- Review Price: £30.00
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.
Admittedly, there are limits to the destruction. Many buildings seem impervious to damage, and it would be nice to be able to throw objects through buildings, but let’s not ask for the moon when we’re already seeing stars.
Now, the trick with the sandbox game isn’t just giving you the toys, but giving you something interesting to do with them. In terms of primary objectives, Destroy all Humans is triumphant here, delivering missions that excel in their variety and playability. Some are all about sneaking around in human guise, avoiding alerts, scanning thoughts and using hypnosis to achieve your goals. Others major on all-out destruction: you might be taking out wave after wave of cops or troops with high-powered weaponry on the ground, or raining destruction on the town from the skies.
Most take a path between these two extremes, and there’s usually a certain amount of flexibility as to your approach. What’s more, there’s even a sense of humour on display. One minute you’re abducting a buxom bimbo beauty queen, the next you’re impersonating the mayor and quieting angry tempers in the town, the next you’re warping teenage brains at the drive-in. If we gave points just for charm, Destroy all Humans would rate a ten. It’s also nice to see how the game ramps up the complexity and difficulty, shifting from hicks in farmsteads at the back-of-beyond, through cosy seaside towns hiding sinister government agents, to the big city. It’s a mark of the thoughtful design that, just as you think that you’ve mastered it, the game throws you a new challenge, ability or adversary to chew on.
It’s a shame that the secondary goals have obviously remained, well, a secondary priority. There are bonuses to find, but a lot of it comes down to ‘destroy 12 buildings’, ‘get from A to B within three minutes’ and ‘harvest eight brain-stems’. GTA always gets this right, creating a world rich in opportunity to cause mayhem, build a career, or just explore. With both Mercenaries and Destroy all Humans, Pandemic has never quite managed to achieve the same thing.
Still, I’m willing to forgive it, just as I’m willing to ignore the fact that the graphics, while full of character, aren’t quite up there with the cutting edge. Destroy all Humans delivers on the destruction side, with some great explosions and disintegrations to be enjoyed, but the character models aren’t particularly detailed or varied, and there is some pop-up when there’s a lot going on on-screen.
At least the audio makes up for it, with appropriately spine-chilling music that could have come straight from a fifties movie, and some of the best voice-work I’ve heard in a long time. Modelling a vicious alien on Jack Nicholson was one thing, but Crypto delivers the most slavish impersonation since Christian Slater’s early career. Crypto’s alien boss is a master of withering put-downs, and the thoughts of the conformist, sexually-repressed, consumption-crazy Earthlings are always full of personality. Add this to a script that actually had me laughing out loud at times, plus great poster parodies and groaningly transparent cover-up headlines for Crypto’s achievements, and I’d be willing to forgive Destroy all Humans an awful lot.
Luckily, there isn’t really that much to forgive. Destroy all Humans doesn’t quite reach masterpiece status – the repetitive thoughts and humans, the lightweight secondary missions and the only part-destructible scenery all scream of unexploited potential – but it is a superb piece of digital entertainment. Funny, twisted, engaging and constantly amusing, it’s a game that deserves to capture human minds (in the nicest possible way).
Pandemic’s second take on the sandbox genre is a winner. Infused with twisted humour and affectionate parody, it gives you a world full of personality and some wonderful toys to wreck it with. Who could ask for more?