Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Art of the Furon: An Interview with Artist Bryan Lee


Destroy All Humans is back.  Twelve years after Path of the Furon's release, the series returned via a remake of the 2005 game.  The remake has been a success, showing us that anal probing never goes out of style.  With Destroy All Humans in public eye, I figured it would be time to accomplish something I never did before: chronicle the series' history.  Destroy All Humans has an interesting yet untapped history.  While information on the first two games is plentiful, not much is known about the making of Big Willy Unleashed or Path of the Furon.  Through the power of e-mail, I reached out to Bryan Lee, whose first major industry job was working as a concept artist on Path of the Furon.

Bryan Lee was hired by Sandblast, then known as Cranky Pants Games, and tasked with creating artwork to flesh out the world of Path of the Furon, including designs for the Nexos, the civilians, and more.  Lee has fond memories of his time on the project, though working on the game showed him the good and bad sides of the gaming industry.  At the end of the day, he's proud of his work.  Like many others at Sandblast, Lee was laid off, but the boss of Sandblast helped him, and other employees find work.  Bryan Lee now lives in China with his fiancĂ© and teaches art via an online program.

This is the first of what I hope becomes a recurring series where I interview those involved with the making of the Destroy All Humans games.  Whether they were programmers, designers, artists, or voice actors, my goal is to gain insight into the games came to be.  Destroy All Humans is one of my favorite franchises, and to be able to explore its history is an opportunity I wouldn't want to pass up.  I want to thank Bryan Lee for taking the time to answer these questions.  Without further ado, here's the interview.

1. What inspired you to become an artist?
I've always liked drawing.  "TMNT" and "Dragon Ball" is what got me started.  It wasn't until I got into middle school and high school that I took drawing more seriously.  Seeing art by Scott Campbell, Arthur Adams, Jim Lee, Joe Mad, JC Leyendecker, and Norman Rockwell (thank you "Hometown Buffet") really inspired me to get serious about art, which led me to teachers like Steve Huston, Mark Westmore, and Kevin Chen.

2. How did you get involved with Path of the Furon?
I was hired by Sandblast (at the time Cranky Pants Games), my last term at Art Center back in '06.  I remember flying to Washington for the interview and loving the studio and overall vibe of the place.

Artwork of Crypto using the Ion Detonator and Extract.

3. As a concept artist, what was the job like?  Did the artists frequently collaborate with the other staff at Sandblast?
The job was immensely fun!  I got to work with a lot of talented and dedicated people, and still miss all the epic Nerf wars.  Yeah, we had Nerf wars.  I feel the team worked well together and all kind of hung out.  We worked pretty well together even at things that were not work related.

I remember when we all got together to push each other's car up our parking lot hill in the snow so that everyone in the studio could go home.  Plus, there were some really fun team building exercises after a hard grind like whirly ball.  It involves bumper cars, scoops, a ball, and a basketball court.

4. What was the general mood at Sandblast while working on the game?
The mood was generally good from what I remember.  I'm sure there was drama here and there but what office doesn't?

5. Do you recall anything interesting that ended up on the cutting room floor?
There was a lot, but some stuff that never made it in the game I never really understood, like if humans can drive cars, why can't Crypto do the same when he possesses someone?  Our combat designer had really cool ideas for boss fights.  One of the issues was that you can beat the whole game by just shooting the disintegrator, making the other weapons feel like novelties and unnecessary.

I remember the combat designer wanted to go the Zelda route where each new weapon would be used on a boss, and a mission leading up to the boss fight would help the player familiarize themselves with said weapon.  Just like the "Zelda" games.  Sadly, that never really happened.

6. Any funny stories regarding glitches or bugs found?
Oh man.  The game was so much more fun with the glitches.  I remember one particular glitch where if you shot someone with the anal probe, wait for them to run, freeze time, and press the button to pop off their head, and then unfreeze time, we would see the civilian's head do like a "Tron" speed thing, that's the best way to explain it.  You know how a bike in "Tron" leaves a wall of color that eventually fades?  That's what would happen.

PK grab was so much more fun when it was overpowered, it was like playing "Katamari Damacy" but it killed the already finicky frame rate.  Honestly, there's too many.  I know the game did not do well, but I wonder if the glitchy version would have done a lot better.  I'd buy it.  I'd spend hours after work laughing my ass off at the glitches in the game and trying to duplicate them.  I remember somehow playing as Crypto's rocket pack and using the spaceship to blow up the whole level.  Seriously, the game was so much fun with glitches.

Concept art of Orthopox-14.

7. How long were you attached to the project?
I think I was on the game for about a year and some change?  When I was brought on, they were trying to figure out the look of the Nexo, which was fun to design.  I got to design the other Furons, a bunch of NPCs, bosses and even created the Furon alphabet.  I believe one of the artists wrote messages on anything that had Furon writing.  No idea what he wrote though.

8. There was a PS3 version planned that never released in America (e.d. It did release in Europe and Australia in early 2009).  Do you remember anything about that?
Yeah.  If I remember correctly, there were too many issues, it simply could not be released.  The game was made for the Xbox 360.  All the builds I played were on the Xbox 360, and I never got to see a PS3 build.  I know it was confusing for the fans, especially with the Wii version, "Big Willy Unleashed."  So sad because there was so much potential for "Path of the Furon."  I wonder what the game would be like if instead of making a separate Wii game, all the resources were directed at the Xbox 360 and PS3.

9. Was there ever talk of a "Destroy all Humans 4?"
There were definitely talks about it, and the concept team was excited about it because we were playing with the idea and what it would be like.  There was so much to work with from that decade.  We also discussed having the style be completely cartoony, since "Path of the Furon" was in the middle with cartoony or real (maybe leaning more towards cartoony I guess?).

I personally thought the references we could make in an 80s "Destroy All Humans" would be more well received and more relatable.  I always felt that some of the 70s references in "Path of the Furon" were a little esoteric and didn't know when it was supposed to be funny as there were only a couple of people laughing when the team would watch cut-scenes in meetings and the jokes/references had to be explained.

10. Looking back, what's your big takeaway from your time on the project?
I don't want to go on a rant.  I'll simply say it was an eye-opening experience, and I got to see the good and bad side of the industry.  Biggest take away is that artists have to stick together.

Concept art for alternate skins.

11. What did you end up doing after "Path of the Furon?"
We all got laid off.  Luckily, our boss asked game companies near us if they were hiring and a lot of us got scouted.  I worked in gaming for a few more years before branching off into some movie concept.  I was very fortunate to have tried my hand at many disciplines in concept, like toy design, story-boarding, amusement park design, movie poster design, basically anything that involved drawing and painting.  I found my passion in teaching and have been freelancing and teaching ever since.  Recently, I started an online art school in China with my fiancĂ©.

All artwork shown was provided by Bryan Lee.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Review: Destroy All Humans! (PS4)

Playing the Destroy All Humans remake is like reuniting with an old friend.  He's stayed the same, but he's changed for the better.  I first learned of Destroy All Humans as a teenager and loved the premise.  An open-world game where you play as the alien terrorizing the humans instead of the other way around?  Sign me up!  I adored the games during those awkward teenage years, even if the later entries weren't quite up to par with the first two.  Despite my fanaticism, I moved on as I got older.  It also didn't help I discovered the franchise two years after the last game Path of the Furon released and bombed, killing any chances of the series continuing.

Years passed and nothing was heard of the franchise, even after Nordic Games bought the rights.  That changed in 2019.  Nordic Games, now known as THQ Nordic, revealed three titles over the span of E3 2019, and with the final reveal, I almost fainted.  They showed a trailer featuring a grey alien hypnotizing throngs of humans through the power of Rammstein's "Ich Will" before vaporizing them.  Crypto was back, and I couldn't be happier.  While I told people my most anticipated game of 2020 was Doom Eternal, it was really Destroy All Humans.  With brand-new graphics and redone gameplay, the Destroy All Humans remake aims to re-introduce old and new players to the series starring an alien who sounds like the guy from The Shining.

Furons are in a predicament.  Eons of waging war with unregulated atomic weaponry has mutated their genes to the point they are not able to reproduce.  They resorted to cloning to keep their race alive, but the DNA used to do so is running low, making the threat of extinction larger than ever.  Orthopox-13 learns there is aa planet brimming with pure Furon DNA as a result of Furons stopping for R&R after the Martian War.  This planet is Earth.  A Furon scout named Cryptosporidium-136 is sent to survey the planet, but he gets captured after his saucer collides with a rocket.  Orthopox orders Crypto-137 to prepare the mothership for invasion.  As Crypto gather DNA, he discovers his predecessor's disappearance has connections to an agency called Majestic.

Join the IFP: Insane Furon Posse.

Destroy All Humans preserves the story, characters, and dialogue of the original game, and few titles make the Red Scare and cow abuse as funny as Destroy All Humans does.  The game is a tribute to 1950's science-fiction cinema and apes a lot of tropes from films of the time.  Locations include rural farmland, a quiet small town, a government research base, and a bustling metropolis, all settings one would find in movies of this kind.  The eerie theremin music on the title screen further accentuates the game's B-movie roots.  As much as Destroy All Humans pays tribute, it spends as much time poking fun at the decade it's set in.  The 1950's was the decade of Communist paranoia and the rise of the nuclear family.  Politicians like Joseph McCarthy spread false propaganda that the Red Menace could be right next door, and the game satirizes such paranoia.

Crypto's mayhem is perceived as the work of Communists by everyday civilians and military officials alike, and Majestic aims to use said paranoia as a tactic to help garner the public's trust.  Moments like this is what helped Destroy All Humans stand the test of time.  It may be funny, but it keeps one foot in reality and never becomes too absurd, unlike Big Willy Unleashed and Path of the Furon, which went too far into camp territory and relied on obvious references instead of clever send-ups.  At the heart of Destroy All Humans is Pox and Crypto.

Pox is a scheming mastermind, always coming up with plans to try and conquer the world, even if it means hijacking Majestic's plans for their own use.  On the flip side, Crypto is an anarchist who cares little for humans and would rather destroy everything than research it.  Crypto is more aggressive and temperamental than in the sequels, where his time on Earth softened his stance on humanity.  His short temper faux-Jack Nicholson voice are what make Crypto the character he is, and it's why he's remained one of my favorite characters after all these years.

While Destroy All Humans preserves the story, the gameplay and visuals received an overhaul.  It borrows ideas from the sequels and current gaming trends to create an experience that feels modern and up to date.  Over the course of 23 missions, Crypto probes and vaporizes humans, occasionally donning a disguise to blend in.  The controls are simplified to the Nth degree.  Taking a page from Path of the Furon, Crypto is able to use his mental abilities and weapons at the same time, but the remake goes further by assigning abilities to various places on the controller instead of having to rely on a lock-on followed by button presses to do so.

PK is activated by tapping the right bumper and to throw an item you hold and release the right bumper or tap it to drop whatever is in Crypto's grasp.  Other powers like mind-read, the holobob, and distraction are located on the d-pad or face buttons.  The amount of freedom with his arsenal and abilities seems daunting, but soon you will be lifting cops into the air with PK while zapping and extracting brains like it's no problem.  The game encourages experimentation and rewards creative players for doing so.  Abilities include PK, mind-read, holobob, extraction, distract, follow/protect, and forget, those particular two powers are pulled from Destroy All Humans 2.

Destroying humans has never looked so good.

The original Destroy All Humans was a weird mishmash of linear and open-world game design, while the environments were explorable, you progressed through the story in linear fashion.  The remake keeps this progression flow but makes quality-of-life adjustments where needed.  Once you beat the first mission of a new area, you are given the option to explore the place or continue the story.  There are no longer abrupt stopgaps where Crypto must collect a certain amount of DNA before continuing either, but there is incentive to collect DNA in the form of upgrades.  Missions are varied and range from simple to complicated.  One sees Crypto hypnotizing a beauty queen and luring her to the saucer for probing, and a later level involves escorting an atomic bomb to an airfield.

Missions now feature optional objectives to complete.  Doing them unlocks concept art and results in more DNA being rewarded at the end of a mission.  If you miss an objective, fear not, as the mission replay option lets you revisit previous missions.  Series veterans might recall the original Destroy All Humans had 22 missions.  In a surprise move, developer Black Forest Games resurrected a cut level called "The Wrong Stuff."  It bridges the gap between Missions 13 and 14 and explains how the flying saucer prototype shown off in the opening of the latter level went haywire.  Some missions even received new objectives.  For example, "It's a Wonderful Armageddon" now begins with Crypto protecting a surveyor probe before hopping in the saucer to level Santa Modesta.

Objectives are varied and contain a good mixture of action and stealth.  The stealth-oriented ones do show their age since if you are caught trying to holobob someone, it is an instant mission failure.  In the 2005 game, one of the troubling aspects was sneaking by Majestic agents.  If you got too close, the disguise glowed red before disabling.  For the remake, agents sport a radius to determine how close you are.  Using forget or distraction on them lets you get by without breaking disguise.  EMP mines will also disable the holobob and weapons, but Crypto can remotely detonate them without having to use PK or his weapons to attract attention.

This game is called Destroy All Humans, and destroying things is great fun.  Over the course of the campaign, Crypto gets the zap-o-matic, the disintegrator ray, the ion detonator, and the anal probe.  The zap-o-matic fires arcs of electricity which zap nearby humans.  The disintegrator ray fires bolts of hot plasma which reduce people to ash and makes destroying vehicles and emplacements easier to do than by using the zap-o-matic.  The ion detonator is a high-tech grenade launcher, and you are now able to PK launched ions at targets.  Then, there's the anal probe.  By holding the trigger and releasing it when the reticule glows white, a probe is launched, penetrating the butt of some poor sod before ripping their brains out through their butts.

Patriotic fellow, isn't he?

Weapons, abilities, and the shields are upgraded at the mothership.  That's right, there are shield upgrades for Crypto and the saucer, which makes withstanding punishment from tougher foes a lot easier knowing they are no longer glass cannons.  To buy upgrades, you need DNA.  DNA is earned from beating missions, challenges, collecting probes, or through humans via the extraction ability or the anal probe.  Upgrades include standard fare such as increased ammo capacity and damage, but each upgrade tree is capped off by a quirky perk, like adding a rapid-fire option to the disintegrator ray or modifying extraction to where humans affected by it defend Crypto before their brains are pulled out.

Alien invasions aren't complete without a flying saucer, and like Crypto it has received some tweaks.  Taking a page from the sequels, the saucer is able to change altitude, and it's outfitted with a deflector that deflects missiles and other projectiles when timed right.  The saucer comes with the death ray, sonic boom, and quantum deconstructor.  The abduction beam lets you hurl objects caught in its vortex and is a great alternative for destroying buildings when you run out of ammo for the sonic boom or quantum deconstructor.  Regarding the weapons, the death ray shoots a beam of energy which damages buildings and scars terrain.  The sonic boom fires spheres emitting shockwaves to damage stuff, and the quantum deconstructor is the BFG of the roster, capable of annihilating anything caught in the radius of its gigantic green sphere.

Crypto feels unstoppable, and little things like extracted brains speeding up the recharge rate of the shields or being able to drain energy from vehicles and humans to refill the saucer's shields highlight the combat's depth.  A rampaging alien will attract the law enforccement, and the cops, soldiers and agents Crypto encounters have some special tricks.  Soldiers will thrown grenades and use rocket launchers in addition to rifles.  Early on, Majestic agents wield pistols and Thompson machine guns, but as the story continues, they equip plasma pistols and rapid-firing energy rifles, plus they'll throw EMP grenades to temporarily disable Crypto's weapons.  Robots, once a comically easy enemy to defeat, are able to pack a puncch with their autocannons and grenade launchers.

With newer hardware, no longer are players able to evade foes by letting the PS2-era draw distance consume them.  They will search high and low for Crypto, which where the jetpack and dash come in.  The jetpack lets Crypto fly but doesn't run out of fuel within seconds like the original.  Dash lets him quickly side-step projectiles, but holding dash triggers SKATE, a virtual hoverboard which makes getting around a lot faster than with the jetpack.  If they add the ability to ollie and grind rails, then Crypto has a shot at being in the next Pro Skater.  Speaking of high scores, the challenges have been improved.  No longer are they disposable.  They're split into four categories and the better Crypto does, the higher the ranking and overall DNA reward.

Boss fights are much more challenging than before.  This is good.

When you know a game inside and out, the redone visuals are a wake-up call.  No longer is the world cut off by a short draw distance, nor are the environments populated with repeated character models.  The locations might be small by today's standards, but they pack a ton of detail and feel more lived in.  Civilians actually do stuff instead of walking around or driving aimlessly.  Suburbanites chill at the pool or paint their house, while homeless people sift through trash cans looking for something edible.  Little things like that give the world personality.  Plus, the visual effects for the weapons, abilities, and destruction look great.

Audio is another story.  Taking a page from the Battle from Bikini Bottom remake, Destroy All Humans utilizes the original voice recordings, with some new lines peppered in.  However, the quality is uneven.  The 2005 voices sound echoey and grainy, which is odd because I replayed the original a few weeks before release and the voices sounded fine.  Players will notice the discrepancy with how crisp the new voice lines sound.  Also, get ready to hear the same handful of lines over and over when reading minds.  There are some new lines peppered throughout, but not many.

I will say this, it felt great hearing new dialogue from Richard Horvitz and Grant Albrecht, the voices of Pox and Crypto, after all these years.  They didn't miss a single beat and it leaves me hopeful that one day we'll get a brand new adventure featuring the alien duo.  Whereas the re-used voice lines sound rough, the stellar soundtrack sounds amazing.  Garry Schyman's score captures the music of the movies Destroy All Humans homages perfectly and it remains a great soundtrack.

Let me just say I am glad THQ Nordic decided to resurrect the series and props to Black Forest Games for doing a stellar job.  Destroy All Humans' tale of alien havoc in the 1950's is funny, satirical, and surprisingly deep.  This isn't yet another alien race wanting to take over Earth just because.  Their race is dying and if they don't do something, they go kaput.  The gameplay is solid and though the missions show their age, they get the job done, but it's the combat that holds it together.  It's fast and flexible, letting players manage weapons and abilities on the fly without having to worry about obtrusive button inputs.  Probing humans and decimating cityscapes is satisfying, and one only wonders what way Black Forest Games might be able to expand upon it in a potential sequel.  I'm glad Crypto is back, and I hope here's to stay.

Final Score: 8/10