I've never been one to object to violent acts in video games. Gouging out eyes with shards of glass? Acceptable pastime. Hooking lengths of chain to people's limbs? No problem. Sundering three torsos with a single swipe of a battleaxe? Fun for the whole family. The only thing that's ever bothered me was the context in which these actions were placed. I can slaughter people all day long, just as long as I feel that, within the game's reality, those people deserved to die.
An obsessive need to finish things I start led me to complete Project: Overkill, the Playstation game about slaughtering an entire planet full of sentient life to make way for a corporate terraforming effort. But I felt bad about myself for days afterwards. I recognize the difference between reality and fantasy, and I don't believe that exposure to videogame violence has any real negative effects, yet I can't seem to enjoy anything that seems gratuitously cruel, which explains why I didn't enjoy Destroy All Humans as much as the average gamer probably would have.
Destroy All Humans is a third-person shooter, the second in Pandemic's unofficial "Let's see if we can find more plausible premises on which to hang Grand Theft Auto-style mayhem!" series. It wasn't always supposed to be., A surprisingly candid "making-of" featurette reveals that the team spent nearly two years trying to make a game about blowing up buildings in a flying saucer somehow fun, only to realize they couldn't. So they decided that the Mercenaries game was looking pretty good, and that they should just adopt its control scheme and focus on running about shooting things.
Set in the 1950s, the game puts players in the role of Crypto, a member of an evil alien clone race bent on harvesting Earth's population and using their genetic material to prolong their own lifespans. Most of the game is spent on foot, with the player using Crypto's various weapons and psychic abilities to kill mass quantities of humans, but there's also just enough UFO-flying left in the game to rise above mini-game status. With its restrictive camera angle and missile-dodging gameplay, the flying sequences play a lot like what I'd imagine a modern Desert Strike sequel would have, if they'd kept making them after Nuclear Strike.
Unlike many of the other games in its genre, Destroy All Humans takes place in a half-dozen mid-sized locations, rather than one or two huge ones. It's also decidedly more mission-based, which isn't a loss, as there isn't really much to do in the levels other than randomly kill people once the missions themselves are over. The missions themselves are very well designed, offering a long difficulty curve and extensive tutorial missions to ease players into what is, by the later levels, a very hard game. While the mission objectives tend to lean heavily towards violence, there are enough subtle varieties to keep things from getting too repetitive—escort missions, guarding missions, even a few conversation minigames where Crypto has to put on a disguise and convince panicked humans that no, there aren't any aliens about, that it was weather balloons that blew up the county fair. Communist weather balloons.
Since destruction-based missions are the game's bread and butter, it's a good thing the weapon selection is as varied and well-balanced it is. Over the course of the game, Crypto gains access to a variety of classic '50s-styled "alien invasion" weapons, allowing him to eletrocute people, burn them alive, and reduce them to charred skeletons. In addition to these conventional weapons, Destroy All Humans also includes Psi-Ops-style telekinesis, which gives the Havok physics engine a chance to really show off. Unfortunately, while the physics are flexing their muscles, the graphics engine reveals its limitations, with a dissapointingly short draw-distance for characters and vehicles. Using psychic powers in open concept levels just isn't satisfying when a car picked up and tossed into the distance simply disappears 50 meters away, rather than crashing to the ground and exploding. The lower character detail in the UFO sections allows vehicles to explode and pinwheel in a much more satisfying manner, but those sections are sparse enough that the problem isn't mitigated too much.
Had the game just stuck to its mission structure, it probably would have been a more satisfying experience, but in what must have been an effort to tack a few hours onto the game's length, the developers chose to include a point collection mechanic that slows things down to a frustrating crawl. In addition to completing all mission objectives, before Crypto can move on to the next level, he must collect a certain amount of human DNA. This can be accomplished one of three ways: he can complete challenge missions for a set reward, he can track down alien probes hidden throughout the level, or he can tear the brain stems out of the people he kills. Unfortunately, each of these three options has its own major flaw that keeps the game being as fun as it ought to be.
Finding alien DNA probes requires an intensive scouring of each level, a process that will be instantly familiar to anyone who's played Grand Theft Auto 3. But unlike GTA 3, it's impossible for Crypto to just mind his own business while looking for the probes. If anyone sees Crypto, an alarm is sounded and cops will be there moments later, which quickly transforms every treasure hunt into a mass murder. Sure, Crypto can walk around holo-disguised as a human, but when in that form he can't run, jump, or even pick up any probes he finds. Also, the disguise generator has to be recharged every few seconds by stealing a random person's thoughts, making the disguise basically pointless for anything but mission-specific uses.
Killing people for their brainstems isn't a much better solution. By the game's third level, every single murder will result in an escalating armed response. The game's villains are a hydra: for each cop car I destroyed, two tanks showed up to take its place. Even the most minor conflict quickly escalates into a full-on war if Crypto doesn't run away and disguise himself, leaving him without the time or free space to extract the brains from the people he kills.
Oddly, the biggest problem is with the bonus missions, which ask the player to perform simple tasks (fry a set number of cows, electrocute a set number of housewives, etc.) within a time limit for a reward of DNA points. Even this relatively simple gameplay mechanic has two big holes in its implementation: while the difficulty of these "Side Missions" increases over the course of the game, the rewards for completing them do not, and each of the bonus missions can be replayed an infinite number of times, for the same reward each time. Once I realized what a hassle the DNA point system was going to be, I just sat down for an hour and played the game's very first side mission over and over again for an hour straight, so that I wouldn't have to think about the points for the rest of the game.
In addition to moving forward in the game, the DNA points are also required to purchase upgrades for Crypto's various weapons. Upgrades that become vital to beating the game's later levels without huge amounts of frustration. This is a fairly common practice in games, and it tends to create something of a catch-22 for gamers. Casual gamers who actually need the more powerful weapons to beat the game will have a very hard time tracking down the DNA points required to unlock them, while the hardcore crowd who are more likely to scour the levels for bonuses might actually appreciate the challenge playing the later levels under-equipped provides.
Of course, these are minor issues compared to my larger complaints about the game's premise. Yes, I realize the game is meant to be funny. The main source of the game's humor, the things people think when Crypto reads their minds, isn't exactly subtle. As hard as the game tries to be funny, for me, it never managed to overcome the central unpleasantness of its premise. After all, for all the jokes about secret government conspiracies and repressed homosexuality, this is still a game about the subjugation and extermination of humanity (a race I happen to be a proud member of). It doesn't help that the game's anti-hero acts like such a monster that the game's "villains," the US government, pales in comparison. Sure, it's bad that the evil Majestic-12 want to brainwash people using fast food, but that's strictly bush league compared to the end of all life on earth. Even worse is the fact that the Crypto is maybe the single most unpleasant main videogame character I've come across outside of San Andreas. The sheer joy with which he throws himself into torture and murder is rather chilling. Even worse is the sequence in which he unpleasantly leers in anticipation of "examining" an abducted beauty queen—which basically boils down to implied rape. But, you know, I'm sure the developers meant it to be funny implied rape.
Maybe I'm not the best person to be addressing this issue. I get so squeamish about morality in gaming that I avoided killing the Russian troops in the later levels of Goldeneye. All the same, it can't be denied that Destroy All Humans is conceptually, if not from a gore standpoint, the most gratuitously violent game in recent memory. I'm not saying the game is immoral, I'm not even saying the developers shouldn't be allowed to treat the game's subject matter with such irreverence. I'm saying that Destroy All Humans is a technically accomplished, but thoroughly unpleasant gaming experience. I'm sure there's a market for this; I'm just not part of it.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.