"They don't call it the red planet for nothing," Darius Mason growls. Indeed not, Darius – according to our extensive research on Wikipedia, they are in fact referring to the prevalence of iron oxide on the planet's surface.
Our hero, however, is probably referring to all the bloodshed and carnage wrought by successive generations of EDF, Marauders and the rebellious Red Faction. They have been going at it ostrich hammer and tong since the days of the Emotion Engine, and enjoyed solid success with 2009's Red Faction: Guerrilla.
At the outset of Red Faction: Armageddon, Mason's buddies find themselves painting the streets even redder. They're racing to repel destructive incursions from the cultist forces of a pasty weirdo known as Adam Hale (no relation to Resistance's Nathan Hale, presumably, although along with Mason they are all subscribers to the bald-headed space marine school of sci-fi fashion).
Hale and his followers are trying to shut down the Terraformer – a gigantic, City 17 Citadel-style tower that is slowly driving Mars towards a bright future of green space, fluffy clouds and Nectar points – and its removal would be fairly bad news for the population.
Naughty old Hale presumably enjoys some success, because the three sections of Armageddon we get to play (and indeed the game's title) make it clear that things don't go terribly well for Mason from thereon in.
A generation of Mars-dwellers is forced underground to avoid the hostile surface conditions, and after receiving some duff advice Mason manages to compound their gloomy misery by unleashing the spiky members of a dormant alien species (who appear to have been hibernating in Dead Space). They sprout from giant claw-like extrusions and scuttle and clamber around caverns, ripping people apart.
Developer Volition and "transmedia" obsessed THQ will be hoping that you find these events more compelling than you did with Guerrilla. Apparently storytelling was something that punters singled out for criticism last time around, and by way of compensation characters will be more rounded and events more elegantly represented.
There are also plans firmly in motion for a Syfy channel spin-off movie, which should air at the same time the game comes out. But the game's creators are very conscious of what worked in Red Factions gone by – most notably the GeoMod destruction technology that underpins all the in-game buildings, allowing them to fall apart in weighty and spectacular fashion.
From that perspective, the most exciting thing about Armageddon at the moment is the magnet gun. Last time it was the remote-detonation explosive charges. Remember the thrill every time you upgraded your remote charge capacity, and how merrily you strode out into the world in search of things to mine a little more elaborately?
The magnet gun sparks similar feelings. Not unlike Just Cause 2's two-ended grappling hook, it allows you to introduce objects to one another at high speed. You fire one magnet at one thing and then the other at another thing, and thing one is propelled toward thing two at high velocity.
In combination with GeoMod, though, the possibilities are more numerous and exotic. You can fire an alien at a building, and rather than just banging heavily into it and expiring, it will generally smash through the wall and then expire - hopefully bringing the structure down in the process. Fire a magnet at the wall of a house and another at a smokestack, and a chunk of the wall will separate itself and hurtle thrillingly across the screen.
The only non-campaign level we get to play is a tech-demo playground of buildings, walkways, chimneys and overpasses. It's telling that we spend more time happily playing with the magnet gun in these surroundings, without the hassle of objectives, than we do gunning through the early stages of the story.
The magnet gun isn't the only new toy in the sandbox, either. Apart from the plasma beam – a sort of long-distance laser sword useful for cutting the foundations out from under heavy lumps of masonry – there's the singularity cannon.
This creates a miniature black hole that blows impressive chunks out of the environment and anything foolish enough to be wandering around it. It makes an impressive low whoomph noise as it goes off, before leaving a ghostly sigh hanging in the air as its impact is made apparent.
The Nano Forge from Guerrilla returns too, but its upgraded form is a repair tool that can be used to reassemble broken sections of the environment. It's in constant use in single-player as the collateral damage to gantries, turbines and stairwells takes its toll on your options for progression.
Because it's positioned on the left bumper you can use it independently of weapons, repairing crates and walls to provide ammunition for the magnet gun you're wielding with the other trigger finger.
Alternatively, the Nano Forge emits a short-range wave of destruction, which is helpful for hacking through walls and doors that don't deserve a magnet or remote charge, or even the time it takes to pull out your trusty sledgehammer.
Combat, whether against aliens or Hale's cultists, benefits from a Call of Duty-style left-trigger snap-to-target option – optional, but now so firmly part of the language of first- and third-person shooters that its absence would be peculiar.
That's probably just as well because the greater degree of vertical gameplay afforded by the deep caves of the Mars underground, along with the aliens' tendency to sprout from the walls and dart around the ceiling, means that the mid-screen radar gadget can only do a reasonable job helping you to triangulate the whereabouts of the things you're trying to shoot.
You still collect 'salvage' – the shiny metal byproduct of all your vandalism – and continue to invest it in upgrades, for things like recoil reduction, damage reduction while evading, faster reloading, health upgrades and on-screen readouts of enemy vitals (you know, health bars).
Guerrilla's hulking mech suits also return, their superior firepower and armament allowing Volition to pad your surroundings with a greater number of enemies to change the pace. You're not invincible in a suit though, so in these situations it's best to prioritise the alien spawn pods for zapping, not least because their children are stronger when they're nearby.
The boldest change, of course, is the decision to relocate the game away from the sprawling, open-world surface of Mars into the linear caves and mines of the underground. The developers make a good case for their choice. Critics of the last game pinpointed the long, fairly dull drives over desolate terrain between entertaining battles as weak links. The linearity of the underground affords the developer greater control over pacing and spectacle, while the cavernous surrounds are still able hosts for mountains of destructible scenery.
One definite casualty is the side missions that gave you things to do in between advancing Guerrilla's plot, but speaking to the developers you get the impression they plan to feature timed destruction challenges and other diversions as a separate entity. We'll see.
Whether Armageddon enhances Volition's reputation as a storyteller as well as an unpretentious action game developer is hard to tell at this stage. The game is still pretty cheesy from what we could make of it – "Here comes the cavalry!" etc. - and the missions we get to play are enjoyable, but lack the scale and composure of a Halo or the visual inventiveness of a Half-Life.
Nevertheless, Armageddon seems unlikely to undo the series' reputation for breaking things and having a lot of fun in the process, and for many – us included – a more compelling narrative core sheathed in destructible playthings would be enough to tempt us back another go-round. We don't call it the red planet for nothing.