Shooters and summer action movies have plenty in common, not least in how both are commonly pitched: Something and something meet something else. Epic's Bulletstorm, due in 2011, will enter this fraternity with similar references.
"It's the Burnout of shooters, with a little bit of Duke Nukem," Epic Games' design director Cliff Bleszinski said, "and a little bit of Firefly and Serenity on top."
At an event showing off the game last week in San Francisco, I also saw a little bit of Borderlands and even some hints of Madworld, and the game's main character - a coarse, unapologetically violent antihero - is familiar enough I can't immediately cite where I saw that first. "He's an asshole, a troublemaker, ladies probably love him," Bleszinski said. "It was either that or use Nolan North again."
Anything in the shooter genre today gets criticized as derivative, and Bulletstorm's candor about what has inspired it means the game will get a healthy dose of that. But, Bleszinski insisted, Bulletstorm will still break new ground in the first-person shooter genre.
"It puts the fun back in FPS," Bleszinski told the audience. "It's a game that doesn't take itself too seriously, serving up carnage with a pulpy wink and smile."
People Can Fly, the Polish studio Epic bought up after it worked on Gears of War's PC version, earned its over-the-top chops with 2004's Painkiller, which stitched together outlandish weapons and boss battles with the barest pretext of a story. Here, Epic's set PCF loose on the action while bringing in Rick Remender, the accomplished creator of comic books' Fear Agent series and writer on Dead Space, to develop a brassy sci-fi action tale of space pirates marooned on a decaying pleasure world overrun by mutants.
"What really gets me out of bed in the morning is crafting a whole new world," Bleszinski said. Bulletstorm might scratch that itch for its creators, but for gamers, if it's going to live up to that new-and-different promise it will likely be in the combat.
Big picture, Epic wants you to play with your food rather than eat it. You're awarded points for creative chain attacks - for example, shooting a foe in the balls and then putting him out of his misery with a headshot gets you a mercy-kill, worth more than just a standard headshot. The points you accrue from these attacks go to weapon upgrades, which enable even more cool attacks and, Epic hopes, an upward spiral of creative mayhem for the user.
Or: "You do cool shit and get cool shit, so you can do even more cool shit," as Tanya Jessen, the game's producer, put it.
Two melee attacks, more commonly represented in third-person action games, figure prominently here. Grayson uses his big boot, not his fist - either to punt foes or environmental props, or in a slide attack (Bleszinski referenced Mega Man while explaining it) that pops enemies into the air, allowing the player to extend the chain of attacks.
Grayson's energy leash is the hand melee attack. It can grapple and hurl foes and objects, and we saw two interesting applications. In one, Grayson roped a bad guy, yanked him in and applied the boot. This set up an amusing yo-yo attack in which the bad guy was reeled back in and punted repeatedly. Bleszinski likened this to the old child's toy of a punching balloon at the end of an elastic string.
The leash also has a type of whiplash-slam; grabbing an enemy and snapping down in the attack bounces him off the ground and into the air, again, enabling the player to creatively finish the kill.
In all of these cases, stunned, flying enemies enter a kind of partial bullet time to help players ready their next attack, as many successful combo attacks will require a precision finisher. The enemy slows down and drifts for a few seconds while everything else in the environment proceeds in real time. So if you're wondering how hard it is to yo-yo kick a bad guy and then headshot him as he flies back through the air, the partial bullet time assures you it's not that difficult.
Apparently the whole of the game won't be that difficult, either, if you want it that way. Bulletstorm will have varying difficulties, including an ultra-easy "tourist mode," Jessen said, for those who are interested mainly in seeing its story play out. In what we saw in San Francisco, Grayson Hunt was almost too powerful for the challenges facing him. Jessen and Bleszinski reminded everyone that the demonstration was showing only one type of foe, and that the game will have others against whom some standard attacks simply won't work.
That said, the level's boss battle - against a giant, apparently carnivorous plant - proceeded without much difficulty for Grayson, who easily slid around a platform circling the beast and yanked giant sacs of ... something off its stalk. Bleszinski promised that the full battle would be of an appropriate, satisfying length.
As for weapons, we only saw two. Which is probably because you can only carry two at any time (being "outrageously large," I suppose). The one special weapon we saw was the Flail Gun, which deploys a metal bolo with two explosive charges at its ends. It can either lay on the ground as a proximity mine, or wrap up enemies - either immobilizing them to the ground or tying them to the environment (a light pole, for example) - before detonating. Winding the flail around someone's neck looked rather satisfying, and bagging one enemy with it and killing another in the blast delivered the "Gang Bang" skillshot.
The game encourages you to "immobilize before you engage," Bleszinski said as Jessen played. "I want to lock him up, then lock him up, and then set up my Rube Goldberg device of death."
Regarding upgrades, with the standard "Peacemaker Carbine" Jessen demonstrated the game's titular act - a charged shot of "100 rounds compressed with heat so that they explode all at once." This is the Bulletstorm, and it leaves behind a flaming skeleton. Using it when you don't have to is encouraged; there's an "overkill" skillshot to collect.
We were only shown Grayson's capabilities. In the level we saw, he was accompanied by two squadmates, a woman and Grayson's cyborg accomplice, Ishi Soto (who had been devoured by the plant beast, and was on his way toward being, well, excreted). Bleszinski answered no questions about multiplayer, but acknowledged Epic and People Can Fly had plans for swapping control of your teammates.
Bulletstorm appears to be a red-meat shooter mostly in its macho tone rather than in its challenge. This isn't meant to be a counterpart or competitor to Epic's brooding Gears of War , which gets a third installment around the time Bulletstorm arrives. Gears is more utilitarian in its expressions of violence where Bulletstorm is rowdier.
Also, much of a shooter's replay appeal is in multiplayer. People Can Fly have deliberately engineered the game to feel disappointing if you just dispatch foes in a standard way. So the big question Bulletstorm will have to answer is how the comical combinations and finishing moves, which would seem harder to inflict on user-controlled opponents than compliant and easily stunned bots, factor into competitive multiplayer.
But Epic is sanguine about the idea it's making a fun, engaging shooter that moves the genre out of its fire/cover/headshot/melee liturgy and into more creative action.
"With Rick Remender's pulpy style, PCF's over-the-top design sense, and Epic's polish and secret sauce, I think we've got something magical," Bleszinski said.