Preview: Destroy All Humans! (PS2, XB)

Publisher: THQ / Developer: Pandemic / Genre: Action/Adventure / Release Date: Spring 2005

A game about aliens with a name like Destroy All Humans! is going to be funny, one way or the other. Either the makers are going to be relentlessly tongue-in-cheek and satirical, or they’re so gung-ho that they’re probably really high on something. Thankfully for fans of Mars Attacks!, Spaced Invaders, and other classics of their ilk, DAH! has serious potential.

Destroy All Humans is the story of Cryptosporidium 137, a member of the Furon race from Gorta, a planet in the Proxima Centauri system. Crypto’s race is in a bit of a bind; despite the fact that they’ve got incredible psychic powers and highly advanced technology, the future of their species is in peril. Procreation is basically at a standstill, since partners can read each other’s minds and know what the other is really thinking about them at all times, which leads to a lot of problems in the Furon bedroom. This problem has been overcome by rampant cloning (Crypto’s 137 designation means that he’s the 137th clone of Cryptosporidium), but the Furon’s genetic material is becoming unstable because of being contantly screwed with.

Luckily, the Furons had a contingency plan: slip bits of Furon DNA into the genes of lesser species, and collect them when necessary. Unfortunately for Earth, the human race is one of these incubator species, and it’s harvesting time. This is the main goal of the game, but subplots will take Crypto to the heart of Earth government conspiracies and a search for his missing brother. The story of DAH! is campy, drawing on decades of alien hysteria and cultural preoccupation with little green men, and playing with all the ideas of the genre. While designing games to be satirical isn’t entirely new (The Bard’s Tale tried it last year, for example, with mixed results), THQ and Pandemic seem to be handling the project with a mix of humor and homage.

One of the biggest draws to the gameplay is the fun to be had dropping ship in some midwestern farming community and lighting the place up. Weapons are not only tools of wanton sci-fi destruction, but there are also some interesting utilities with them. One gun that will be your friend is the “Zap-o-matic,” which shoots lightning, temporarily disables enemies, and scrambles their brains a bit, which can make them forget they saw you if you can get out of their line of sight while they recover. Of course, prolonged electrocution will also kill a human, but the amount of zapping you have to do to accomplish this keeps a steady balance.

Equally interesting is Crypto’s array of mental powers. Players can hypnotize NPCs and enemies to issue them commands such as opening locked doors, as well as using telepathy to get information on the sly. One of the most important powers is the ability to copy the form of a human and mentally project that image in order to sneak about without causing trouble. The twist here is that it drains away at your “concentration,” which is necessary for using any psychic abilities. When you lose your concentration, whatever psychic ability you’re using ceases until you can rest your brain for a minute. This makes the stealthy bits very cool, because enemies will notice that something about you is a little off, and will watch you for awhile without directly engaging you. The more enemies you have paying attention to you (indicated by Metal Gear Solid-style question marks and exclamation marks over their heads), and the more powerful those enemies are, the more nervous Crypto gets, and the harder it is to maintain concentration. The biggest fan favorite, however, looks to be telekinesis, by which Crpyto can move and manipulate objects with his mind. Cops getting annoying? Pick one up and toss him into another. Or pick up their car and fling it at them.

While story and missions are obviously important in DAH, the developers are trying very hard to give the game a sandbox appeal; an analogy that’s being made quite often is that you can play it as a sort of “Grand Theft UFO” sort of game, terrorizing the populace, ravaging the countryside in your flying saucer, and just generally interpreting the title as your prime directive. Crypto’s primary mission, after all, is to get ahold of as much DNA as possible, and that means that sacrifices are going to have to be made; you can’t make an omelette without killing a few people. Burninating in your UFO, swinging that death ray, and telekinetically throwing cars at enemies looks like a good spot of fun. However, judging by most of the early clips of gameplay, taking a Rambo approach is, as with GTA, an exercise in extremely poor planning. There seems to be more emphasis on playing it closer to a stealth title, camouflaging yourself as an NPC and sneaking past guards as much as possible.

Technologically, the game looks pretty good. The most work is obviously being put into Crypto, who manages to be an aesthetically-interestingly little guy despite the overexposure of the “little gray aliens with big heads” idea. The game’s graphics may not be the most technologically marvellous, but they’re solid, and they’ve got a very distinctive art style that will appeal to anyone who loves a good alien-invasion movie.

All in all, Destroy All Humans! is shaping up to be a pretty impressive title, and refreshingly license-free. Expect business to pick up at Area 51 this spring.