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People Can Fly's off-the-hook shooter gets its first multiplayer reveal as we go hands on...
The screen rocks as limbs rain down in a cloud of dust and blood. As you slam your boot into the chest of a nearby grunt, time grinds to a halt; your hapless victim floats for a moment as the battle rages on at full pelt, struggling along his fatal airborne arc like a torpedo through treacle. You weigh your options; to your right, an eight-foot cactus adorned with glistening spikes, to your left, far across the doughnut shaped arena and past its central whirring tornado, a buzzing electric fence. Too late. A hail of bullets shreds his torso, his tattered corpse escaping its temporary inertia just in time to ping out of the dustbowl like a snapped elastic band.
"Team Bullet Kick + 300!"
This is Anarchy: Bulletstorm's online co-op multiplayer mode - a wave-based score attack challenge that pits four human players against a belligerent AI horde comprised of Mad Max extras and reptilian muscle marys. The tagline currently tethered to the game is "Kill with skill": rather than dole out a ton of points for simply shooting an enemy, Bulletstorm encourages creative carnage, with the biggest rewards reserved for the most elaborate executions. Sure you could casually kick a marauding space pirate into a bottomless pit for a 50-point 'vertigo' kill, but lasso him towards you and boot him into a nearby tornado and you'll get five times that amount. Movement is extremely fluid - a slide attack launches you through the dust towards victims with astounding alacrity - and every kick, yank or slide that propels an enemy into the air also throws them into a temporary slow motion state, providing plenty of time for your team-mates to pile in for a quick game of foe football. Occasionally, a team kill challenge - something like "team drawn and quartered" - will pop up on screen, and you'll all scrabble to rope a hapless grunt with your electric leashes at the same time, pulling him apart in a synchronised symphony of sloshing claret. It's here that the game really shines - juggling a flailing bot to a chorus of "Shoot! Shoot!" as you aim for that lucrative Team Bullet Kick.
Although there will be high-score leaderboards for the co-op Anarchy mode, no competitive team vs. team multiplayer is planned for Bulletstorm because, according to the devs, "it's fun to pwn, but not fun to be pwned". Criminally, for a game that has the potential to be so fun with a few mates crowded together round a telly, no offline splitscreen option is currently planned (we played in a booth with other journalists on separate screens). Clearly online co-op with headsets will still be enjoyable, but it seems like something of a missed opportunity for a game that encourages such fluid team interaction.
Nevertheless, multiplayer is only one half of the Bulletstorm experience, which features an entire single-player campaign complete with some kind of (clearly irrelevant) story about space pirates to justify all the mayhem. Epic Games have helped developer People Can Fly craft a vibrant, colourful sci-fi world that contrasts favourably with the starkly de-saturated Military first-person shooters that currently choke the genre; chunky, cartoon-like character models and vivid sprawling vistas compliment the whimsical ultra-violent action as you tear about creating chaos. 'Skillshots' are also central to the single player game; kick a door off its hinges and into an enemy for a 'bad touch' kill, or leash a bad guy out off a helicopter and shoot him in mid-air for a 'para-shoot' points boost. We'll leave details of the 'fire in the hole' kill to your own vivid imagination (hint: it burns, burns, burns... but doesn't require a flamethrower.)
As you rack up points in the single-player campaign you'll gain access to new and more spectacular means of causing carnage. Points are your primary currency and by connecting to a shop pod with your electric leash you can buy upgrades to your skills and weapons. And the weapons start out pretty insane anyway. The Flail Gun launches a length of chain with a grenade at either end which ties enemies up before exploding, while the Bouncer Cannon fires balls which hop continuously on the spot where they land, ripe for kicking into oncoming aggressors. Even the 'standard' weapons are a bit mental, with a machine gun that can be 'charged up' to fire a hundred bullets at once and a quadruple-barrelled shotgun rounding out the more sedate offerings. In addition to improvements to the power and effectiveness of your weapons, your leash itself can also be upgraded to launch whole groups of enemies up into a slow-motion aerial bullet ballet.
There is no co-op story option in the game, but the solo experience is extended by a score attack mode, which strips out all dialogue and cut-scenes from the campaign levels and reframes them as single-player high-score challenges. Dubbed the 'Echoes' mode, it also has online leaderboards so that you can compete for the best times amongst your friends list and the larger online community.
It seems Painkiller creators People Can Fly have developed something of an antidote for those plagued by the current epidemic of musty military shooters. Although only one multiplayer map has so far been revealed, what we played of the online co-op mode was impressively original and engaging. Questions persist regarding the breadth of the online experience, and whether its visceral charm will fade over time, but there are still opportunities for the developers to unveil new modes and maps before the game's release next February. Crucially, there's nothing else quite like it out there at the moment, and that's cause for excitement in itself.
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