[Games] Preview: Bulletstorm

It’s a strange thing, but for years something in me has been slightly distrustful of “arcade” games. Maybe its all those pound coins I wasted on Time Crisis and Scud Race as a kid. Maybe its the PlayStation era, when all too often “arcade” was a euphemism used to describe games so bereft of depth and content that they barely warranted a budget release, let alone a full-price showing.

It shouldn’t be like that though. Think of the brilliance of titles like Street Fighter, Pac-Man, Sega Rally. All are arcade franchises built around simple game mechanics and quick-thrill interactivity, but all are among the most satisfying videogame experiences. Arcade need not mean cheap, simple or rip-off – and now, with the arcades themselves a fading memory, their console progeny are experiencing something of a hey-day.

Witness the brilliance of Street Fighter IV, the return of Marvel vs Capcom and the genius of racing titles like Blur and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. They offer the immediate impact and visceral thrills of their pay-per-play forbears, with the longevity and unlock structure of more traditional home gaming. They offer gamers a massive instant adrenalin overload without the crashing comedown of a Game Over screen begging for credits. All of the high with none of the cold turkey. This is 0ld-school gaming at it’s best. “Arcade” has quite literally come home, and it’s all the better for it.

Simulation, strategy and investment all have their place. The grind of levelling-up in an RPG, the endless races of Gran Turismo, the 700+ hours some people spend in Liberty City. All have their adherents. They offer a steady drip-feed of rewards to those with the time and inclination to dedicate the weeks and months they demand. That’s fine, but sometimes I just want to press a button and make explosions happen. I want endless streams of colourful feedback, fountains of points, a hard rock soundtrack and more particle effects than a firework display rendered by James Cameron’s CGI effects team. In racing, fighting, flying, platform and countless others genres there’s no shortage of that on offer. Even the humble sports game has, from time to time, been given a flashy quick-thrill makeover. But what of the holy-grail? The best selling, gold standard, big daddy of all gaming sectors. The first-person shooter?

The leash - your gateway to creative violence

The leash - your gateway to creative violence

Its a genre that began in simple enough fashion. We kicked down doors and blasted away at Nazis and mutants in Wolfenstein and rocket-jumped our way around the gothic world of Quake without words like “realism” or “simulation” ever entering our heads. But over time, the FPS has evolved. From Delta Force, to IGI, to Ghost Recon, Modern Warfare and Call of Duty the genre is now dominated by po-faced war simulations. Gravity affects our bullets as they travel. We fret over whether our cover is to thin to withstand a sniper round. Enemies are downed from across the map with a scoped weapon and we spend more time hiding in doorways and cover points than we do pumping lead into bad guys. It’s all very authentic, but somewhere along the line things got boring.

There have certainly been attempts to pep up the action over the years. Serious Sam had its tongue firmly in cheek and its emphasis firmly on fighting. Unreal, with its multiplayer mayhem and grunted yells of “killing spree!” had no identity crises. And of course we all remember Duke Nukem; movie-homeage one liners, sprite-based boobs and exploding barrels by the thousand. 3D Realms’ lo-fi classic was, in some respects, the very definition of “arcade”. Its sequel, Duke Nukem Forever is the Chinese Democracy of gaming. Ever-delayed and constantly re-versioned, it will finally hit our screens this spring after some 14 years in development hell. But it’s not the return of the Duke that’s setting FPS-fans’ tongues a-wagging. Instead it’s a new title from the team behind Unreal and – ironically – the franchise that did more to promote cover-based shooters than any other, Gears of War.

Epic Games’ Bulletstorm does exactly what it says in the title. You touch your controller and the screen, more-or-less, explodes. Its closer to Bayonetta or Street Fighter than it is to Call of Duty. Cover is irrelavent. Environments exist only to offer more creative opportunities for killing. Enemies are dispatched with explosive snares, time-distorting leashes and all manner of gruesome machinery. Its like the movie Saw on a massive dose of amphetamines. The screen is constantly filled with exploding scenery, fountaining gore and huge, brightly coloured messages about combos and scores. In short, it’s bloody fantastic – the antithesis of Call of Duty; a fact not missed by the game’s own tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign.

Big rolling spiky thing. Probably not good.

Big rolling spiky thing. Probably not good.

You literally sprint straight towards your enemies. There’s no need to crouch behind crates or pin yourself to doors – besides the game doesn’t really let you. As well as your fearsome and creative arsenal of guns you’re given a sturdy boot to kick your enemies up close with, and a kind of electric whip to grab them from distance. Both methods send the unfortunate grunts spiralling through the air in a kind of Max Payne bullet time. Its then up to you how you take them out. The more creative your kills, the bigger your bonus. At times you can use your environment, Split Second style, to inflict more damage. Do you bring an elevator crashing down on some explosives, or shoot out the roof instead? There’s great fun to be had replaying a level to rack up the points – something the game actively encourages.

In pacing and feel, it’s more reminiscent of a classic arcade beat-em-up or shooter than it is of an FPS. Epic Games may have described Bulletstorm as the real spiritual successor to Duke Nukem, but in truth its more like a first-person Metal Slug, with added score-attack elements. And there’s nothing at all wrong with that.

As you’d expect from the team that created the ubiquitous Unreal engine, Bulletstorm looks great, and flies along with a steady, smooth framerate throughout the demo level. It opts for a technicolour pallette of reds, blues and greens, with bright plasma style particle effects throughout and more neon splashes of colour from the on-screen messages and score displays. Its a far cry from the drab grey of military shooters that we’ve come to expect.

Throughout the demo the presentation is brilliant. The fourth-wall is shattered by an explanatory voiceover that makes no pretence toward reality. “You’re playing a game,” it seems to say, “let’s not try and pretend any different”. It’s refreshingly honest, and does a better job of legitimising the lunatic action than any overblown plot or pretentious cinematics. It makes a nice change in a demo when one of the players yells “this game’s not going to pre-order itself”.

There are just a few days to wait until Bulletstorm smashes its way onto shop shelves and on this form it looks all set to face-kick and headshot the opposition into oblivion. I wonder if the Duke will have anything to say about that.

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