Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop is one of those reverential action properties from the Before Times, like The Terminator, Predator, and Aliens; a movie that didn’t pull its punches because it didn’t have to, and went all in on some pretty serious themes with its tongue firmly in its cheek. None of its sequels managed to stick the landing, though one or two video game adaptations have been decent-ish. Robocop: Rogue City shrugs off the sequels as though they never happened, and ignores the 2014 reboot, to maintain an air of authenticity you might not appreciate if you’ve never seen the now thirty-six-year-old film.
Rogue City pulls the Alien: Isolation trick of keeping its future-tech in-line with the universe. That means advanced robotics and huge cyborgs programmed on ancient boxy monitors; it means massive walkie-talkies, no mobile phones or internet, and VHS security tapes. None of this is intended to be taken seriously, or deeply analysed. Neither is the fact that everything looks so grimy and 80s despite the year being 2043.
The story is completely original, and sees Officer Murphy and his ever-dependable partner Anne Lewis (with the likeness of 1987 Nancy Allen) investigating the “New Guy”, a suave new crime boss who has just arrived in Detroit and got the local gangs all excited. Amidst the usual Robocop themes of rampant crime and corporate evil, Murphy takes on the gangs with an endearingly straightforward attitude. Dead or alive, they’re coming with him.
There’s something about Robocop: Rogue City that feels almost like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It’s not as sophisticated, but as you roam the streets in the few open world sections choosing to either uphold the law by being strict and by-the-book, or to serve the public trust by making more “human” judgements, the world subtly adapts to your actions. People remember how you treated them, and some will pop up later and treat you accordingly. At a certain point your actions begin to influence the harsh politics of Detroit as you can choose to publicly support the down-to-Earth Mayor Kuzak or the deeply corrupt but visionary OCP.
But before we get carried away, it’s worth remembering that Rogue City is an FPS first and foremost, which is actually a bit of a shame. It’s the shooting that developer Teyon has put the least amount of effort and creativity into. Armed with his trusty Auto-9 pistol, Robocop never runs out of ammo and almost all standard missions feel like pop-up shooting galleries with the same four or five enemy models. They have the same faces and clothes, the same voices, the same staggeringly basic AI. They’ll duck behind cover but don’t flinch when you hit them unless you score a headshot or nutshot, and they all shout the same one-liners in the same voice. Sometimes they’ll shout “I’m hit!” even after you’ve reduced the top half off their face to red mist.
Oh, and by Christ do they like throwing grenades. They toss them around like confetti, and because the scenery is mostly destructible, the AI can’t see it. So they’ll throw them directly into walls and girders and blow themselves up. You can shoot them out of the air, but it’s tricky, or shoot a goon mid-throw and cause a fumble. It’s, like everything, very clumsy.
Which is not to say the combat isn’t weirdly satisfying. You have plenty of heals and Rogue City likes to keep your supply topped up, and as I said you have infinite ammo for the Auto-9. In addition you can pick up a second weapon dropped by an enemy such as shotguns, grenade launchers, and Uzis. They serve a purpose, but nothing feels better or punchier than Robo’s sidearm.
You return to the precinct after every mission or patrol to be evaluated, and you’re rewarded XP for every action, such as whether you nailed side-missions, found enough “evidence” (scattered collectibles), or uncovered secrets. Some missions have hostages to free, and you’ll burst through doors and walls in slow motion to take out enemies before they straight-up ice their captives.
XP is then used to improve Robocop’s abilities across a spread of skill trees like Combat, Engineering, Deduction, Psychology, Focus, Vitality. These, and others, boost your proficiency in specific areas and grant special abilities when you clear certain milestones. Engineering adds a dash move and the ability to crack safes, Deduction improves Robo’s environmental scanner and allows him to pick up extra clues. You can also upgrade the Auto-9 using circuit boards you find in missions to improve its damage, spread and reload speed. At first I worried there were too many skills to unlock, but as you can earn a lot of XP per mission and you get to return to open areas periodically, it kind of works.
Sometimes you’ll need to use Deduction to solve crimes and help the citizenry of Detroit, but it’s never overly taxing. You scan the environment for clues and make moral decisions based on what you find. But it does feel like police work as you solve murders or reclaim stolen property, and Robocop is an interesting character. He’s dry and fairly witty, and his responses to other characters give him a distinctly human air. But this is hardly nuanced writing – depending on how you look at it. I mean, it’s written exactly how the film was written, so maybe that’s nuance in itself.
Robocop: Rogue City is a pretty uneven experience at times, though. While the shooting is fun for a while, it soon becomes tiring, and the game has a habit of dropping things on you, like a kill-count contest where you’re expected to be beat a full SWAT team and three ED-209 units, or a fight with the iconic ED-209 itself that literally comes out of nowhere and is one of the worst bullet-sponge encounters I’ve had in an FPS. And yet dealing with Robocop’s deteriorating mental state (complete with flashbacks and dialogue pulled right from the movie), the crime-fighting element, and solving quandaries for your fellow cops feel like the most interesting parts of the game. There’s something very endearing about issuing a parking ticket for a truck leaking oil after you’ve just spent twenty minutes splattering brains all over a quarry.
Ultimately, Robocop: Rogue City does exactly what it needs to do. It presents an authentic, mostly good-looking Robocop experience that stays as faithful as possible to the source. Visually and aurally, it hits every note, but even manages to continue the themes laid out in Verhoeven’s schlocky masterpiece. It’s just a shame it’s let down by the actual action at times. Bloody, loud, crass, but also occasionally very human, Robocop: Rogue City is the best and most faithful adaptation of the movie universe we’ve ever had, warts and all.
Reverential to the original movie
Shooting feels weighty
Lots of objectives and collectibles
Some uneven difficulty