Destroy All Humans Review — Ancient Aliens

Whether it be due to a growing discontent with the trend-obsessive AAA industry or the fact that we are running out of unimpeachable masterpieces to reissue, the remaster-and-reboot initiative has cast a much wider net in recent years than it did during the PS3/360 generation. Where once it was only critical darlings or striking commercial successes that got an honorable makeover, companies like Devolver Digital and THQ Nordic have made it their goal to gauge interest in old IPs by bringing them to the present. Twelve years after the franchise reached rock bottom, Black Forest Games’ Destroy All Humans enters the field aiming to reinvigorate an unabashed cult classic.

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again!

Promotional image of the player's protagonist lifting a cow through telekinesis

Radiation not always included. Image courtesy of THQ Nordic

Destroy All Humans is an incredibly faithful reboot of the 2005 original, rebuilt from the ground up in a shiny new engine while retaining its level design and dialogue. It is at once a strange mishmash of PS2-era third-person shooting, stealth, and incredibly light exploration flourishes, but also a game that holds its own identity fifteen years later. There’s a distinct brand of chaos upheld when conflict is at its peak. Albeit in fairly simplistic forms, Destroy All Humans covers enough gameplay types in quick succession to make it an easy, amusing ride, wrapped in a mischievous tone that’s tough to get angry at.

At its core, it’s a third-person shooter emboldened with an eye catching premise and lively weaponry. You are extraterrestrial nihilist Crypto-136, stranded in late 1950s America after your ship crashes. With the public already eager to declare anyone a Communist threat, your presence isn’t exactly greeted with open arms. Your intergalactic emperor Pox (legitimately voiced by Invader Zim) wants you to harvest human brains but said ambitions quickly turn into an all-out war. As you leap across a broad map of the United States, you distribute propaganda, steal technology, and snatch bodies under the veil of mass destruction.

Trapped in the odd time warp of old game preservation, the Destroy All Humans reboot lacks the open-world or co-op of its original sequel from 2006, but it for the first time gives the franchise a distinct visual style. Compared to the plain textures of the original, Destroy All Humans is now enlivened with a slightly cartoonish tint and motion captured animations. Crypto bounces across the screen in a fittingly rubbery fashion and objects like radioactive cows burst with bright hues. Strangely enough, a majority of the frame rate drops occur in cutscenes where character models also push past the uncanny valley and into Black Hole Sun extras. On a base PS4 however, the frame rate is consistently smooth during gameplay making your jetpack flight more majestic and the mobility of combat more satisfying.

Taking Flight and Taking Names

Promotional image of Crypto at a county fair,using the Zap-O-Matic to fire his weaponized electricity

Image courtesy of THQ Nordic

There isn’t much more to combat than point, shoot, and jetpack out of the way, but the game greatly benefits from an arsenal all its own. The Zap-O-Matic stays with the player throughout the game’s entirety, which has unlimited ammo but an extended recharge rate. The targeting from one enemy to the next can get overcrowded but this is mostly surmounted by the electrical forces stringing enemies together, damaging them all simultaneously. Despite being your prototypical weapon, I relied on the Zap-O-Matic throughout the game as the most satisfying form of crowd control. The tendency of enemies to attack from all sides keeps the Zap-O-Matic from being a “press-to-win” function but it makes aiming a bit more of a generalized process.

You are soon rewarded with a Disintegrator Ray and Ion Detonator (the flamethrower and grenade launcher equivalents respectively), not to mention a certain type of probing tool to round out your layout. Conservative upgrades are available for each but the general balance makes it likely you will use special weapons to their brink (they run out of ammo fairly quickly) and then bring out the old reliable Zap. Destroy All Humans speaks in enemy quantity rather than strategy, but this tendency lands better on the PS4 than it did for PS2 as enemies can truly dominate the screen and shuffling around them can make for a winningly kinetic experience.

As individual battles rage on, expendable cops and soldiers give way to armored vehicles, turret systems, and what I’d estimate to be 50 ft. tall robots. Dashing away from enemy fire and hitting them from any direction you can are the means for success. Enemies truly only differ in amount of health and what type of gun they fire, but they do leverage each other’s presence to become a potentially overwhelming force. Enemies are always charging forward whether it’s in their interest or not and the cannon fodder never stops flooding.

Eat Your Heart Out McCarthy

Promotional image of Crypto snatching an NPC's body as a disguise

Image courtesy of THQ Nordic

The jetpack isn’t meant to take you to the stratosphere and instead allows you to hide away from enemies at the top of storefronts and glide to different elevations like an ugly Mary Poppins. The ability to scout humans from above truly comes in handy during body snatching missions. Much of the game is spent infiltrating county fairs and military bases by sneaking up on the right kind of civilian and snatching their likeness with the press of a button. Finding the right victim is very intuitive- you hijack a scientist to enter labs or a general to reach the depths of an army base. The biggest challenge comes from taking their form without getting caught by bystanders. Hiding behind a strategically placed boulder and aiming at the NPC is normally all it takes but the visual language is subtle enough to make some careful angling necessary. In most cases, getting caught amidst body snatching means game over (the game is nothing if not linear), but the checkpoints are very generous.

Once you are in the body, you rather metaphorically keep possession of the likeness by scanning other NPCs’ thoughts. Alongside newly animated cutscenes, this is where much of the game’s humor manifests. A joking disclaimer about the humor of Destroy All Humans only being up to the moral standards of 2005 prefaces the game, but barring some candid gender-neutral anal probe discussions, most of the humor stems from very breezy satire of the 1950s. I physically laughed once at an NPC’s internal monologue about them totally not knowing what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, and the mild prodding at overbearing American masculinity and Cold War paranoia is sustained by charming voice acting. 

The game’s sardonic streak most strongly manifests in interactive cutscenes where in the body of a politician or general, you choose dialogue to appease the petrified public. You could clinically describe the satire as simple and certainly unsubtle but the game’s ultimate ambition here is to slip into a pastiche of 1950s horror and educational videos and it approximates it very lovingly. I was also pleasantly surprised by how few times I was confronted by the same piece of character dialogue over-and-over again, and much of the game’s personality blossoms from here. Destroy All Humans’ tone may not raise the bar for its medium, but it’s the right tone for a game whose loftiest goals are just to make you chuckle. The campaign experience is unanimously solid, it’s just the game’s willful constraints that hinder long-term enjoyment.

Suburb Time and the Living’s Easy

The biggest flaw with Destroy All Humans is the limited depth of its mechanics. The game is mostly divided into three modes- on-foot shooting, stealth, and UFO piloting. Environments are stand alone, connected by the menu screen’s map interface. Your UFO offers the most freedom for destruction, but maps are still condensed to what would have been a PS2-era appropriate size. It is undeniably fun to excavate a city’s buildings with your Death Ray. However, it’s generally just a fifteen minute process that regenerates once you leave the level. The original developer of Destroy All Humans (2005) Pandemic Studios partially made their name on unbridled urban destruction. Fifteen years later, their model remains fun but short lived.

Destroy All Humans’ ability to make escort missions and defending stationary objects remarkably painless is a double-edged sword. Destroy All Humans doesn’t really minimize frustration through innovations in AI or combat, it’s mostly just a very easy game. It probably best fits a tween demographic, as the humor is too sordid for youngins and the game is fairly simple for seasoned players. It is cackle-inducing to trigger a barbecue stove explosion from a distance to take out enemies, but unlike a similar operation in Hitman, it’s all artifice. You aim at the stove from a shielding distance, hold the square button, and the deed is done. Gameplay can just feel a bit too automatic to truly stimulate beyond visual absurdity. The ability in the original game to strike civilians with a dancing fever so they didn’t notice you was both a hoot and an added strategic measure for handling getting caught by enemies. Here, it’s just a diverting trinket.

This overprotective effect also makes the secondary objectives of taking out enemies in a certain way or body snatching a certain amount of times fun but instantly attainable. Returning to sections of the map opens up additional challenges involving racing against time, brain scanning against time, and UFO blasting against time. Adult players will likely feel that the game’s training wheels are permanently affixed. The additions made to Destroy All Humans are heartfelt and well-integrated, but sit squarely within the original game’s confines. For those who have played the original game and enjoy it (like myself), it’s a detailed, sturdy remake. The game on its own merits, however sticks out a bit in 2020, not just for being unique.

Yet Destroy All Humans’ presentation is strong enough and its gameplay so resoundingly capable that if the mere possibility of throwing radioactive cows at enemy soldiers appeals to you, the campaign’s nine hours of unrelenting anarchy won’t make for a bad $30-40 spent. As an advocate for Black Forest Games’ Fade to Silence last year, the studio has moved from a game that was punishing and rugged to one that is polished and very easygoing. As a way to escape humanity, you could do worse than destroying it.

This review of Destroy All Humans is based on the PS4 version. A review code was provided by the publisher.


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