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Monday, July 27, 2020

[Review] ‘Destroy All Humans!’ is a Riotous Blast From the Past

Whenever it’s announced that a movie will be undergoing the remake treatment, you can depend upon a few certainties. At the very least there will be a different cast, improved technology, and an overhauled aesthetic (even if that just means converting it from monochrome to full-colour). Meanwhile, those with grander ambitions might try to beef up the characters, alter the tone, or potentially come up with a separate plot altogether. 

Yet in the realm of videogames, the definition of what exactly constitutes a ‘’remake’’ is far more slippery and elusive. After all, the term could be used to describe anything from a glorified remaster with modern assets, (Shadow of the Colossus) to a faithful touch-up that augments things here and there (Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy), to an unrecognizable transformation that uses its forbear as a springboard for creating a whole new experience (Resident Evil 2). 

If you’re wondering which of these camps Destroy All Humans! falls into, then I would say that it most closely resembles the N.Sane Trilogy – insofar as it gives its predecessor a fresh coat of paint, whilst bolting on small refinements and the odd bonus mission. At its core however it is still fundamentally the same title that you remember from 15 years ago, retaining the classic gameplay loop and old level design. Hell, even the dialogue recordings have been left intact, albeit with a bit of spit and polish to make them sound more contemporary. 

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Maps no longer have predetermined day and night settings. So, you can go for a moonlight stroll at the beach or visit the Carnival whilst basking in the sun.

For their part, the developers have categorized this not as a like-for-like adaptation, but rather as a ‘’remake of the memories’’ people have for the 2005 outing. In other words, it’s not the same warts and all approach that epitomized last year’s clunky-feeling MediEvil update. Instead, Black Forest Games have lovingly recreated Destroy All Humans as we imagine it to be through our collective nostalgia goggles, tweaking obsolete aspects where necessary and reverently preserving everything else. 

This was definitely the smartest way to handle it because, when you look at the original from a completely detached perspective, you realize that it hasn’t aged all that well. It’s very much a product of its time when it comes to the repetitive structure, the lowest common denominator humor (they sure do squeeze a lot of mileage out of those anal probe jokes), the disjointed narrative, and the fact that the open world is largely devoid of any meaningful activities. 

Nevertheless, in spite of all these dated elements, the PS2 gem has an enduring appeal that has continued to resonate with players for over a decade and a half. I myself purchased it on several consoles back in the day, not because I think it’s a legitimate masterpiece or anything, but because it offers a delicious power fantasy that cannot be indulged elsewhere.

Indeed, the concept of getting to roleplay as the antagonist from a retro sci-fi flick hasn’t lost any of its novelty in the intervening years. Terrorizing ‘50s suburbia with a disintegration ray that leaves behind nothing but charred, skeletal remains – ala Mars Attacks – flinging livestock around with your UFO’s abduction beam, and hypnotizing political figures into humiliating themselves on stage: the guilty pleasures of Destroy All Humans still hold up. 

I mean, who can resist the thrill of getting to run amok in what is essentially your own Mystery Science Theatre 3000 homage? Going on a spur-of-the-moment rampage has rarely been more enjoyable than it was here and, to its credit, the 2020 version elevates the fun factor to greater heights. 

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The gallery menu lets you compare and contrast screenshots from the two games and the differences are striking. 

On that subject, the first thing you will notice upon booting up the remake is the considerable visual makeover. As with Crash Bandicoot or Shadow of the Colossus, the assets have been entirely rebuilt from scratch and the end result is a game that can comfortably stand alongside modern releases. Sure, the graphics are hardly photorealistic, but that’s clearly not what they were going for. Destroy All Humans is meant to be cartoony and heavily stylized, recalling the look of atomic age propaganda. 

That being said, they haven’t cut any corners with the details, as the game boasts gorgeous lighting, densely populated locales, fine textures, and individual flourishes that give each mini-sandbox its own unique flavor. For instance, Turnipseed Farm has pollen grains that clog up the air, Union Town is enveloped in a moody fog and the skyboxes of Area 42 are obscured by a trippy desert mirage effect. These lovingly crafted environments are an absolute delight to inhabit because they’ve got such rich personalities and are filled with charming nods to the past, as well as cool little Easter eggs for B-Movie aficionados to discover.

Likewise, the character models have received a significant facelift, one that’s in keeping with the exaggerated pop-art design. There’s an increased variety with the NPCs too – ranging from middle-aged snorkelers, to high school jocks and doomsday prophets – all of whom have idiosyncratic animations that make them feel more distinctive and alive than ever before. They’re no longer just anonymous pawns that can be interchangeably dispatched, which in turn makes it even more impactful when you electrocute a farmer to death with your Zap-O-Matic, or telekinetically launch a clueless beachgoer into the sea.

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The oeuvre of Ed Wood gets a number of affectionate shoutouts.

It’s not just the visuals though. Minor adjustments have been made to nearly every facet of the gameplay, and whilst some of these changes are almost imperceptible, they leave a bigger mark than you might initially realize. In terms of controlling the little grey man himself, Cryptosporidium-137, you can now multitask by deploying his psychic talents and extraterrestrial weaponry at the same time. Plus, he can ‘’transmogrify’’ nearby objects (like boxes or parasols) into ammunition, theoretically ensuring that you have a bottomless supply and that your kill sprees never fizzle out. 

There’s also a useful lock-on function that makes it easier to run-and-gun, although this can be a tad unreliable and finicky, often misinterpreting what you’re trying to aim at. The inaccuracy is particularly vexing during the abduction side quests, wherein you are tasked with levitating specific items and steering them towards a roaming target. These tests are exacting and even the tiniest screwup or momentary delay can ruin what was otherwise a flawless attempt. It’s somewhat annoying then when you’ve got the cursor unambiguously trained on a dock worker and yet Crypto inexplicably picks up the van ten feet behind him instead.

Another thing that I’m honestly in two minds about is how they’ve weakened the Holobob, which was previously one of my favorite parts of the toolkit. Using advanced optics, this device allowed you to project an illusionary cloak around your avatar that disguised him as a regular human being. All you had to do was pick out a random pedestrian on the street, execute a simple button press, and then you were instantly incognito. Admittedly it was a bit overpowered, as you were free to cycle through identities on a dime and simultaneously had access to all of your other psychic abilities, but it was a ton of fun nonetheless. 

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With the introduction of the ‘’follow’’ command, you can recruit a legion of brainwashed allies.

I used to love posing as an unassuming cheerleader whilst secretly hurling tanks around with my mind, much to the bemusement of ignorant earthlings. Yet I can’t do that in the remake. Here, if you so much as enter the wrong area or try to lift a football into the air, then your cover will be blown straight away. Moreover, it now takes longer to adopt a substitute mask, which in turn prevents you from quickly switching when you’ve been compromised. Overall, it just feels like some of the unmitigated joy has been sucked out of the feature. 

On the other hand, I do realize that it is clearly more balanced mechanic this way, as you’re forced to be crafty in espionage missions, due to the higher risk of being caught. From that perspective, I have grown to appreciate how the nerf adds a further layer of tension to the stealth. As I said, I’m kind of torn on the Holobob and I wish that there was an option to gradually restore it to its former glory, via the upgrade lab.  

Speaking of which, your skill tree has impressively ballooned to over double its original size. There are a dizzying amount of options for you to spend your hard-earned DNA (currency that you accumulate by either completing side activities, or by harvesting human brain stems), with some of these perks having massive ramifications on how you interact with the world. 

Noteworthy additions include the ‘’Extraction Chain’’ ability and the extensive jetpack modifications. The former is extremely helpful when you’re trying to scrounge together enough grey matter for another lab purchase, as it basically allows you to string a conga line of head explosions. In a nutshell, once you’ve invested in this devious trick, you can impel a human’s skull to burst open, whereupon the gory effect will be transferred to anyone else in the immediate vicinity. Think of it like you’re recreating the outrageous climax from Kingsman: The Secret Service, littering the neighborhood with multicolored craniums. Not to mention it’s just endlessly amusing trying to keep that gruesome streak going for as long as possible. 

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To accommodate the range of new interactions, certain buttons have to double, triple, and even quadruple in their purpose. Suffice it to say, the confusing overlap can lead to frustration. 

As for the mobility improvements, Crypto’s jetpack is no longer restricted to purely vertical flight and is now capable of a nimble dash that helps you avoid incoming projectiles. What’s more, if you reach the end of this juicy upgrade branch, you eventually will be able to use the rear thrust mechanism to propel yourself around at breakneck speed, as if you’re skating on a pair hover boots. 

It’s an immensely satisfying traversal method in its own right and it really benefits how the time trials play out. Those races used to be uneventful chores (wherein you would idly jump from one waypoint to the next, without facing many obstacles), but your new maneuvers help to inject an extra degree of nuance and finesse into the proceedings. You’ll be deftly slaloming between trees, drifting across rooftops, and catapulting yourself up ramps in a fluid sequence that is highly rewarding. In fact, I was surprised by how addicted I became to memorizing the course layouts and perfecting ever turn, just so I could shave a couple of seconds off my personal record. 

Of course, the ground level combat only accounts for half the experience. Indeed, hopping into the driver’s seat of your spacecraft and obliterating townships from above is a totally different ballgame, with its own complex systems and mechanics. Luckily, the intoxicating thrill of setting cornfields ablaze, knocking over Ferris wheels, and deatomising skyscrapers hasn’t been remotely diminished by the passage of time, feeling just as good as it ever did. 

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Wading through the aftermath of this destruction on foot is always a cathartic treat.

As with the Crypto gameplay, the act of piloting your saucer has evolved in a number of subtle ways. For instance, you can now manually calibrate the ship’s altitude, drain energy from human vehicles to repair damage, shoot directly beneath your vessel (Independence Day style), and knockback missiles with an inbuilt ‘’Repulsatron’’ gadget. I can’t imagine how I used to cope without these quality of life enhancements but they’re really valuable, especially the one that lets you summon your UFO from any landing pad, as opposed to just the one where you parked it.  

Complementing the various convenience tweaks, Black Forest has generously affixed brand-new content to the package as well. There are unlockable skins, mind-control powers ripped from the sequels, and optional secondary objectives that incentivize you to replay levels – usually by performing context specific kills or reaching a given checkpoint undetected. 

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Crypto’s wardrobe boasts a selection of funny outfits, including a reference to another THQ property.

Most excitingly, however, they’ve managed to salvage an enigmatic mission that was cut from the 2005 release (known as The Wrong Stuff) that has you infiltrating an army base in order to sabotage an experimental fighter jet. It only takes about 15 minutes to wrap up – so don’t go in expecting a huge chunk of never-before-seen material – yet it features some of the best design in the whole game. Whereas other missions have a tendency to be relatively linear, The Wrong Stuff takes a more hands-off approach that encourages you to be creative in how you carry out tasks, akin to a rudimentary Hitman assignment. Granted, it’s not jaw-droppingly open-ended, particularly by modern standards, but it still makes for a nice change of pace and hints at untapped potential that future installments could maybe explore.  

In short, Black Forest has done a terrific job with this remake, delivering a $30 product that ought to be attractive for both loyal fans and series newbies alike. There are inevitable hiccups along the way – like how messy and unpredictable the controls can be – but generally, it represents a strong progression for the franchise. And although it may not be identical to the Destroy All Humans that fondly resides within our memories, it is crucially superior to it. 

Destroy All Humans! review code for PS4 provided by the publisher.

Destroy All Humans! will be available on Xbox One, PC, and PS4 from 28th July. 


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