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Impressions: Bulletstorm


Epic Games and Painkiller dev People Can Fly have finally taken the wraps off Bulletstorm, their FPS collaboration for EA, and it's looking like a brutal yet beautiful love note to fans of over-the-top action. Epic's design director Cliff Bleszinski and Bulletstorm producer Tanya Jessen (who also produced Gears of War on PC) flew in to San Francisco last week to debut the game. The duo kicked things off with the above trailer before getting into the nitty-gritty details in a live gameplay demo, with Bleszinski steeling the crowd for what he considers to be "a mix of Burnout, Duke Nukem and Firefly / Serenity."

Bleszinski prefaced the demo by saying that, while still very much into the Gears series, "what really gets me out of bed in the morning is crafting a whole new world" -- something that he's excited to do on this project with the team at People Can Fly in Poland. He says he plays the game three to four times a week to offer his feedback, and that Epic's art and production teams in Raleigh, NC work daily with PCF. He said that Epic also sends techs to the developer on a frequent basis to ensure that it is up to speed on Unreal Engine updates.

Whatever they're all doing, it looks amazing -- both from a visual and gameplay standpoint. Blezsinski said that, unlike most modern FPS titles, Bulletstorm "doesn't take itself too seriously," adding that it has the intense action, the headshots and the like, but "does it with a wink and a smile." But what does it do differently? Skillshots. "It's like a cat playing with a mouse before killing it," Blezsinski said of the game's core play mechanic, claiming that it takes the scoring system introduced in Unreal Tournament -- killing sprees, double-kills, etc. -- to "the next level."

Gallery: Bulletstorm (Xbox 360, PS3, PC) | 14 Photos

Jensen took over the demo from that point to provide more background on Bulletstorm's plot and "skillshot gunplay," describing the game as "a blood symphony where you're the conductor and your enemies are the instruments."

Current Punisher scribe Rick Remender is providing the game's script, which sees a mercenary named Grayson Hunt betrayed and exiled by the galactic Confederation. Grayson becomes a "drunken space pirate," assembling a crew of misfits that plunders to keep its oxygen, food and starship fuel supplies up. The game begins with Grayson plotting to ram his ship into the battleship Ulysses, the "prize pig of the Confederation." So it's tiny cruiser versus massive battleship -- remember, Grayson's a little fuzzy in the head -- but somehow the ex-merc manages to take out the ship's engines (well, those and his own) and they both crash land on the planet Stigya, where the rest of the game plays out.

Stigya, Jessen explained, was created as a "tourist paradise" but was evacuated decades before due to a "huge disaster" of unknown origin. In the time that it's remained unchecked by sentient species, it's become overrun with feral and mutated flora and fauna. While the goal of the game, according to Jessen, is "redemption and revenge," she said there's meant to be an element of "What happened here?" to the world, a la BioShock's Rapture. That said, she began the live demo in the capital city of Elysium, which was partially flooded as the result of events earlier in the game.

Elysium didn't look like any setting I'd ever seen in an FPS before.

Running on Xbox 360 hardware, the game is already looking great -- not just for its solid frame rate and myriad effects, but also because it looks different. Elysium didn't look like any setting I'd ever seen in an FPS before, with its lush, colorful vegetation devouring the ruins of once gleaming buildings underneath. As good as it looked, though, it was the gameplay -- the skillshots -- that left the strongest impression on me.

Playing as Grayson (there were two other characters in his squad, but Epic was mum on their exact roles), you'll have a couple of tools at your disposal to use in putting together elaborate kills. The first is your big ol' boot, which you can plant into objects and enemies in place of a traditional melee attack. Jessen demonstrated this by shooting a spherical trashcan off its base (as will be possible with many environment objects) and kicking it at her squadmate, who kicked it back. Later, when she kicked a human enemy, time slowed as he flew backwards. She shot him and scored one of the game's most basic skillshots -- some of which are quite colorfully named -- earning points that will eventually be put towards weapon upgrades to enable more elaborate skillshots.

The one upgrade Jessen showed was the "charge shot," a fusion of up to 100 bullets (collected by holding the trigger button), which, once fired, explode into a ... wait for it ... bulletstorm.

Besides the kick, Grayson's also got an energy leash. With it, you'll not only be able to grab weapons and ammo from a distance, but enemies and objects, too. This was put into practice by Jessen, who used it to pull an enemy towards her through the air (again in slow-mo) then kicked him away before landing a headshot for a higher-scoring skillshot. Like the game's weapons, the leash can be upgraded. I saw what was called "The Thumper," which lets you latch onto objects and slam them into the ground, knocking nearby objects and enemies into the air. I didn't see it, but Bleszinski chimed in to paint a gory picture of doing this to enemies standing under the rotor blades of a helicopter. Yeah.

Enemies that are set on fire and then shot result in "Afterburner" skillshots.

You'll be able to carry two weapons, but one will always be the standard issue PMC (peace maker carbine). The others promise to be more exotic, like the one Jessen demonstrated: the flail gun. It shoots grenades, two at a time -- but they're connected to one another by a chain and remotely detonated. As I saw -- multiple times -- this can be used to ground enemies by tying up their ankles, or disarm them by wrapping a shot around their midsections. Of course, it can also wrap around their necks, and all this can be done in conjunction with other moves to build skillshots. The flail gun projectiles also work as proximity mines (wrap 'em around a lamppost) and can slice an enemy in half if he's standing by said lamppost and the 'nade bola wraps around them both.

Flail gun grenades can also be wrapped around objects like trashcans, which can then be tossed into crowds of enemies using the energy leash and detonated (the "Gang Bang"). Objects like ice cream carts can also be kicked into crowds, serving a similar function. Enemies that are set on fire and then shot result in "Afterburner" skillshots. Shooting enemies in the groin, then in the head while they're on their knees in pain? "Mercy."

Stigya itself offers up its own environmental hazards to use to your advantage, such as huge cacti and "puffballs" that release a gas when shot, which confuses enemies. There are also giant Venus Flytraps, which you'll need to be careful of, but which can also be used to take out enemies (who were also seen fighting them off on their own).

According to Bleszinski, there is "something in the works with regard to co-op / multiplayer."

Grayson can also knock enemies into the air (and make his way through tight spaces) using a Mega Man-style slide kick. Depending on the amount of friction between you and the surface you're on, Jessen demonstrated, you can slide for 50 feet or so before coming to a stop. This move proved very handy during the demo-ending boss battle against a giant plant that Grayson had been chasing throughout the level (hey, it swallowed his friend). There were multiple stages to the fight, as the enormous, fantastic-looking creature puffed up spore sacks (shooting them all before they deflated required sliding around the boss on the wet floor), grew tentacles and swung from a destroyed atrium ceiling.

The demo ended with Bleszinski fielding questions: yes, there is "something in the works with regard to co-op slash multiplayer"; tougher enemies will have armor, which can be pulled off with the energy leash in order to damage them; and there will "kind of" be vehicles, but Bleszinski cautioned to not "expect Halo" when it comes to this aspect of the game. Additionally, I briefly spotted a timing game mechanic that has something to do with "encouraging players to capture the game's cool cinematic moments" -- an in-game camera feature, perhaps?

Bulletstorm has the looks and unique gameplay hook of a project that could make for something big on the FPS front. If anything, it's great to see a game trying something different (and totally unrealistic) amidst the current trend of highly realistic military shooters. The game will be playable for the first time at E3 next month, and you can bet we'll have an in-depth writeup from the show floor.

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