A2M wants you to know why it's called its new game Wet. It's short for Wetworks, apparently - a shadowy industry of criminals, spies and stylish desperadoes who clean up your mess when it's too big for a Dyson. It's the kind of job people only ever seem to have in movies, where every phone call means another suitcase of money to track down, another mystical trinket to forcibly liberate from its owners, or another unfortunate disagreement that can only be resolved by shooting all of the participants soundly through the head until everyone calms down.
Whatever the reason, it also implies blandly sassy character designs and WWE-strength attitude. Which is accurate, and which is also a shame, because it makes it all too easy to decide that Wet is going to be cynical, derivative, and slightly rubbish, whereas in truth the game's shaping up to be cynical, derivative, and possibly a little bit brilliant. Look past Rubi, the hard-drinkin' rock chic lead who appears to have split her wardrobe budget between Tyra Banks' favourite boutique and a local branch of Millets, and look past the gaggle of Kill Bill stand-ins, creating a pimp-shoed, shaven-headed, leopard-print human barrier separating the entrance and exit of each level: beneath the aging stylings, this could be a confident and gymnastic shooter, with a refreshingly uncomplicated agenda.
So yes, it's cynical. Despite new publisher Bethesda's fatherly assertions that the development team would prefer you not to look at Rubi as another hot lady with guns, nobody's in any hurry to get her a nice sensible parka. And yes, it's derivative. With the acrobatic lead, slow-mo shooting and Rubi Vision, which points out useful bits of scenery as you race past, A2M has shamelessly borrowed from videogames old and new. But while it's undeniably built from second-hand parts, they've been chosen well, and skilfully reconfigured to create something distinctive, if watching a developer play through the first mission is any indication.
Wet's certainly got a snappier tutorial than most games, at least. While others tiptoe around targeting systems and get you to have a go at crouching, Wet's throwing you through a glass ceiling and into a gangland meeting turned all shooty, prodding you towards the path of a thousand sizzling bullet trails while introducing a catalogue of wall-runs and backflips, teaching you to juggle guns and a katana, before finally flinging you onto a rush-hour highway, as Rubi island-hops impossibly across Golden Gate Bridge traffic, ducking tumbling buses and leaping from one car bonnet to the next while enemies fire endless rounds from automatic weapons.
All the while, every violent action is rewarded with a shower of points rather than blood - huge glowing numbers erupting from the bodies of despatched goons as if the development team had tried to blend Mortal Kombat's fatalities with the maths round in Countdown. Forget the international intrigue and focus on the combo meter: if you like score-attacks and revel in that coin-op thrill as mindless numbers pile up in the top-right corner of the screen, you're probably going to like this too.
Swords and guns sounds like a recipe for ripping off Devil May Cry, but that's a little unfair. In truth, the team has mainly been ripping off Stranglehold, but with the stately procession of over-sized kill rooms transformed into a tight wriggle of corridors and terraces, throwing in a generous helping of Tomb Raider's implausible grace to get you through them. It's a fifty-fifty split, by the looks of things: Chow Yun Fat has brought the destructible tat, bullet-time gunplay and even the Chinatown setting of the opening chapter, while Lara Croft has given Rubi the power to use far more of the environment than most earthbound game characters ever get around to, as tricksy levels see her diving off balconies onto zip-lines, dancing between tables stacked with elaborate ice sculptures, and swinging from one lamppost to the next in order to run rings around attackers.
Acrobatics lie at the centre of the game, its wall-runs, flips, knee-slides and other deadly Pilates moves plunging you instantly into bullet-time, giving you the space you need to plug a baddy right through the left nostril while spinning through the air twenty feet above him with all four limbs moving in different directions. It's probably brilliant for back-pain sufferers, and while you're limited to shooting one person at a time if you stick to simple running-and-gunning, bullet-time also allows you to use both of Rubi's twin pistols independently, one freely directed with the on-screen reticule, while the other automatically selects a separate target and locks on.
In a nice break from miserly tradition, bullet-time isn't tied to a meter, either: instead, it's linked in with your own movements, the emphasis placed on chaining fancy moves together rather than popping out for a moment or two of high-flying nonsense and then cowering behind a ledge for the best part of a minute while you get your breath back. By knotting flair so tightly to efficiency, Wet asks you to take chances, making stylish gymnastics your standard method of attack, rather than a lively scripted treat that gets wheeled out at ten-minute intervals once you've charged up a handful of gauges.
And if shooting gets dull, you can mix in some swordplay. The katana strung across Rubi's back probably causes problems when she has to get on a Routemaster, but it's ideal for unleashing a range of melee attacks, equally suited to slicing people in half, breaking open doors and smashing crates. (Wet is, naturally, just the kind of game where there are piles of crates lying around everywhere.)
The big scores will presumably come with a Zen-like balance of both weapons, and while the katana initially seems like a bit of an afterthought, it comes into its own in the game's pace-changing Rage sequences, where the screen turns a blood red as Rubi gets a bit ticked off at things, and enemies explode in stylised scribbles under the onslaught of super-powered attacks. Sparingly used, and entirely combo-focused, Rage is a dashing frenzy of point-scoring slaughter that sees you handing out violence with a murderous glee never before seen outside of that River Cottage programme where the mild-mannered hippy cheerfully butchers a llama in his bathtub while kids play about at his feet.
Other pace-changers we're shown are locked-down arenas which will slowly fill up with baddies until you shut down the various spawn points, and, to conclude things, a slightly over-stretched QTE-rich shooting gallery staged along a few miles of highway, as Rubi pursues her quarry by indulging in an expensive blast of car-surfing. Neither are particularly adventurous, but both look fun and suggest a willingness to change gears and smack you about with empty spectacle.
Visually, Wet's been built for speed and destructibility rather than looks, but there's a colourful no-nonsense charm to the characters and locations. The rich red drapes and golden dragons of Chinatown suggest an art team that knows a lot about using colour, but, equally, this may just be the result of a familiar setting that is genuinely difficult to screw up. Either way, it's still a promising sign for a game with an allegedly globe-spanning agenda.
Like Rubi herself, A2M's Wet has had a questionable history, dropped unceremoniously by its first publisher Vivendi, bought back by the developer, before finally ending up with Bethesda Softworks, where it looks disconcertingly glam and cheery stuck alongside the murky forests of The Elder Scrolls or the tumbledown Washington of Fallout 3. Perhaps that's the idea, though. Wet is a grinning, inconsequential quick-fix kind of game (it will be if A2M gets it right, anyway) compared to the weighty otherworld politics of Bethesda's own titles. You won't be playing through stacked tiers of Assassin Guild missions or making difficult moral judgements about robots with Rubi. Instead, under a thick seventies cinema filter complete with scuffs and scratches, you'll stab people and shoot their friends with no thought for what tomorrow may bring.
Promisingly, the developer suggests it approaches level designs as if it was building skating parks, and it's the strength of that urge to refine your playthrough and perfect your racing line that will ultimately reveal whether Wet is worth your time. First impressions were not so good, a second glance is not so bad: only when we've had a chance to hold a controller for ourselves will we actually know whether Bethesda was right in picking this one up, and if death-dealing Rubi truly is a killer worth saving.
Wet is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 this autumn.