header is screenshot from RoboCop: Rogue City
You Don't Want to Feel Like RoboCop
Chris Breault

Every vision of the future is laid over a view from the present, and all sci-fi films use bits of the current day to paper over the gaps in their imagination of things to come. But few movies make as little effort to disguise their own time as the original RoboCop, which straight-up just looks like the ‘80s with a few squared-off paper cups and cubist urinals thrown in.  

The technology that really seems to fascinate Verhoeven in RoboCop isn’t robotics but video. Comically small CRT screens are everywhere playing canned messages from the business world: the boardroom pitch for ED-209, the real estate agent’s hollow patter in the abandoned Murphy house, the villain Dick Jones’s pre-taped message to his rival Bob Morton. When RoboCop is resurrected, he’s cursed with VHS vision, giving him a queasy outsider’s perspective on the New Year’s Eve party of the scientists who rebuilt him. The camera in his head is the weapon that defeats Dick Jones at the end of the movie; his Auto-9 just finishes the job.

480p eyes are just one of many reasons why RoboCop is the action hero you’d least like to be. Verhoeven saw him as a Christ allegory; his existence is suffering. He stands apart from a fallen human world that looks like murky, ghosted, scanlined shit to him.

I don’t think there was ever a chance that a licensed mass-market game would really make you feel like RoboCop, as reviewers used to say—he’s a slow-moving turret with bad eyesight. Even games that do avant-garde stuff with vision don’t try to make you that miserable. Observer keeps your standard view pretty sharp, though it adds filters and dancing artifacts; Cruelty Squad might nudge you to play at 640x480, but at least it lets you smoothly bunny-hop at hyper-speed. 

So it’s not really a surprise that RoboCop: Rogue City spares you the agony of true video vision. It faithfully reproduces everything in RoboCop except the spirit of it. The film is hilariously mean, but the game plays nice. Its approach is to maintain the appearance of robo-angst but mitigate it into inoffensiveness. You still see some fine scanlines, but only when you turn on "Detective Mode"; you have to stomp around at low speed, but can hit the spacebar to “Burst” forward. It decouples the RoboCop power fantasy (blasting street-level creeps and executives with the Auto-9) from its grounding elements (eternal pain, isolation, residence in a world of crude and limitless evil), and you can’t really blame it—this is the RoboCop that fans wanted.

Rogue City gives the Robo-faithful something far more substantial than what they’ve subsisted on (a sanitized '90s TV show, a handful of comics, and a hated remake from a decade ago). It fits what feels like a full season of RoboCop TV between its shooting-gallery levels, introducing bit characters in episodic side quests and then paying off their storylines naturally with appearances in a late-game prison visit or a downtown inferno. You could call this old-fashioned nuts-and-bolts storytelling or just “finishing your work,” but either way, it’s a touch of class that your Starfields and Assassin’s Creeds don’t have. If the game loses the sardonic tone of the original film (which offsets the cartoonish virtue of its hero), it at least successfully ports its look and characters into a new environment that was built with care.

The gunplay also just feels good. Rogue City is an anti-movement shooter that often plays like an aim trainer: just plant yourself in one spot and whip your cursor between the targets. Late in the game, you can upgrade your machine pistol into an absurd bullet hose that fires infinite ammo in full auto, fed by some invisible ammo belt descending to the center of the earth.  

But the shooting sections are bogged down by too many too-familiar cutscenes. The game winkingly reuses so many lines from the movie that it feels like the entire text was reassembled from the words of the RoboCop script using William Burroughs’ cut-up method. Peter Weller, who returns to voice the hero, gets to play the hits all over again—slime, creep, “cop killer,” etc. But other references seem like random stabs at activating neurons in the brains of RoboCop-knowers. The “new guy in town” in the first film was RoboCop himself, as introduced by an OCP ad; in Rogue City “the new guy” is a media nickname for the villain. What’s the point of that parallel? Boddicker’s line “Can you fly, Bobby?” is spray-painted on walls across the city for no real reason. Remember this, folks? Y’all seen RoboCop?

Other echoes reveal the gulf between Rogue City’s perspective and that of its inspiration. One heartwarming sidequest sends RoboCop around the police station collecting signatures for a get-well-soon card for his partner Anne Lewis. What a softening from the scene in the original where he looked up at a room of callous scientists at their NYE party, an unwilling prop in their social rituals. And what a change in the outlook of the storytellers to decide to bore us with this entire recuperation plotline. Near the end of the first Robocop, after Lewis gets shot, Murphy reassures her by saying, “They’ll fix you. They fix everything.” There’s a lot wrapped up in that line: Murphy’s humanity resurfacing through a joke with his partner that seems to sarcastically revisit his own transformation into a machine. But the best part of the quip is that it deftly sweeps past our concerns and lets us cut right to the film’s climax without any narrative obligation to show Lewis on the mend. 

Much of Rogue City’s story is narrative obligation, dutiful recreation of what you remember from RoboCop. Several dead actors have been awkwardly rebuilt, including Robert DoQui (Sgt. Warren Reed) and Daniel O’Herlihy (The Old Man), but there’s no spark to their performances. The original background cops, whose roles were so trivial that they were all jokingly named after serial killers, are now treated like sacrosanct series regulars—Robo’s family.

The most awful returning presence is the “RoboCop struggles with his humanity” plotline, which includes some tedious dream sequences and a rerun of the sequence where Murphy revisits his family’s vacant home. The developers clearly knew that part of the RoboCop equation is heroic suffering. But why make Murphy repeat the exact same arc he went through before? Shouldn’t the cut-up method have given this plotline to, like, The Old Man or trusty informer Pickles?

I would’ve liked RoboCop: Rogue City better if it was a less responsible adaptation. Something like Alan Grant’s old comics, where he immediately began making up Judge Dredd-style sports and fads to occupy the citizens of future Detroit. It was the kind of shotgun futurecasting that the original film rejected in favor of blunt-force attacks on modern corporations and the media. But who cares: Grant was just in it to amuse himself. Rogue City seems hesitant to inject the personality of its own creators like that—it’s too beholden to the fans. At the same time, it doesn’t have the stomach for the outright malice of the original film. The result is a sort of Netflix RoboCop that’s long, inoffensive, full of callbacks, and light on new ideas.

Teyon probably never wanted a game that makes you feel like RoboCop, because it wouldn’t be a good feeling. Instead they made a game that makes you feel like watching RoboCop. They put all the pieces of him back together, but lost the vision.


Chris Breault is a writer on the internet. He produces one third of the EX newsletter.