June 06, 2011 at 08:15 PM EDT

While playing Red Faction: Armageddon — the new Martian spelunker-shooter about an exceptionally dim-witted space miner who accidentally causes planet-destroying natural disasters and then tries to fix them with a very big hammer — I found myself thinking that, in hindsight, Rampage has turned out to be one of the most important videogames ever. In Rampage, you played as a giant ape who was totally not King Kong, a giant lizard who was totally not Godzilla, or a giant werewolf who was totally not stolen from any famous movie franchise, because, for some ungodly reason, there has never been a movie about a giant werewolf. The gameplay was simple: You smashed things. Specifically, you smashed buildings, punching them into oblivion until their foundations crumbled. When you were done crushing one city, you moved on to another one.

You were supposed to dodge bullets and grenades, but the game was purposefully designed (I believe) to make your movements so clunky that it was utterly impossible to dodge them for long. So you would die constantly. If you wanted to destroy more cities, it would cost you a quarter. Destroying cities was fun. You’d spend a lot of quarters.

Rampage might look primitive now, but it was also uncannily forward-looking: It’s one of the first games that captured the addictive thrill of exploring a digital world by way of that world’s complete obliteration. Videogames are a strange medium in that way. Developers spend months, even years, creating the worlds, the characters, the settings. From the unsuspecting bricks in Breakout to the existentially gluttonous protagonist in Pac-Man to the parade of Doom clones that demanded you kill everything, from that level in Twisted Metal 2 where you blow up the Eiffel Tower to the visions of apocalypse in Katamari Damacy and God of War, videogames as a medium have always tended to be destructive, not constructive. (Games that are constructive make for notable exceptions — but notice how, in Tetris, you only build up blocks to make them disappear.)

And all this destruction isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (Shadow of the Colossus openly engaged with the topic — it’s a game where literally the only two possible activities are “Destroy” or “Do Nothing” — and wound up becoming a masterpiece.) In fact, destruction is the most fun thing about Red Faction: Armageddon (which hits the XBox, PS3, and PC tomorrow). The fourth game in the Martian franchise has a pretty basic plot — vaguely Marxist Martian-colonist rebels somehow ally themselves with vaguely insectile Martian aliens, and the result is much shooting and protecting and searching for important nodes.

The levels in the campaign become repetitive pretty quickly — and, unlike the superficially similar Dead Space, Red Faction doesn’t have interesting characters, a compelling story, or a sustained mood of tension to carry it forward. What it does have, however, is destructible environments. Is that building looking at you funny? Take out your hammer and smash it.

The game’s single brilliant invention is the Magnet Gun, which allows you to fire detritus from the environment at your enemies. Sound weird? Trust me: When you’re trapped inside of a building, and the game tells you “Destroy This Building,” and you find yourself firing magnet backs and forth from wall to wall until the whole building collapses around you, you’ll understand the appeal. There is nothing particularly special about the world of Red Faction: Armageddon, but there is something uncannily appealing about destroying it. Grade: B-

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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