Remember the buzz when Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez first announced Grindhouse - their double bill of B-movie nastiness? Remember the confusion when it was revealed that the two films would be screened separately everywhere outside of the US? Remember the disappointment when both Deathproof and Planet Terror turned out to be a bit of a let down?
I do. Neither film was a complete disaster, but they largely failed to deliver up to the rough-and ready excitement that the early trailers seemed to promise. Both Tarantino and Rodriguez have moved on to pastures new, but it seems that there's still hope for fans of the exploitation scene. Canadian developer Artificial Mind and Movement has created WET, a fast-paced action game that drips with grindhouse style. Asian gangsters jerk in a hail of bullets. A tattooed psycho-chick dices bad guys with a samurai sword. Blood splatters, surf guitars jangle and the screen warps as the "film" starts to burn.
In my last preview I said I was curious to see whether WET had any substance to back up its admittedly eye-catching style. Having gone hands-on with some preview code, I can happily report that the game plays exactly as I hoped it would. The controls are straightforward but responsive, and thanks to several hassle-saving game mechanics, it's very easy to pick up and play. Wall-running, for example, is simply a matter of running up to a wall and holding down the left trigger: Rubi, our heroine, will then dash along the side of the room, allowing you plenty of opportunity to gun down your opponents in slick slow-motion. This Bullet Time effect automatically kicks in while you're doing anything vaguely acrobatic; since it's far easier to keep track of your foes while this effect is active, you're likely to hop, wall-run and slide about as much as you can.
Indeed, given that there's nothing in the way of a cover system, your best bet is to keep moving (and shooting) at all times. A combo meter in the corner of the screen keeps track of Rubi's kills, and there are added bonuses for killing enemies in specific ways - like taking out two villains during the course of a single acrobatic leap. If you chain enough murders together you'll win back some of your lost health, so it really is kill or be killed - although Rubi can also heal herself by downing any bottles of booze she can find. Originally these bottles were going to be labelled "Whiskey", but now the developers have had to change it to something less specific. Someone must have a grudge against alcohol, although clearly they don't mind samurai sword-based murders.
The demo I played through this week was pretty much identical to the sequence shown during Bethesda's big showcase event earlier this year. I won't describe the whole thing again, but in a nutshell the level found Rubi pursuing a Brian Eno lookalike named Simmons, a nefarious gangster who double crosses a deal to buy a mysterious case (in true Pulp Fiction fashion, it's not clear what's inside). This chase also serves as an introduction to Rubi's basic moves and abilities, training you to use the rather effective targeting system: one of your twin pistols will automatically lock on the nearest threat, while the other is aimed manually using the right analogue stick. You can use this setup to blast two enemies at once, or you can concentrate your fire on one foe - it's up to you.
The Simmons chase level also introduces the player to Rubi's vicious swordplay skills, though at the start of the game her attacks are still somewhat limited to close-up stabs and slashes. A richer taste of Rubi's true capabilities arrives in the form of Rage Mode - a set piece sequence where the screen takes on a blood-red tone and all the characters turn into black and white silhouettes. Throughout this section our heroine gets a temporary boost to her health and attacks, transforming her into an unstoppable killing machine; this interlude also provided a taste of the kind of things you'll be able to do in the advanced stages of the game. Rubi's abilities grow as you make lethal progress, and eventually you'll be able to link your moves into one long killer string. You might begin with a wall-run, dive off guns a-blazing, then slide on your knees up to an enemy before despatching him with a brutal upward slash. Needless to say, it's great fun to run around as a near-invincible gun-toting samurai, and the real idea of Rage Mode is to kill everyone with as much style as you can. If you happen to slash someone the right way, you may even get a blood spray that spells RIP in white gore. Nice!
The core gun-and-sword action of the demo works well, but at the end of the level the gameplay takes a somewhat unexpected twist, switching to on-rails shooter action. Here Rubi chases Simmons along a motorway, hopping along the roofs of moving vehicles automatically while the player shoots at henchman in pursuing cars. Having grown used to the acrobatic action of the rest of the game, I found that this interlude felt a bit restrictive and perhaps a bit too old school. On the plus side, the controlled nature of this finale allows for some truly ludicrous stunts and actions, with quicktime events guiding Rubi through all manner of death-defying leaps of faith. It's hard not to enjoy a chase where the main character surfs atop a speeding car, after all.
And besides, it looks like there'll be no shortage of classy shoot-outs where you're fully in control. After completing the demo, a Bethesda rep showed me a quick glimpse of a sub-boss fight from later in the game. In this chapter Rubi took on a small army of thugs in a hall while an Asian rock band jammed on stage - a clear reference to Kill Bill. A heavy with a minigun appeared, but Rubi avoided his attacks by twirling round and round a horizontal bar above the arena, blazing away with one free hand as she span. Once the boss was weakened, she dropped to the floor and polished him off with a QTE execution, plunging her sword deep into his crotch. It wasn't the nicest way to snuff out someone's lights, but then what did you expect? This is grindhouse, baby.
WET will be released on PS3 and Xbox 360 in the autumn.