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As the hype builds over Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, it’s easy to forget that alien invasion movies used to come without the $100 million budget. Cheap, trashy, and disposable, the sci-fi movies of the fifties and sixties showed a world in which the American way of life was in constant peril from the Martians. Whether abducting US citizens, destroying towns and cities, or taking over our bodies and minds, these extra-terrestrials were far from friendly. If they wanted to phone home, it was only to call for reinforcements. But for the efforts of spunky reporters, clever scientists and plucky all-American kids, the little green men would have destroyed America some time ago.
After playing Destroy All Humans, I can only sympathize with the invaders. If alien invaders aren’t supposed to exterminate all human life and lay our cities to waste, then why is it so much fun?
If you can’t guess from the name alone, Destroy all Humans is the game where you play the invader. Our hero, Crypto, has been sent to Earth on a mission to gather human brains for the good of his species. To be specific, he’s been sent to America in the 1950s, and it’s this setting that makes Destroy all Humans the game it is. Just as GTA: Vice City gave us a vision of the eighties in lurid colours, tasteless styles and bad MOR rock music, just as GTA: San Andreas brought us nineties gangsta rap with a west-coast flava, Destroy all Humans gives you fifties Americana in all its square styles, anti-communist paranoia, fear of alternative culture and ludicrous moral anxiety – a world, quite frankly, you’ll be happy to destroy.
And comparisons to GTA are quite relevant here. As with Mercenaries, Pandemic’s last major Xbox release, the influence of Rockstar’s monolith looms large on Destroy all Humans. With Mercenaries this extended to the game’s open structure and its dependence on stealing vehicles and seeking missions from in-game contacts, and while Destroy all Humans doesn’t go this far – Crypto takes orders from the mothership, sticks to his flying saucer, and the game divides its missions into discrete areas of action – this is still very much a sandbox game.
Which is good news, because you’ve got some very interesting toys to play with. First, you have your flying saucer, armed initially with a nifty death ray that sends earthlings and their buildings into flaming oblivion. Next, you have your weapons, ranging from the nice, crackly zap-o-matic, through destructor beams and Ion detonators to the fearsome anal probe. The last item sends something particularly nasty up the victim’s back passage, blowing their head clean off and leaving a brain-stem ripe for collection. Needless to say, if you find this sort of thing offensive, you’re not going to like this game.
However, things get really interesting once you explore your psychic powers. Crypto keeps these recharged by scanning human thoughts. These offer a witty take on American obsessions of the time, though one of the game’s only major weaknesses is how repetitive these become. Still, while locked on to a witless Earthling, Crypto can assume their form, plant hypnotic suggestions or – best of all – use psychokinesis to pick them up, swing them through the air and send them flying. As cows and, with an upgrade, objects and vehicles can also be treated in the same manner, this paves the way for the sort of malarkey we last had with the Gravity Gun in Half Life 2. If Destroy all Humans is a sandbox, then one of the joys in this game is picking up the toys in it and flinging them around. Why not toss the zombie exploding cow (don’t ask) into the farmhouse? Bothered by a squad of army goons? Throw a truck their way and hope it blows. It’s the sort of nasty, spiteful, deeply childish stuff that your mother probably told you not to do – and that’s exactly what makes it so much fun.