Naughty Bear skulks in the bushes behind a cute-looking log cabin. He watches in silence as a second bear emerges from the shack and attempts to fix a broken fuse box – a fuse box that was sabotaged mere moments ago. Our hero grabs the unfortunate repairman by the neck and rams him face-first into the electrics. The victim spasms in high voltage agony, sparks flying from his jittering frame as a voice-over shrieks in delight. Then, as the killer moves to the side of the house, one of the teddies inside starts to freak out. He knows what's coming, but his fate is unavoidable. Naughty Bear smashes the window, climbs over the broken glass, and guts the home-owner with a hunting knife. White stuffing showers the floor.
Canadian developer A2M thinks that there's a bit of Naughty Bear in all of us. Personally, I'm not so convinced. Most of us can probably sympathise with the concept of the unfortunate loner who gets shunned by their peers, even if we were never one of those people ourselves, but Naughty Bear seems to go one step further: he's not just the kid who was picked on at school – he's the damaged individual who got pushed to breaking point. He owes less to Family Guy's Meg Griffin than he does to Jason Voorhees – the hockey-mask-wearing psycho from the Friday the 13th movies. The basic idea is that Mr Bear is fed up of being taunted and ignored by his peers on Perfection Island, so he decides to get his own back… by murdering them all in a variety of colourful ways.
In short, the setup for Naughty Bear is pretty messed up if you actually stop to think about it – but since the whole affair is being played for laughs, you probably won't. In gameplay terms, this is a relatively free-form action game that blends elements of Postal, the Hitman series, and the original Grand Theft Auto. If that weren't enough, the whole things looks like a psychotic riff on the kind of children's shows that the BBC used to put out in the Seventies, and the action is frequently accompanied by gleeful comments from a British narrator. I'm not sure who's actually providing the audio work here, but his voice-over is so cheesy that you can actually feel your arteries hardening as you listen in.
Each stage in Naughty Bear is divided up into several smaller sections, with progress between each area being restricted until a certain target score is reached or surpassed. Your overall aim in each level is to kill a specific teddy who has threatened or displeased our ursine psychopath, but beyond this your goal is to earn as high a score as possible. You can earn points in a number of ways, but as a general rule your objective is to be as a cunning and nasty as possible. At the most basic level you can just attack the other bears who roam the stages, laying into them with knives, axes, and anything else that might conceivably be included in the latest issue of Now That's What I Call Pointy. Stabbing and maiming your peers will help to rack up your score, but to get the big numbers you'll have to get creative.
If you take a stealthy approach, sneaking about in long grass with a big leaf to cover you up, you can creep up on one of your peers – and if they should happen to be near an object of interest, you can do them in with a context-specific execution. I've already mentioned the face-meets-fuse box scenario, but you can also do things like choking teddies with the lids of crates, pushing them into fires, and slamming a car door into their heads, Vinnie Jones style. All of these set piece kills are accompanied by enthusiastic praise from Mr Fromage the commentator, along with some bouncy on-screen text and the noise of an audience clapping. It's this theatrical style, as well as the emphasis on scoring, that recalls the spirit of the very first GTA – but there's also a nod to Geometry Wars, too: if you're signed into PSN or Xbox LIVE as you play, the game will retrieve one of your friends' scores for the level in progress, providing you with a target to work against.
Aside from the raw appeal of all this cartoon violence, there are further japes to be had from messing around with the game's AI. For example, beating a bear to the point of near death will cause him to limp about in agony. At this point you can finish him off with a grisly execution, but if you choose to leave him alone he'll stagger off and call for help. Then, a load of police teddies might show up to end your reign of terror. Obviously these guys will fight back, and that could cause you problems, but on the other hand these reinforcements will provide more scoring opportunities – especially if you've left a load of bear traps lying around. Things can get quite chaotic and unpredictable once things have really kicked off, but a handy little window will pop up in the corner of the screen to relay important events to you; if someone's trying to get away in a car, or if a boatload of cops are bearing (ha!) down on your position, you'll at least have an advanced warning.
Aside from causing grievous bodily harm, you might also opt to wage war on a psychological level. Sticks and stones will break your mates' bones, but it turns out that words can hurt them too: Naughty Bear has the option to scare his foes by yelling at them, and if you disturb them sufficiently you might just drive them over the edge. In the demo I saw last month, Naughty Bear was attempting to snuff out a top-hat wearing bear named Chubby who was campaigning to become the island's new mayor, largely on the back of a promise to kill our hero. When the two finally met, Naughty ended up traumatising Chubby so much that he committed suicide, shooting himself in the head with a powerful revolver. Somehow this was more disturbing than anything else that had come before – although the moment when Naughty stamped on someone's neck was pretty grim too.
I'm a bit torn on this game. On the one hand, the free-form carnage and black humour is right up my street, but I'll admit that there's something about the basic premise that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Stranger still, there's also a small part of me that actually quite likes this outright nastiness. From what I've seen so far, Naughty Bear feels like a kindred spirit to the likes of Postal and Carmageddon; violent games are still two-a-penny, but that particular brand of gleeful amorality is actually rather unusual these days. Is A2M being bold with this nihilistic attitude, or is it simply employing outdated shock tactics? For me, it's genuinely too early to tell.
Any other concerns? Well, it's safe to say that Naughty Bear won't be snatching away Naughty Dog's crown for aesthetic loveliness, but the game's graphics do deliver a certain amount of retro charm. A larger question mark hangs over the game's longevity: the full game will offer just seven levels, although each stage will have four variants that mix things up with different enemy types, objectives and the like. That still sounds a bit limited to me, but you do have the option to unlock over 30 different costumes for Naughty Bear to wear. These aren't just skin changes, either. Each outfit will grant you new stats and abilities, as well as the chance to further muck about with the AI. If you beat someone up while dressed as a cop, all teddies in the level will turn hostile towards the police – so when reinforcements inevitably show up, a massive riot may ensue. Touches like this could help to provide the game with the replay value it needs, and naturally the old-school high score system will also tie-in here too. It's a bit of an odd project, all in all, but one that's taking a commendably original path. If nothing else, A2M has certainly caught my attention.
Naughty Bear will be released on PS3 and Xbox 360 later this year.