Volition is one of the main employers, and the only games developer, in Champaign, Illinois. Studio life is local life. So when 86 of the external QA team are made redundant a couple of days before I arrive in smalltown America, it's big news, splashed all over the local TV and print media. The first cab driver I speak to knows a guy who works there. Ask any local, it seems, and they'll have something to say about Volition.
It's a markedly different dynamic and atmosphere to the studios I've visited clustered around major US cities. There's much to be said for the buzz and the thrill of the big city; but it can also create a restlessness that sees staff impatiently flit from company to company in search of the next creative rush. Nothing wrong with that; but it wouldn't do for a project like Red Faction: Guerrilla.
The last title in the series, Red Faction II, released seven years ago. Volition has been toiling away on a sequel now for the past five, but it's striking to note that for most of that time the studio wasn't even sure if it was going to work.
"I'm impressed we've got this far," admits lead designer James Hague. "There were lots of points where I thought, no way, this is never going to work." The eureka moment came only "in the past 18 months" when, after years of heavy-duty engine building, it became clear that they had a game idea and structure that actually worked.
Although we're not quite talking Duke Nukem Forever here, dedicating years of your life to something you're never actually certain is going to be released must require immense patience and self-discipline. But opting to settle into the slow lane of Champaign probably helps.
"When people come here I think it's about long-term, it's about settling down, having a family," studio boss Dan Cermak tells me. "A traffic jam here is maybe three cars at a stop light. When we get people coming here we know they're serious."
The biggest issue has been technical. The first two Red Faction games were solid if routine first-person shooters but for one element: Geo-Mod. Based on proprietary tech, this allowed players to wreck the environment. But as every encounter with an invisible wall tells us, promise your audience the world, and anything less leads to disappointment.
So the vision for Guerrilla was clear enough: create a world in which practically everything can be crushed, broken, bent, exploded, clobbered and toppled. If it's in your way, you should be able to smash it to smithereens. And so years have been spent evolving the studio's destruction tech to a point where this is not only feasible, but implementable in a way that's fun and, crucially, doesn't stagger drunkenly at three frames per second. And you know what? They've done it.
As you'll know by now, the linear FPS model of the original has been ditched in favour an open-world, third-person sandbox adventure. After enjoying considerable success with its Saints Row games, this move makes perfect sense for Volition and for the experience.
The team has argued all along that the shift in perspective was about being able to take in as much of the havoc you wreak on the environment; and this is a game where you'll want to savour every last thwack of metal on concrete.
The tech is effortlessly stunning, far ahead of anything offered by competitors like Fracture and Battlefield: Bad Company. But most importantly, Volition has nailed the feel of destruction: simply assaulting a concrete wall with a sledgehammer - your default, and devastatingly effective, weapon - is a cathartic delight with palpably satisfying impact. If, like me, you've fantasised about rampaging through the crockery section in Ikea with a hammer, this must be as close as a standard joypad can get to how you'd imagine it to feel.
Objects disintegrate in a remarkably realistic manner. So much so, that a basic recognition of the laws of physics helps, as I discover having torn through the walls of a building from the inside, only for it to collapse on top of me.
There is method to the mayhem. To recap on the story, Red Faction: Guerrilla is set 50 years after the events of the original. Back on Mars (RFII was Earth-based), you play Alec Masson, a miner who travels to the Red Planet to work with his brother. The Earth Defence Force, liberator of the original, has since turned State aggressor and declared martial law. "Free Mars is over," you're told during an introductory cut-scene. Suffice to say, something bad happens and you are quickly recruited into the resistance to fight back against the EDF.
Guerrilla is split into six large areas, the goal being to drive the EDF from each, and ultimately free Mars. You start each section from a safehouse, where you can change your weapon loadout, upgrade equipment (by trading in salvage collected in the wake of destruction), hop into a vehicle, or start a new mission.
As this is an open-world game, it's pretty much up to you what you do and where you go. A map details the various missions and side-activities available to you: your focus is to destroy EDF-guarded areas and complete missions linked to the main plot.
Side activities, like Demolitions Master, aren't essential, but help to build skills as well as being entertaining diversions. An enjoyable early example sees you having to destroy a building against the clock using only a pistol and hydrogen tanks. The tanks must be carried and positioned strategically so that when you blow them up with a well-aimed shot, they take out a key part of the structure.
A more simplistic example comes with shooting down metal towers from a gun emplacement, again against the clock. It's relatively dull, in truth, but the point is that Volition is promising variety in gameplay throughout - essential if the single-player is to last the 18-20 hours claimed for it.
Two things you'll want to keep your eye on are civilian morale and EDF control. The latter depletes, naturally, as you complete more missions; the former introduces an interesting dynamic whereby the higher the morale, the more likely you are to be aided in missions and raids by NPCs. Morale builds the more you strike back at the EDF (including destroying propaganda-spouting signage), but takes a dive every time a rebel is killed.
Vehicles come in various shapes and sizes, from the sluggish and dangerously exposed, to the nimble and formidably armoured. One of the great joys of Red Faction: Guerrilla is whizzing around on wheels, be it just smashing into structures and other vehicles, or weaving in and out of serpentine canyons while pursued by raging EDF forces.
The most thrilling moment of my few hours with the single-player comes during the final mission of the first area, Parker. To facilitate your faction's escape to a new location, you must distract the EDF, which you do by hopping behind the wheel and rampaging across the environment, tasked with knocking out a number of communication arrays.
All the while EDF vehicles are ramming and surging into you: one moment you're head-on for a collision with an array, the next an armoured car has smashed into the side of you, spinning you off course as others swoop up behind to pile on damage. At one point I'm speeding towards an array with EDF vehicles on either side, violently ramming me this way and that. Just as they seem certain to sandwich me to oblivion I hit a rise in the ground, soar into the air as they smash into each other beneath me, and I take out the array before barely landing the right way up, catching my breath, and carrying on.
I'm gulping, reeling and laughing out loud in my seat. And with one final array left, my vehicle cruelly expires 20 yards away and I'm forced to leap out and charge on foot, with the EDF closing in, and savagely tear the tower down with my hammer. The overriding impression is one of deliciously creative fun.
Tactically, Volition is keen to stress the 'Guerrilla' aspect of the game, stating that full frontal assaults will rarely be your best option. But while painstakingly circling a compound, picking off enemies one by one will have its moments, sometimes you'll just want to stick a load of mines onto a tank, drive it through a wall and into the heart of a base, leap out and detonate while legging it for cover. To a pleasingly large extent, that will be up to you.
Multiplayer introduces the concept of 'Backpacks' - each one conferring on the player a power that can be activated for a short period before requiring an automatic recharge. These packs can be swapped mid-game at terminals you'll find scattered around. These include speed boosts, a jetpack, a shockwave that concusses nearby opponents and the brilliant Rhino, which enables you to charge through virtually any object. In short, even if you're in cover, you're never safe, which requires a rethink of regular multiplayer strategies. It's annoying that there there's no obvious on-screen indicator telling you which pack you have on.
In addition to variants on Capture The Flag, Team Deathmatch and so on, Damage Control neatly takes advantage of the game's USP. Here you must seek out and destroy enemy-controlled emplacements by whatever means, then use the Reconstructor weapon you're armed with to rebuild it for your team. A simple twist, but fun nonetheless.
It's also pleasing to report that, no matter how absurd the on-screen pyrotechnics, the performance of the game remains impressively solid. Given the sheer number-crunching involved in the real-time destruction (and watch out for next week's Eurogamer TV Show for an in-depth look under the hood of the game), compromises are inevitable. Character models, for instance, are somewhat lacking up close. And there are occasions - infrequent - when the AI is completely bamboozled by the free-form action. There are moments when I have EDF soldiers standing a few feet from me, blissfully unaware and shooting in a different direction. But these are not game-busting quibbles when set against the riotous fun I have during my playtest.
What won't become clear until review time is whether the story will continue to engage across the entire experience, or end up being shoe-horned in between lengthy, free-flowing action sequences (and while the cut-scenes are stylish and well-directed, there's some dodgy voice-acting). But as an open-world, destruction-based sandbox experience, Guerrilla, on this evidence, is tremendously satisfying and fun. If the full game can sustain and entertain as much as the first few hours, then those long, silent and uncertain years in development limbo will have been worth it.
Red Faction: Guerrilla is coming to PS3, Xbox 360 and PC this June.