As treasured as Blade Runner is among game developers, I've yet to play a cyberpunk game that captures the thrill of the film's initial flight through near-future Los Angeles - Detective Gaff's cruiser spinning upwards past the whirring fungus of satellite arrays, cinder-black apartment blocks and the big blank grins slapped across video billboards. It's a slick yet self-conscious sequence, the camera jumping around like a player hunting for the right POV: you see the city by turns "directly", as though perched on the bonnet, then from behind Deckard's shoulder, reflected in the windshield and diminished, finally, to a neon wireframe on the dashboard display.
No game about the future of our cities has ever conjured up quite such a bewitching nightmare, but G-Police - a 1997 aerial combat sim set on Jupiter's moon Callisto, about 80 years from now - occasionally comes close, though it lacks the underlying quest for identity that gives the film's imagery so much of its power. In part, that's down to a technological limitation. So hell-bent was developer Psygnosis on bringing the game's domed mining colony setting to life that it took an axe to the draw distance, swaddling entire skyscrapers and flocks of ships in darkness till they're right under your nose.
In a shooter where you'll spend a lot of time hurtling from dome to dome, chasing down gunboats and siege cannons before they can nuke the infrastructure, this sounds like sheer murder, and reviewers of the time were certainly divided. But it also speaks to how day never quite dawns in Blade Runner, a universe of diseased sunsets and distant gas flares where blue skies exist only in memory. Taking its cues as much from noir as cyberpunk, G-Police understands that night is intrinsic to the dystopian industrial city, not cast over it like a shroud but boiling up from its trash and masonry like particles of tar. In any case, it's actually not all that difficult to make sense of the murk, once you get a feel for the area layouts - if buildings vanish from view, engine glare can be discerned from much further afield, a touch that recalls how Psygnosis uses streaks of starfighter exhaust to signpost enemies in G-Police's more optimistic cousin, the wonderful Colony Wars.
G-Police is one of perhaps three or four games I've ever been totally obsessed with, completing it dozens of times as a pasty 12 year old, and a sorely disregarded giant of both 3D vehicular combat and video game sci-fi. It casts you as a police pilot, Jeff Slater, dispensing law and order or at least, heavy ordnance from the cockpit of an ex-military Havoc gunship. Lifted by two plumes of blue fire, the Havoc's oily black finish and cruel talon frame put me in mind of Ridley Scott's other great creation, the Alien. It proves a dependable ally in the course of the game's thirty-six missions, as you graduate from gunning down two-bit hoodlums on motorbikes to sparring with corporate aces, though the controls take plenty of mastering.
This is a game from long before the Dualshock era, when manoeuvring through polygonal 3D space was a little like writing with the wrong hand, and one that often sees you darting around towering urban centres in search of opponents who seem startlingly alert to the environment's tactical possibilities. Though slower than your Havoc, equipped with relatively feeble weaponry, and somewhat prone to bouncing off the architecture when cornered, they're quite slippery as AI dogfighters go, winding in amongst structures and changing elevation relentlessly. Tailing them also acquaints you with the nuance of Callisto's urban cosmos, if only because some hapless civilian driver has just come between you and your prey.
Though under-served by the game's mission-driven design, which often sees you baby-sitting chinooks or dopey bomber squadrons, G-Police's animate NPC ecology was a revelation in the 1990s and remains impressive today. Residential areas and spaceports are vibrant coral reefs, buzzing with scruffy yellow taxicabs straight out of the Fifth Element, winged corvettes and heavy haulers that resemble passing whales. There are no people, but their presence is everywhere inferred by the adboards that crowd the game's intersections and skylines, many of them cheeky plugs for other Psygnosis titles like Overboard - the work of the same team. The wider machinations of the universe, otherwise confined to the game's nowadays-goofy FMV cutscenes, are also laid bare in the consistency of the Callisto colony's design, with a brace of domes dedicated to agriculture, storage and energy production alongside those looming city hubs.
If these elements hint at an open world, it's all governed by a deliciously reductive arcade tempo, with an arsenal that is as much a soundtrack as it is a means of mayhem. There's the animal squeal of heat-seekers drifting free of the launcher, the fizzle of laser blasts slow-cooking the Havoc's cockpit. There's the oddly serene spectacle of cluster missiles flowing up to form a halo around the aiming reticule, before zipping off individually to the nearest enemy. Unguided rockets set up a brisk drumroll of hissing launch and thunderous impact, and goodness me, those hyper-velocity missiles - acid-green streaks that smash into and through targets like bolts from Olympus.
G-Police was well-received enough at launch to spawn a sequel, Weapons of Justice, which introduced a brighter colour scheme, a bouncy two-legged mech, and wireframe HUD projections to help compensate for its still-meagre draw distance. The series never shifted the same quantities as stablemate WipEout or the F1 games, however, and was dropped in the leap to PlayStation 2, as Sony pushed the once wide-ranging Psygnosis to focus on a handful of top-drawer licenses. The game has been ported to PSN and the publisher has, as publishers do, flirted with the idea of a proper sequel - it quietly renewed its trademark last May - but after all this time and given Studio Liverpool's closure, the outlook isn't promising.
Even as an erstwhile diehard fan, there are aspects of G-Police I wouldn't rush to restore, like the awkward way its talk of serving the public rubs up against its breezy attitude to collateral damage. As with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, the game arguably fails a key tenet of cyberpunk fiction in being largely about clamping down, rather than punching up - there's little of the good-humoured subversiveness you encounter in, say, the recent VA-11 HALL-A. I'm not sure I still have the stomach for all those escort missions, either. But I will always celebrate G-Police for being the game that finally put me behind the wheel of Gaff's cruiser, allowing me to rove Blade Runner's ashen, alien skyline under my own steam.