Bulletstorm Hands On and Interview
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Developer: People Can Fly/Epic Games / Publisher: EA / ESRB: M / Release Date: February 22
Some time ago, as the Bulletstorm PR machine was revving its engines and testing the waters for how a new-style/old school/new IP shooter could make a play in a franchise dominated genre, developers People Can Fly trotted out producer Tanya Jessen to outline the goals and ideals. In a preview from that and subsequent showcases, I labeled her a potty-mouth. And I wasn’t sure: was it a genuine personal portrayal of getting excited about their own game, or was it showmanship for a testosterone-laden, kick-ass-and-chew-bubblegum styled shooter being directed by <shock> a woman?
I mean, we’d just seen a cutscene as notable for its “adult/military” dialogue as for its plot setup. Then bad guys were leashed into the air, dropping to slo-mo speed, and shot in the ‘nads as many times as possible. An Achievement popped up. A guy wounded in those ‘nads who was then put out of his misery with a bullet to the brain earned more reward. Kicking fools into razor sharp cactuses or into the maw of man-eating overgrown triffid-like Venus fly-traps were enough to generate pained winces even from a crowd of hardened virtual war-veteran press. With a “this is fucking awesome,” and a “you get to kick the shit out of <insert enemy>” Jessen reinforced the spirit of this new action game.
As the single-player story starts, you’re introduced to the essence of your protagonist, Grayson: a bad-ass former official military type bent on revenge, ravaged by post-traumatic battle scars, and succumbing to the demon drink. His story of revenge is the launch pad for a single-player experience that lands you on a once lush planet now inhabited by crazy enemy foes and dotted by dangerous flora. A macro story involving some galactic war, corrupt leaders, and those pesky corporations ruling the corporate and military worlds serves as the backdrop for your reasons to kick ass.
In our hands-on time, the game really opened up once we earned possession of the Leash. This is the electric blue lasso device that grabs enemies, thrusts them towards you in slo-mo, and presents the opportunity to shoot them in the head, the balls, or the gullet. Between your boot that impales enemies on handy props on the levels and your leash that can drag targets onto those ubiquitous exploding barrels, one thing is for certain: enemy death in Bulletstorm is original and styled by your own actions.
You do work with sidekicks along the way, though it was tough to tell exactly how they were helping. On occasion it seemed their bullets had “stopping power” in that they slowed enemies racing to your position, but lacked significant “killing power” in actually dropping them. More opportunities for you, of course, to kick them off ledges (Vertigo reward) or squash them after kicking down a door (Pancake) among the other visually–as well as gameplay–rewarding takedowns.
We did get to play the Anarchy multiplayer mode, which highlighted exactly how cooperative this experience has to be in order to succeed. Faced with 20 levels of ever more challenging enemies, you simply have to work together to execute advanced takedowns. This is not just a game about killing the marauding enemies, it’s about doing it with style, and with friends. The various levels present new environmental tools like an electricity-fused pool or a perpetually rotating automatic door to force fresh thinking on exactly how you execute enemies. It’s not just about gaining personal points (a simple shooting kill nets 10 points, where the collective takedowns earn hundreds, and so are vital to attaining the point requirements to progress to the next stage) but about using your talents through spending earned points on the weapons you got a feel for in the single-player experience.
This four-player game could be regarded as a fascinating microcosm of online gamer frailty. Simply, if you don’t cooperate, you will never get to the last level pay-off. The other challenge mode recreates the single-player maps and enemies, but shapes your actions with a time limit and extra awards based on the number of skillshots you execute during your run. So it’s a game of speed blended with making sure you can physically manipulate your fingers to perform the special takedown moves. That’s not to say that they’re exceptionally difficult, more that it engages a response time more akin to a fighting game than a straight first-person shooter.
The overall Bulletstorm style is absolutely compelling for shooter fans. Its attitude may garner as many groans as guffaws, but it’s definitely not your Call of Duty-like military shooter experience. As Jessen confirmed to us, her OTT attitude early on was part fueled by her own enthusiasm, and part marketing types encouraging that bad-assery. At the very least, it’s consistent, and we’ll see on February 22nd whether it’s enough to encourage gamers to buy into its unique style.
We sat down with Bulletstorm producer Tanya Jessen–who previously worked with developer People Can Fly on Gears PC–to talk about how the game came to be, and the ideas behind it. For the record, there was not a single uttering of profanity the entire interview (aside from one direct quote)… until the recorder was turned off!
Inside Gaming: You’re done?
Tanya Jessen: Almost.
IG: How do you feel?
TJ: Tired. <laughs>
IG: What did you learn about developer People Can Fly through the development process?
TJ: It reminded me of Epic during Gears [of War], a family atmosphere, more wild west, no rules. It’s interesting to come to that again.
IG: So Bulletstorm was born after Gears PC. What were you setting out to do?
TJ: Three and a half years ago the game was completely different, but the tone and the style hasn’t changed at all. It was something that was very colorful, pulp sci-fi, over the top and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to do humor, but we didn’t know if we could pull it off because humor in games was so difficult. But we always wanted the player to feel like a bad-ass.
IG: What was that original game?
TJ: It was a third-person shooter that was cover-based, set in a dystopian future, and had a lot of the same over-the-top elements. There’s a prototype that was the pitch we gave to EA, in the very first level one of the highlights was dynamic moments in the environment. So for example there was this one door that you kicked. It doesn’t open. So you kick the door again. And it doesn’t open and instead, because you’re on this platform made of other pieces, everything else falls except the door. So that was the whole tone of what Bulletstorm was from day one.
IG: How did it get to this game–a third-person cover-based system sounds similar to another popular Epic franchise?
TJ: Adrian Chmielarz [head of PCF] loved Gears, and pretty much the entire team was into Gears. They saw cover-based shooters as the future. But we wanted to do over-the-top weapons, and when we added unique movements we didn’t know that third-person was so good for that visceral feeling of getting in enemies faces. And especially when you’re talking about empowerment more than punishment of the player, it was just a cooler feeling to be moving in first-person. So then when you switch to first-person, some of the cover doesn’t make so much sense… Once that was gone it was more about kicking and sliding, that more visceral feeling of movement.
IG: How do you make it so that players learn about the creativity in taking out enemies without punishing them for trying something new?
TJ: The first hour of the game was pretty contentious, because it doesn’t start out being Bulletstorm. We want you to feel what it’s like to play a regular shooter without the Leash, without the skill shots, then every step of the way you get one piece of the puzzle, and you explore that piece, then you get another piece and explore that. And hopefully then it clicks when it’s all together and you’re not afraid to try things because you’ve already been doing it. Like, the moment you get the Leash you get a playground in which you get to leash a bunch of dudes, and the moment you get the skillshot system you get to use that system and see how you can use it to buy stuff.
IG: Another game character that had an attitude, kicked things around, then disappeared, er, Forever…
TJ: Oh yeah, I know who you’re talking about.
IG: To me it felt like there was a void for that kind of attitude. Was that part of the thinking?
TJ: Oh definitely. It was not about Duke Nukem so much as it was about making the game we wanted to make. We love shooters, and we feel there’s room for plenty of kinds and this was one that we felt really hadn’t been made in such a long time.
IG: Do you have a favorite line of dialogue?
TJ: One of them is in the very beginning of the game, and the first time we put in this dialogue it perfectly set up the tone for me. So it’s after you’re drunk, you tip the bounty hunter out of the ship, you’re joking with [sidekick] Rell, and you’re chuckling, and you have to kick something out of the way and Rell turns and says “does everything you touch have to turn to dog shit?” and you say “your mom survived…barely.” You start chuckling, then Rell responds with “so that’s how that old gal got the limp.”
IG: In playing the Anarchy multiplayer mode, I don’t think I’ve played a first-person action shooter that was so insistent on teamwork.
TJ: Except for Counter-Strike, right… unless you’re in a clan, right…though I guess if you’re not in a clan it’s a free-for-all.
IG: Once in the wild, do you have expectations of how it will play out?
TJ: People grief no matter what, but in Bulletstorm, you get no personal gain for not cooperating. There’s a really fine line of balance between how many points you get, and how many you get if contribute. You get way more, you get more unlocks, and stats.
IG: Do you expect those four-player teams to be friends who know each other?
TJ: We did a lot of testing where people in different locations and seasoned with unseasoned people, and people who were trying to grief, so the balance takes that into account.