John Carpenter's better B-Movies, but this style ultimately suits the game well. Between the bleak tone, physics tomfoolery and varied approaches to combat, Volition has certainly nailed a certain something At the start of my playtest I had concerns about the prospect of spending hours fighting through underground caverns, but the end product remained engaging and moreish throughout.
Outside of the main campaign there are hints that the story may eventually carry us back onto the Martian surface, as both the Ruin and Infestation modes feature topside environments. I've already described Ruin in my last preview, though it's worth adding once more that it seems to be just as fun for a quick blast as Wrecking Crew was in Red Faction: Guerrilla. Infestation, meanwhile, is Armageddon's equivalent to Hoard: a four-player romp that pits you against increasingly tricky waves of enemies.
There are 30 stages for each setting, and since there are several of these it seems as if Infestation will provide a fat chunk of play-time in its own right. Depending on the scenario your aim will be to protect key buildings from enemy attack or simply to wipe out every hostile on the map, and as with the main game the battles soon become remarkably tough. Each player can only use one NanoForge power in each round, but since there are four of you it's possible to combine effects for added impact. Teamwork pays dividends here, and if you don't make an effort to save downed colleagues, you'll likely find your self overwhelmed.
As in the story-driven campaign, a number of tactical options emerge depending on your choice of load-out. While the Magnet Gun is great for battering enemies with heavy bits of scenery, it's arguably more useful as a way of keeping major threats at bay. The Beserker, for example, is a hulking great monster who takes a load of punishment before he finally dies, exploding as he does. With careful use of the Magnet Gun, you can repeatedly drop him from the ceiling, and then throw him into a crowd of lesser foes who'll be caught in the blast when you finish him off.
As I've said before, I like the fact that Red Faction: Armageddon isn't afraid to add traditional, old-school gameplay elements to its sci-fi horror mix. Or to put it another way, the game carries cinematic overtones, but it rarely loses sight of the things that make third-person shooters enjoyable in the first place. We'll know for sure in a couple of months, but for now this is looking like yet another quality effort from Volition.
Red Faction: Armageddon will be released on June 3 for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.