Before Adrian Chmielarz, creative director and co-owner of Polish developer People Can Fly, takes to the stage at EA's Spring Showcase event in London, Epic's Cliff Bleszinski pops up on a giant screen. He does that pre-recorded video thing celebrities do when they haven't got the time - or just can't be arsed - to pick up some meaningless award they've won for doing not very much at all. The difference here, however, is that Cliff's not accepting any awards. And his work is hardly meaningless. Instead, Cliff's face is here on a giant screen to introduce Epic's brand new science fiction FPS franchise Bulletstorm.
"It puts the fun back in first-person shooters," Cliff says. "That's not to say that other shooters aren't fun, but Bulletstorm doesn't take itself fully seriously. It delivers this over the top crazy action with a little bit of a wink and a smile."
That, in a short, sharp soundbite, hits the nail on the head. Watching Adrian's live gameplay demo, it's impossible not to smile, then, at certain points, burst into laughter. I mean, what are you supposed to do after witnessing a demented sci-fi gang member being launched into the air by a kick, whiplashed back into melee range, then shot so violently that the blast propels the about to be impaled bag guy onto the spikes of a mutated cactus thing?
Bulletstorm is gory, but not in a serious, gritty, Gears of War way. Yes, Bulletstorm bears all the earmarks of a shooter powered by Unreal Engine 3, and yes, it kind of looks like Gears of War in first-person, but it instead takes its cues from Tarantino's Kill Bill and the original Epic blockbuster: Unreal.
You see, Bulletstorm doesn't want you to feel sorry for its bad guys. It wants you to toy with them, like a cat would with a mouse. You, the player, have an arsenal of insane weaponry, a "leash" used to pull enemies up close, a slide so extreme it drifts like a Subaru, and a kick move so powerful it sends enemies flying into the air. In Bulletstorm you are the king of the castle, and your servants are just gagging to be torn to ribbons.
Bulletstorm's hook is that instead of allowing you to mess about with these various special moves just for juvenile kicks, it rewards you for killing as creatively as possible. It challenges you to cause mayhem, like so many shooters, but creatively. And it does so with what could well be one of the best game features of next year: the Skill Shot system.
So, let's talk about moves. You can kick, slide and use the leash to pull things towards you. These three moves are designed to be combined, setting up creative kills. The Skill Shot system rewards you with only ten points for a standard, run and gun style kill (you see the number and the name of the kill pop up above downed enemies in a nice bubbly font). But if you pull a tricky move you'll get more points. So, you can slide into an enemy, launch them into the air, pull them back with the leash, then blow them to bits with a headshot. There is a visceral pleasure to be gained from watching Skill Shot points pop up above your enemies' heads as you kill them in extravagant ways - a satisfaction from seeing those lovely numbers and clever skill move titles floating then slowly disappearing.
The kill that gets the biggest laugh during Adrian's demo is "Mercy". Gray, Bulletstorm's muscle-bound protagonist, shoots a guy in the balls, and then, as he's on his knees screaming in pain, kicks him in the head. Ouch.
There are tons of Skill Shots in the game. Many are weapon specific, but the most interesting ones are based on interacting with the environment. We see the kind of plant life that you definitely wouldn't want in your back garden - puss-packed pods and overgrown weed things with razor sharp teeth. Get too close, and they'll bite. But, conversely, you can use them to your advantage in some pretty gruesome ways. For example, you can shoot the pods so that they spurt out a gas that forces enemies to fight each other. Or you can kick enemies into the mouths of these plants for added chomp. Then there are the spiky cactus things I mentioned earlier. They're loads of fun.
Bulletstorm's environment, then, works like the 12th man on the football pitch, a tool to be used to help fuel your spectacular, glorious victory. But, that is not to say Bulletstorm's weapons are run of the mill tools of destruction. The Flail Gun, for example, shoots two grenades tied together by a chain. Whatever it hits it wraps around. If enemies are cowering behind cover, no problem - whip a shot around the cover and blow them up. You can also wrap it around the enemies themselves, tying them up in inevitable doom. Picture this: you shoot an enemy with the Flail Gun, use the leash to pull it up close, then kick it into a crowd of, say, five enemies. Then boom. Cue lots of Skill Points and much laughter.
Skill Points are important because they're used to upgrade your weapons and your leash. For example, you can upgrade your carbine with Overcharge so that it fires a hundred bullets at the same time, instantly toasting enemies. The leash can be upgraded so it fires a pulse of electricity, literally bouncing enemies up into the air - an obvious set up for even more creative kills. Teasing the player with hugely satisfying upgrades in this way is a sure fire way of getting them to play Bulletstorm the way it's meant to be played. That is, to approach the battlefield tactically and maximise your opportunity to get Skill Points. Sure, you can play in a straight up run and gun fashion, but you won't get enough Skill Points to unlock the cool stuff. And hell, where would be the fun in that?
Experimenting with the game's tools and discovering, then nailing, the more advanced Skill Shots, will be huge fun. That much is clear. I can see YouTube packed with videos of insane Skill Shots, uploaded by players doing nothing more than showing off - if People Can Fly is smart it'll include a video uploading tool in the game. In a way, Bulletstorm reminds me of Street Fighter, in that it is as much of an enabler as it is a traditional video game experience.
With such an emphasis on the fun factor, you'd think then that story wouldn't be the point. But Adrian insists the campaign, which is playable single-player only, will tell a sci-fi tale as "intense" as that of any narrative-heavy shooter. The story, written by Marvel Comic writer Rick Remender, "will be a rollercoaster ride full of twists and turns". It centres on the aforementioned protagonist Grayson Hunt, a member of an elite band of peacekeeping mercenaries called Dead Echo. But when Hunt and faithful cyborg sidekick Ishi Sato learn they've been betrayed by their psychotic commander, they go AWOL, becoming the most wanted men in the galaxy. They turn to pirating, scouring the universe for whatever they can get their hands on. Years later, they run into a giant Confederation warship. Hunt has reason to believe their ex-commander's on board, and decides to attack in a fit of drunken rage and revenge. He fails, but manages to hit the warship's engine, sending both crafts spiralling down onto an abandoned paradise planet. This is where the game takes place, and where Adrian's demo begins.
Yes, I know, it's hardly War and Peace, but as far as blockbuster sci-fi video games go, Bulletstorm's tale of revenge-fuelled mercenaries stranded on a planet packed with hostile beasties is good enough go provide a suitable backdrop to the main event: creative killing.
Adrian's demo begins with Gray and an as yet unnamed female character in the planet's biggest city. It used to be one of the most beautiful tourist destinations in the galaxy, but now it's in ruins, overrun by psychotic gangs and mutated plant monsters. Visually, Bulletstorm is stunning. We can see rotting towers in the distance, a bright, vibrant sky, and, closer up, tons of detail and colour. Weird and wonderful plant life has fused itself with the remnants of the city's former glory - organic greens and yellows clash with the cold, abandoned concrete of the once glorious space port. When it comes to visuals, Bulletstorm looks every bit the triple-A shooter you'd expect from Epic.
The sense of scale is impressive, and indeed the stunning vistas cast the illusion of huge, sprawling levels, but progression through them seems a somewhat scripted affair. Gray and his female pal are using a radar scanner to track a missing chum, presumably Ishi, who is being dragged away somewhere underground. The woman finds the rescue mission pointless - she presumes their quarry is dead. Gray, on the other hand, refuses to give up the search until he's seen a body. So on they go, trading foul-mouthed insults and creatively killing more "freak weirdoes" - as Gray calls them - than you'd think possible in a 15 minute gameplay demo.
Bulletstorm's campaign looks like a thrill a minute affair with a structure that rekindles memories of Gears of War. Gray comes up on a bunch of enemies, works on clearing them out as skilfully as possible, and then pushes forward. Occasionally there are quiet moments where the characters voice their observations and plan strategy. Then, something happens - we see a chopper downed by the tongue of a huge monster called a "Maneater". The pair pushes on and eventually near their target, facing off against a huge, screen-filling boss in an arena-style atrium. Gray spends what feels like an age shooting the disgusting beast, using the leash to burst pulsing weak spots and his assault rifle to pump bullets into its flabby flesh. After a bit, the boss decides to turn upside down and float up into the air, as you do. The monster has tentacles, a feature not lost on the pair: "Nuke those tentacles!" the woman screams. "You did say tentacles, right?" Yes she did Gray. Yes she did.
The boss goes down. "One day we'll look back on this and it'll seem fun!" Like Cliff Blezinski before him, Gray's just hit the nail on the head.
Bulletstorm is scheduled for release in Q1 2011 for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.