RoboCop: Rogue City Review
Somewhere there is a crime happening
Some entertainment franchises seem like they would make for great video game adaptations. Consider the 1987 sci-fi action film RoboCop and its sequels, where a police officer is killed in the line of duty, and his brain is transplanted into a cyborg body. It's a series full of action, philosophical questions on what it means to be human, along with some detective work; on the surface that seems ideal for a shooter game. But as you dig deeper, you realize that the signature quirks of the character – his emotionless demeanor, slow movement, and a single signature pistol – may not actually translate very well. There have been numerous interpretations of RoboCop across video games for the past few decades, though most were very arcade focused. The latest is RoboCop: Rogue City, a first-person shooter that wants to bring the cyborg back for the modern audiences with a more serious tone and higher-budget. Unfortunately, the main hero's unique quirks turn out to be the least of this game's problems.
Rogue City takes place after the events of the first two films, and there is some expectation that players are familiar with the lore. There is no recap of events or an introduction of the character, you're just thrown into the role and into the action. Players assume the role of RoboCop, aka Alex Murphy, who was created by OmniCorp (OCP) in the films and works alongside the police to uphold the law and follow his Prime Directives. The city of Old Detroit is still ravaged by crime, and gangs run many of its streets. There is an apparent new criminal in town that aims to hire the local gangs to do his bidding, while RoboCop and his fellow human police officers are trying to thwart their plans. There is also a mayor election coming up, and the three main candidates are trying to get RoboCop to support their campaign. And to top it off, RoboCop himself is having strange malfunctions that bring up distorted memories of his past, all while an investigative journalist is trying to uncover what OCP is really planning. As the titular cyborg, players will have to blast their way through locations full of bad guys, complete occasional investigations, converse with others and make binary choices.
The reason that the character worked in the films is that despite his muted persona and robotic dialogue – which is recreated in the game – the supporting cast added the needed emotional and human elements. But in Rogue City, there is little of that. Fans of the character will be happy to hear that film actor Peter Weller reprises his role as RoboCop with a voice and likeness, and he carries on with the role as if no time has passed since the films. Other characters also make an appearance, such as his partner, Anne Lewis, but she is absent for most of the runtime. The rest of the cast, such as the main villains, mayoral candidates, and police chief, are forgettable. The underlying issue is that the game suffers from some seriously low quality dialogue, and not in the "80's camp" sort of way. That dialogue is often delivered extremely poorly by the voice actors, creating a narrative that feels amateur at best. This also makes the predictable "emotional breaks" of the character fall entirely flat. RoboCop occasionally experiences reality-distorting memories of his dead family, during which he says absolutely nothing, and with players having no agency in these moments, it's a lost cause.
The low quality production values carry on from the narrative and into the visuals. The character animations, facial capture, lip sync, and special effects are all quite disappointing. Even during cutscenes, the camera angles and scene composition is poor and seems hastily put together. The cutscenes in Baldur's Gate 3, an RPG and not a cinematic action game, are better constructed than the static, poorly placed shots in this game. There are plenty of visual glitches and texture flickering, along with framerate dips in the cutscenes. There are two display modes – performance and quality – but neither is visually impressive, so performance is recommended to get into the 60fps range, at the cost of some texture and reflection quality. The character and environmental details are very basic, as is the geometry, and there are plenty of texture streaming issues. Mirrors you come across are also just a texturized blur, reflecting nothing. There is a decent amount of blood and gore, and occasional dismemberment, but it's fairly low quality, like the rest of the assets.
Over the course of the story, players will visit the police station which acts as an interlude between missions. Here you usually get a debrief on how well you are performing, have a chat with the OmniCorp physiologist that is trying to ask philosophical questions, and complete mini quests such as collecting signatures for a get-well card for a fellow officer. After a mission briefing, you will head out to one of the standalone game levels to progress the story. The main such level is a few small city blocks of Detroit, and this hub is quite well recreated. The environment here is full of detail, from the dark side alleys to the glowing neon signs, and some good quality reflections in the puddles; it’s the most atmospheric and well-made level, and so of course the game tries to squeeze its runtime by returning you here multiple times, albeit at different times of day. The other levels are far more generic and less detailed, such as construction yards and factories.
The level design is predictable and repetitive, too. You are dropped off at the start of the area, and walk around until you either find enemies or new buildings to enter. Inside the buildings are even smaller standalone levels, with claustrophobic corridors and apartment halls. Each level has a few optional side-quests, which boil down to entering some of the other buildings in the area and shooting your way through those linear corridors. There are two separate instances where you must save a cat from a burning building. The game also likes to make you walk back to the entrance the way you came, for no reason other than to pad its runtime.You could just head for the main objective, but you’d miss out on the extra XP – though you are definitely not missing much from a narrative or gameplay perspective if you skip the optional stuff.
Controlling RoboCop may seem like it would annoy some players, given his slow walk and lack of weapon options, but it turns out to be OK. Yes, you move slowly, but given how small and downright claustrophobic some of the levels are, it's never really an issue. You can also hear his thumping footsteps with every stride, but again it didn't seem to be all that bad – and it can be turned down in options. You do have the signature Auto 9 pistol with unlimited ammo and options for slightly altering its function through an upgrade system, and you can also pick up one extra weapon from fallen enemies with limited ammo.
But the gunplay and the action just never feels good. While most foes get eliminated with a single burst to the head with the pistol, it doesn’t take long for them to start wearing head and body armor, as it becomes a typical shooter with bullet sponge enemies. The shooting just doesn't feel precise and this is best illustrated in the firing range that you can visit at the police station. The optional secondary weapons you pick up don’t automatically grab ammo, you have to loot it manually from fallen foes. No matter the weapon, shooting is simply clunky and unsatisfying.
On normal difficulty you also take quite a bit of damage and if you're not careful, you can perish quite quickly. The game often throws you into rooms of lots of enemies and little cover, so you are forced to take the old-school and awkward approach of standing behind pillars and waiting for an opening. The occasional boss battles are horrendously designed for the same reasons. Health only restores with canisters that you find in the environment, and the levels needed much better balancing on when you get those – sometimes you find more than you could possibly need, but at other times there are barely enough. You rarely feel like the unstoppable mech machine that RoboCop is supposed to be.
The enemies you face off against are the various gangs in the city. They have some visual differences, but in terms of mechanics it's just bad guys with varying levels of armor. Towards the end of the game, even with maximum damage bonuses, they take clips upon clips to take down, again putting the game into generic shooter territory that's little like what RoboCop is supposed to feel like. They are also incredibly grenade-obsessed, lobbing them at you in every encounter, all landing perfectly at your feet no matter the distance. The levels do have some destruction elements, and it's sometimes nice to see walls and columns torn apart by gunfire, but it's at a rather basic level. On rare occasions, you can flank enemies by breaking down walls. But on the whole, the AI foes simply stand or run around and shoot at you, occasionally taking cover.
An unintentionally funny mechanic is the breach. Like the slow-motion room entrances from the Call of Duty campaigns, RoboCop likes to burst into rooms and have a few moments of slowed time to eliminate enemies within. But even this element stumbles. For one thing, the mechanic is overused to death, as you'll be slo-mo breaching into more rooms than you could count, reducing the novelty. The use of the effect is entirely scripted by the game, and on some occasions you burst into small, empty closets, which is hilariously misguided. But secondly, the effect is also poorly designed – on most occasions, there is a bunch of ugly dust and debris along with a very slow weapon draw, wasting time before you can actually start shooting. And in many cases, you will burst into large open areas with tons of foes, meaning you can't possibly eliminate even half of them before the effect expires, making its use actively unsatisfying.
To help in the combat and at least give you a chance to live out the dream of being a lethal cyborg, players can upgrade their weapon stats and personal abilities. You earn experience from completing missions and various optional objectives, which grants skill points to use in a few linear trees. There are obvious ones like damage output and armor, but also some others such as improving your investigative skills, conversation skills, and hacking abilities. There are also perks that become unlocked at certain points of each skill tree, such as the ability to recharge health at special stations, or shoot parts of the environment to reflect bullets at enemies in cover. It may seem like you need to have a good balance depending on the way you approach situations – but it's all for naught. You'll realize by halfway through the 15 or so hour campaign that damage and armor are the only things that matter. You'll need to focus on maxing those two skill lines to make combat at least somewhat enjoyable and feel like you are powerful. The other skills seem incidental and it's hard to recall an example where they come into play – conversation and investigation skills have little impact on main story progress.
Another way to buff your damage is by collecting boards, which are sort of like those energy-pipe directing puzzles with nodes on them that can increase damage, weapon spread, armor piercing and so on. It can even make your signature pistol act more like an SMG, which certainly helps in the end-game. Onto these nodes you can place chips that you've found/earned, each having a percentage value and directional openings. The challenge is to find the pieces that fit well and fill up the board, without letting energy flow into nodes that have negative values in them. It's a decent little minigame that you revisit on occasion to swap to newer and bigger boards and higher percentage nodes.
It's only in the final hours - when you've figured out that only damage and armor buffs matter in your skill assignments and you have the means to buff your weapon damage to near max through the circuit board nodes - that the game comes alive and shows a glimpse of what could have been. These later levels you finally feel powerful, as you mow down waves of enemies in a chaotic showdown without having to hide behind corners to restore your health, as your signature pistol can basically become an over-the-top LMG that doesn't even need reloading. But alas, these final sequences still can't break away from terrible boss battle design and can hardly make up for the rest of the game.
When you're not shooting up the place – and to the game's credit, it's fairly often – you will walk around and perform investigations. These are extremely simple interactions though, where you press a button to scan highlighted objects, and sometimes follow trails. There are some above average moments during the downtimes, when the game leans a little bit into the humor of the world, such as RoboCop needing a warrant before breaking through a door, but they are few and far between. The game also toys with the idea of player choice, such as when RoboCop chooses to be super strict and uphold the law, or give the people of Detroit a break; this can result in some minor consequences. You also have to make choices when it comes to the mayor election, and the investigative reporter – do you report them when you find they are snooping illegally to gain crucial evidence against OmniCorp. But all this does is change the simple slideshow at the end of the game that shows how your choices turned out. There's certainly not enough here to warrant a replay, especially with no New Game+ option.
The conversation system is rarely used, and instead adds just another awkward break during scenes. You can walk through the streets, before facing a black loading screen to get into a building, which transitions into a cutscene, then to staged conversation with dialogue choice, then back to cutscene. The UI is basic, and its lime green color scheme is a pain during exploration and investigations – the faded green question marks that identify objects of interest are very easy to miss.
It all feels very stitched together and old-school, and a lot of attention to detail is missing. Your partner and other characters cast a shadow, but you do not, which looks strange. You can pick up and throw certain items at the enemies – such as chairs and monitors, but only some, and in certain spots on the level. They also don’t interact when you throw them at glass, and glass often refuses to shatter even under gunfire. When you grab and throw an enemy, a lot of the time they disappear right into the walls. The audio design is also very limited; gunfire sounds shallow and the volume mixing is all over the place, with some effects and voices being way louder than others. Most levels have no background ambiance – you are just walking in total eerie silence, other than your own footsteps.
RoboCop: Rogue City may not be a full priced game, but at $50 fans should have certainly expected better. It's nice to see the hero return with the original voice and likeness of the actor, and the main mini-hub level of the city is quite atmospheric, but everything else about this title unfortunately screams of lack of polish and limited budget. The dialogue and voice acting is poor, the visuals are subpar, the gunplay is clunky, level design drags on, and there are plenty of small glitches to go around. The game would have instead benefitted from dropping all these shallow auxiliary features, from the player choice to side quests, and focused its budget and development time on the core mechanics. Developers at Teyon clearly have a passion for adapting film franchises to video games, but just like their previous efforts with Rambo and Terminator: Resistance, this RoboCop was not ready for the streets.