In the future, robots will excel at cooking breakfast, mowing the terraformed lawn and driving cabs on Mars. Today, they're designed to be destroyed without consequence or guilt. If you have to shoot something in a lineup of video game villains, the robot is less messy than the nazi and just a tad more relatable than the extraterrestrial insect.

It's in a shooter's best interests, then, that you prevent the artificial near-citizens of the future, as envisioned by Hard Reset, from overthrowing authority and hastening their own evolution. You enter the city of Bezoar (eww), a neon-lit pastiche of flying billboards, talking storefronts and Blade Runner's Los Angeles grit, with a straightforward mission in mind. Cover the streets in smoldering servos and protect a database of digitized human personalities. Let's file this preservation and attempted theft of what is easily humanity's least useful component under "suspension of disbelief," okay? With a grim sci-fi setting and no console port in sight, Hard Reset is already whispering to people who look back fondly on games like Unreal and Deus Ex. A better point of comparison is Doom 3, which took a surprisingly sensible and exciting approach to in-game interfaces. For once, the computer-within-a-computer acknowledged that you were playing with a mouse.

In Hard Reset, your aiming reticle fades away when you approach a terminal, elegantly replaced by an honest-to-goodness mouse pointer. It's a simple trick, but it feels like a more tangible entry point into the world than Bezoar's sun-blocking buildings and cluttered streets, which sometimes resemble a dumping ground for all the cars from The Fifth Element. When you activate an upgrade terminal, you're enveloped in a half-cylinder of holographic options, as if you could just reach out and do a little armament shopping.

It's a crucial interface to have gotten right, since you'll be seeing it often as you progress to new areas (in a linear fashion). You only carry two weapons -- one based on physical ammunition; the other based on energy -- and both can be upgraded to transform into practically different guns, based on where you spend your currency. Regular munitions can grow to include rockets, grenades, proximity-triggered mines and shotgun shrapnel, whereas the energy weapon modes are more appropriate for robot crowd control. You'll eventually be able to fire close-range arcs of disabling electricity, or deploy a bubble that slows down all enemies within it.

Now, if you're thinking you'll trap robots in one of those handy bubbles and then switch to the rocket launcher, you're on the right track. With so many capabilities spread between the two guns, which have a neat visual transformation to accompany each mode, Hard Reset seems to encourage a creative offense, making you stutter waves of opponents that always outnumber you and often move faster than you do. Environments are littered with society's explosive detritus, so there's also a chance to create lethal (and sometimes unintentional) chain reactions.

It seems more orchestrated in your mind's eye, however, since combat can feel clumsier than expected. There's room for quick planning when you have plenty of space around you as a buffer, but in narrower spots robots are programmed to rush you relentlessly and trigger a bout of oh-what-mode-is-this-again fiddling. If you're going from one gun to another and then switching to a specific mode, attacking becomes a two-step process -- the last thing your brain needs when a hulking machine is inches away from crushing you. And since you won't be looking closely at your gun's shape, building confidence in mode switching requires recognition of all the different aiming reticles. At least you don't have to worry about reloading.

Now, the press demo dispenses an obscene number of points in order to unlock weapon abilities, killing what I suspect would be a process of gradual acquisition and familiarization in the final game. The upgrade terminal becomes like a locker from Mass Effect -- you open it and an avalanche of guns falls out.

The disparity between potential strategies and those you end up executing is also widened by enemy behavior. I don't think humanity has much to worry about here, since nearly all the mechanized assailants in this demo simply charge straight at you. The great bubble-and-rocket strategy tends to boil down to backing up and shooting, or sprinting away and luring bullet-sponge enemies past a hazardous electrical outlet or an explosive canister. Again, the press demo's mishmash of levels (which rendered the story mostly inscrutable) didn't offer much of a learning curve, but I couldn't defer the feeling that gunplay in Hard Reset can degenerate into irritating chaos. And why oh why does the HUD disappear when you're nearing death?

Perhaps I'm asking for more fluidity and subtlety than Hard Reset is really interested in providing. After all, the demo culminates in a battle against an enormous, bipedal giant who safeguards his final weak point inside a metallic codpiece that's bigger than an ATM. Shooting robots in the crotch may be ineffective in thwarting their proliferation, but it certainly sends a clear message.

Hard Reset, developed by Flying Wild Hog, will launch on PC in September.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.