Fifteen years ago, in Destroy All Humans!, the Earth was invaded. The chief invader was Cryptosporidium-137, better known as Crypto: a small grey alien sealed in a Teflon suit, with a bulging head, silvery black eyes, and a snarl crammed with fangs. He was supported—morally, albeit holographically—by his superior, Pox. His mission, despite the purity and pep of the title, wasn’t solely one of destruction; lacking genitalia, his job was to harvest human brains, in order to duplicate his increasingly diluted kind. A franchise, documenting his attempts with progressive dullness, landed after him. There was Destroy All Humans! 2, Destroy All Humans! Big Willy Unleashed, and Destroy All Humans! Path of the Furon—a weakening succession of clones that fizzled into hiatus. Now Crypto is back, courtesy of a remake from developer Black Forest Games, whose mission is to duplicate the charms of the original without diluting a thing.
What were those charms, exactly? Well, principally, those of the sandbox. In 2005, featuring an open world was seen less as the next logical step in game design than as an attempt—be it cynical or sincere—to huff the fumes of Grand Theft Auto. Destroy All Humans! wasn’t a true open world; rather, it was a series of sprawling hubs, but it used the visual language that Rockstar had wrought to carve out a slice of American satire. It was set in 1959, and the roads were buzzed by bright automobiles. If the pedestrians, modestly powered by the PlayStation 2, seemed less than living-and-breathing—with a sprinkling of Stepford to the motions of their days—it was in keeping with the mood. What’s more, as you descended on this playground, with its dreamy hint of the plastic, mayhem seemed an entirely reasonable response.
Fortunately, the mayhem is back, and Black Forest Games has added some extras and re-wrangled the controls to allow for multitasking. Crypto’s jetpack—a priceless tool for making a getaway or whipping yourself between buildings—has been supercharged. Before, its sputtering twin jets would grant you a low-gravity triple-jump; here you scud through the air with a steady burn. If you think that’s cool, get a load of its nifty new function: conjuring a pair of shimmering blue hover-skates and boosting you along a foot off the floor. At one point, Pox says, “Here’s the keys, and do be careful with this one, 00— I mean, Crypto.” It’s a line with the silly air of spoof, but it cuts to the appeal of the action: the game is rich in Bondish gizmos, the love of which is about having the edge over our adversaries, of pushing a button to energise our boring afternoons.
Other improvements include adjustable height for your ship, Transmog—basically, the gift of recycling, churning earthly debris into ammunition for your weapons—and lock-on targeting (the unsexiest of tweaks inevitably prove the most useful). My favourite tactic is to hover above, lock on to the fools below, and rain down with the Zap-O-Matic—lashing them with crackling coils of lightning like a little grey Zeus. Sadly, the best thing about the old game, Crypto’s psychokinesis, has been dampened. Back then, your havoc—waving trucks and bodies through the air with a flick of the stick—was delivered by Havok: the physics engine that gave weight to mischief. Now things are snappy and light, with less heft and texture; the PK meter is gone, and your powers are unlimited, but I can’t say the same of your enjoyment.
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In the plus column, we have the graphical oomph of Unreal Engine 4, with which Black Forest has cranked up the pyrotechnics. For instance, when you hop into your saucer and decide to level a large building, you get showers of flaming wreckage and a flood of coffee-brown smog. Should you wish to sizzle a bystander with a blast of your Disintegrator Ray, you are now treated to a molten orange welter of flesh and smokey bones. All in the name of good clean fun. The missions, which—barring the odd snooze-inducing stealth longueur—are mostly set dressing for the same pursuits as those in free roam, take you from the grass-fed backwoods of Turnipseed Farm to Santa Modesta, a beach-kissed Californian town. Towards the end, when you get to the streets of Capitol City, where the suits match the concrete, you’ll have inhaled the top notes of a time.
Not just a sketch of American culture in the fifties—broad in both geography and humour, but as precise as anything that Rockstar had pumped out—but a snapshot of our own culture in the early millennium. The script, written by Tom Abernathy, has been lifted wholesale from the 2005 release, with all the voice acting intact, and when you start you are greeted with the following message: “The story, words, and images contained within may be shocking to the modern human brain!” I wonder. With the use of your Holobob, which garbs Crypto in human guise, you are able to read the thoughts of the populace, and the gags, while infested with a frat boy streak (“Will you get a load of this new brassiere? I could torpedo a U-boat with these things!”), also flow with an unembarrassed self-aware wit (“It’s like we travelled to a future where TV was in color, and they made a program about our happy days in Santa Modesta!”).
The true value of remaking Destroy All Humans!, a game whose design has certainly dated, may simply be the chance to think twice about it—given that when it first released you may not have been inclined to think once. When you scan the mind of a buttoned-down gentleman in brown business attire and hear “that Rock Hudson—what a dreamboat! Did I just think that? Um Lumberjacks. Football. Uh Ahhh, that’s better,” you sense that what was once a cheap laugh now has the steel-tipped prod of insight: poking the country-wide fear not only of communism but of homosexuality, and of any perceived threat to the starched white order of things. Black Forest Games is offering the opportunity to peel back the propriety of an age whose manners—the neatly cut clothes, the gleaming chrome of fridge and car, and the suburbs, sugared by the sun and painted in the hues of Mattel—were a bulwark against the clammy contents of the national basement. And it does so with the added decency of actually making you laugh.
I would recommend the remake to anyone with a nostalgic thirst for the original, but so, too, to those that like their laughs with a dark bite. It isn’t without its blights. For one thing, the art direction isn’t to my taste; compared to the dirt-dry palette of the original, the colours in the new game are glucose-sharp, with lawns that practically glow. Characters have a warped style and a rubbery shine, with hair and features like frosting. (Crypto’s complexion, once the shade of a dead fish, has been pearled, with an extra tint of red to his jumbo lenses.) And it’s a shame that with the all mod cons comes the unwanted baggage of long load screens and cluttered upgrade menus. But its breezy violence and wry comedy are worth the return trip, along with its reflexive glimpses into our own recent past. It’s like we travelled to a future where graphics were in high definition, and they made a game about our happy days in 2005.
Developer: Black Forest Games
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Available on: PlayStation 4 [reviewed on], Xbox One, PC
Release date: July 28, 2020
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