By – Noah Baxter
It’s not all that often that gamers get the chance to level a city or two. For me, it’s like spring cleaning; the longer I go without it, the more I itch to rectify the situation. It’s that good kind of itch though; the one that’s never pervasive, but when you finally get around to scratching it you feel completely satisfied. To this end, there’s something strangely Zen about razing a town, no matter the goal. The problem is that there aren’t many ways to go about it, unless you want to end up in prison or toil your way into a wide-scale demolition contract. So, after we weed out the illegal and/or time-consuming options, we’re left with the only realistic alternative: good, old fashioned virtual destruction.
A number of memorable games come to mind when destruction simulators are brought up: Rampage, Just Cause and Katamari, to name but a few. What these games all have in common, aside from letting you take chunks out of the surrounding landscape, is an ability to scratch that subtle itch that has built up over time. But, every memorable yin has its forgettable yang, and Demolition Inc. is just such a title. It’s obvious from the start that Demolition Inc.’s story takes a back seat to gameplay. The entirety of the plot is given to you on one screen during the opening cinematic, and it’s not exactly a riveting read.
In this clip we meet our silent protagonist, Mike. Cruising through the heavens in a beat up space-truck, Mike receives an email from an intergalactic conservation company. He’s been given the go ahead to lay waste to Earth since his own company, Demolition Inc., has won the contract for the job. The task at hand is to replace Earth’s concrete jungles with natural ones, ultimately turning the planet into a recreational resort for visiting aliens. To fulfill this contract, Mike dons his hard-hat and overalls and makes his way to the blue planet.
This is where the story ends and the game begins. It’s not a bad plot, all things considered, but it would have been nice to see it fleshed out at least a little more. Seeing as this is the last you see of any story until the very end, it simply doesn’t offer enough to engage the player. I guess this is fine for a game that has a focus on style and control more than anything else, but I still feel like this was a missed opportunity overall.
With the story abruptly out of the way, Demolition Inc. takes off. Almost as soon as the foundation for Mike’s work week has been set you’re plugged directly into play, with little more than a nod and a wink to see you on the right track. That’s not really an exaggeration either. The first level gives you a brief tutorial on how to control Mike, but once you’ve finished with that you’re more or less on your own. The next few levels can be both fun and frustrating, depending on your worldview. Though there are on screen prompts to remind you what buttons can be pushed where, you’re expected to figure out the rest of the game’s complexities by yourself. To be honest, these prompts are largely unnecessary, even bordering on annoying at times. While they’re easily ignored, it irked me that I was being reminded what the right click’s single function was come the last level of the game.
What this approach results in is a heavy dose of trial-and-error. Controlling Mike is no hassle at all, but left to your own devices, gaining an understanding of the game’s specifics can be. There are more than few levels that take far too long, not due to any challenge other than the time it takes to get the hang of things.
The general goal of each stage is communicated effectively enough, at least. In each level you must demolish the district before you with the tools at hand. More tools can be picked up by destroying the buildings they rest on, but if you run out of them, the level is basically over. If you can’t level the district within a certain time frame, the army shows up to spoil your fun and kick you back to the start of the stage. This time limit doesn’t really provide any challenge though; in my experience, you have to consciously step aside in order for this to happen. Plus, the “Restart Level” button is always near at hand, so even if you run out of tools it’s not likely that you’ll encounter the boys in green.
The tools themselves are interesting, but few; there’s a grand total of 7 for the entire game, with many being absent from level to level. The upside of this is that every tool has a distinct purpose, and you can take your time to master the use of each one. The items I had the most fun with were by far the car control, which allows you to command the vehicles below you, and the snowballing wrecking ball, which lets you crush most of the city with ease. The wrecking ball sees rare use though, a fact I was devastated by. Instead, you spend most of the game perfecting the placement of wheel glue, a slippery green slime that sends unaware drivers careening off course. Thankfully, the wheel glue is satisfying enough once you figure it out (and using it in conjunction with some of the other tools can be incredibly rewarding).
For the most part, each item shares this sentiment. By the time you gain an understanding of how to employ them, you’re starting to have a lot of fun. There are certain mechanics that are less enjoyable than others however, and as unexpected as it seems, one of them is the use of explosions.
A common tool you have on hand is the exploding cow, which for the most part feels disproportionate to expectations. The cow’s letdown is its miniscule blast radius, which makes its effect difficult to gauge. It becomes somewhat easier to guess with time, but as you come to rely on them chiefly for domino effects, this can be really irritating. Like the other elements of the game, the cows are (generally) fun to use once you get the hang of them. But, for most of the play time, the steep learning curve proves to be a daunting problem.
On a personal level, I do actually enjoy this sort of thing. It suits me well to learn by practice, and anybody who takes a pragmatic, hands-on approach to learning will likely find it fun in its own right. In saying that though, the fatal flaw of this method is how inefficient it is, and from a design standpoint it could be considered mediocre and lazy.
So as not to outdo itself, the physics of Demolition Inc. are also left to guesswork. Even nearing the last few levels, it can often be difficult to tell what it’s going to take to bring a building down. I’ve had moments where I’ve collapsed nearly every supporting wall of a complex only to have it stand firm, mocking me with the very core of its brickwork. This isn’t a regular occurrence, but when it makes itself an issue it’s unmatched on the frustration scale. While it does support a selling point of the game, that no game round is the same, you’ll likely be less and less amused when almost identical actions yield varying and unexpected results. It’s at times like these that the gameplay feels like a steep uphill climb, and a long one at that.
Despite all of this trouble, Demolition Inc. still doesn’t present any real challenge. Each district’s maximum 3 stars are awarded to you for little effort, so there’s no real desire to replay levels once you’ve completed them. Also, because it’s so easy to ace the stages, the game feels shorter than it already is. As there are only 15 districts in total, it can’t really afford to leave the player wanting more. Another huge factor that subtracts from the overall fun of the game is its lack of narration. Being the strong, silent type, Mike doesn’t utter a sound throughout the entire game. There is absolutely nothing in the way of spoken feedback, meaning there’s little to keep you attached to and excited with the situation. There are some regular city dwellers that offer you extra challenges, but in the end they’re as inconsequential as the pedestrians who dot the pavements.
For an example of just how much is missing from the writing, I only found out that our protagonists name is Mike at the very end of the game. While I never had a desire to learn his name in the first place, this may have been part of why I was so detached from him. His dopey grin was the only aspect of personality I could see throughout the whole game, and I was sick of it by the end of the third level. From my (more than biased) point of view, a demolitions expert should be a fun and vibrant character, which makes Mike the equivalent of a wet blanket.
I suppose the music does an okay job of making up for the lack of depth in the characters and story, but it’s nowhere near enough to give a good balance. Laying light, upbeat funk over a cartoonish aesthetic, the soundtrack digs into some enjoyably spacey riffs that really suit the setting of the game. There’s also an amusing track that plays during the introduction sequence that seems to be a direct rip-off of Blur’s “Song 2”, but the charm of that wears off when you realise exactly how unimaginative it is. Other than that, the music is just another aspect of Demolition Inc. that’s mostly forgettable. It’s never bad or annoying, but for it to make up for the lack of dialogue (or monologue for that matter), I would have expected more. Ultimately, the music disappoints, which is ironic when you learn the composer’s surname is Wagner. Coincidences aside, the atmosphere of Demolition Inc. is yet another aspect that could have been the saving grace, if only it had received the attention it needed.
Conclusion – Is It Worth Your Money?
For all of its enjoyable aspects, I can’t say that I finished Demolition Inc. with a sense of satisfaction. As I played, the itch to destroy certainly came to light, and boy was it begging to be scratched. But scratch, the game did not. Instead, Demolition Inc. proves to be a lesson in frustration, akin to the moment you realise you can’t quite reach the sweet spot no matter how many ways you try to bend your arms. Sure, it was fun to watch “Mission Complete” signs crashing onto passing cars, and yes, if I let my testosterone think for me, explosions are always going to be enjoyable. But in the end, Demolition Inc. just doesn’t deliver.
I for one can think of many better ways to spend $10 on steam, but that’s not to say it’s a waste of money. If you’re absolutely dying to recreate your life as a demolitions expert, or perhaps if you have a particularly destructive child to entertain, by all means grab a copy of Demolition Inc. Otherwise, my recommendation lies firmly with the reliable, replayable classics of the genre. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a Katamari to roll.