The game Bulletstorm could have been

, | Games

Given the spread of opinions, I finally broke down and bought a copy of Bulletstorm. I was hoping for Painkiller 2. I got Gears of War 2.5.

While slogging through the rote combos and QTEs and humor [sic] and that oily EA sheen, it occurred to me that I had already played the game Bulletstorm could have been. I played it two years ago and gave up on it. Then I revisited it and discovered a game with more raw charm, creativity, and gameplay in a single headshot than Bulletstorm can wring from all its bloated lists of dudebro skillshot jokes.

After the jump, you, sir, are no Necrovision

[Note: the following review appeared on Syfy’s gaming site, Fidgit.com, in 2009.]

Necrovision is a shooter from a small indie created by a couple of the guys who worked on Painkiller, the brilliant 2004 horror shooter from Polish developer People Can Fly. The protagonist in Necrovision is a Texas good-ol’-boy clearly patterned after George W. Bush. As he works his way through the zombie-infested trenches of World War I (don’t ask), here is one of his early quips:

Yeah, I can’t remember who’s good or bad. But I’m the guy with the guns.

I love this line on a couple of levels. The first level is hearing it delivered by a rather bad George W. Bush impersonator. But on a deeper level, I love how it implies the guys in Poland who developed Necrovision have only seen Army of Darkness with bad subtitles. It would make my day if later in the game, the protagonist drawls:

I’m here to kick ass while I have chewing gum. However, I ate my last piece of chewing gum.

Perhaps I’m misunderestimating the developer’s meta-dig at Bush’s malapropisms. Whatever the case, my fondness for Necrovision mostly ends with the TransAtlantic trope mangling. Although there is the time you come across a German soldier gassing the trenches. Before you kill him and take his gas mask, he insists — and I quote — “I was only following orders!” If any shooter has earned a throwaway reference to Nuremberg, it’s one made in Poland.

Now I should note that I’ve only played about an hour or so of Necrovision. I spent another hour trying to get it to run better. Half of that was on loading screens. This is some of the most awkward ungainly tech I’ve stuttered through since disabling DirectX10. The engine is so plastic-looking. The animation is terrible. The guns — at least the few I’ve seen — feel like something from a mod. It has none of Painkiller’s heft or kick.

I gave up at the end of the second level, at which point you have to search an area for hidden keys while a timer counts down. After failing a few times, I felt like I had a sense for what the developers were attempting. There’s lot of crazy combat and ragdoll physics and some sort of ungradeable fury system and collectibles and secrets on each level. It’s got that super-sliding movement and the grunting jump from Quake that the Painkiller guys loved. Perhaps best of all, you can chuck a wicked large bayonet at a zombie and then retrieve it from the zombie’s corpse.

I do fret a little about not seeing the later parts of the game. A lot of the genius of Painkiller was its wild veering progression through different places among different monsters. Does Necrovision eventually do that, or is it mired in the trenches of France throughout? Is there something at the end akin to Painkiller’s final brilliant level? I suppose the thing I like most about Necrovision is that it’s enough to make a guy dig up his copy of Painkiller, which I’m reinstalling now.

[Note: At this point, I gave up on Necrovision for a while. Fast forward several weeks…]

When I first tried Necrovision, the horror shooter from a couple of guys who worked on Painkiller, I got fed up pretty quickly. So I shut it down and reinstalled Painkiller. I marveled anew that Painkiller is so lean, mean, and timeless. There aren’t many (any?) five-year-old shooters that hold up this well.

Then I came across this interview with Necrovision developer Wojciech Pazdur, in which he explains a bit of the premise:

Vampires are the key to the whole plot. The war with the demons was fated to failure as demons possessed most of the combat skilled vampire fighters. Vampires needed to look for a new army beyond their kingdom, so they reached the Earth’s surface and started to gather live and dead humans from battlefields, turning them into zombies. Single zombies are much weaker than vampire fighters, but when the number counts, the undead army gets the advantage.

Let me get this straight. Vampires are losing the war with demons, so they press zombies into service? That’s just…inspired. It might sound like I’m making fun, but I’m honestly not. This is the sort of unhinged creative loopiness that made Painkiller special.

So, out of a sense of guilt, I went back and plowed through more of Necrovision. I felt I owed it more than a look at the first hour. So what follows is the re-animated review:

It doesn’t help that Necrovision is so slow to ramp up. There’s no manual and no tutorial. But there should be. This game doesn’t have the sleek simplicity of Painkiller. Painkiller had no reloading, no kick button, no combos, no running, no stamina, no adrenaline, no sub-weapon selection, no grenades. Necrovision has all these things. It’s a game crammed with features and frippery. For instance, as with many shooters, pressing 1 will select your pistol. But the pistol eventually shares a slot with different kinds of pistols, and dual pistols of the same type or of different types, and a hammer, and an axe, and a machete, and a bayonet, and grenades, and a gas lamp that doubles as a Molotov. It gets pretty crowded.

I was half way through Necrovision before I even realized it had bullet time. I’m still not sure what’s going on with some stuff about “fury levels”. I think it has something to do with finding vampire relics. My fury is level six. I don’t know if that’s good or not. I just know it’s better than fury level five.

While playing, I spazz out on the buttons a lot. There’s firing, alternate firing, melee attacks, and kicks. When I get swarmed by monsters, I just randomly slap these four attacks. As with playing a fighting game, spazzing out will occasionally reward me with combos, as if I knew what I was doing. It’s messy, but so is real world zombie fighting and World War I.

Necrovision doesn’t really take off until the third level, at which point it leaves the trenches and emerges into an open valley with machine gun nests, a river of deadly blood, ruined houses, and a tank or train or something that was heavily armored so I just ran past it rather than tried to take it out. At times, Necrovision is a game of factions. There are German soldiers and undead dudes, and when they’re in the same place, they’ll often fight each other so I don’t have to.

If you’re willing to wade through Necrovision’s clogged up game mechanics and sluggish game engine, you can see hints of the creativity that made Painkiller special. Firing a Luger gangsta style? A dragon fighting a biplane? Zombies that keep getting up until you put one in the brain? A submachine gun with a drum magazine that sticks out two feet to the left like a wing? A damage model that actually blows the face off a zombie? Bodies that stack up and slow you down? At one point, you get taken prisoner and put in a cell next to — no lie — J.R.R. Tolkien. I did not make that up. I am not nearly creative enough. At least I’m pretty sure that’s who it was supposed to be. Who knows what going on with the guys who made this game.

Although slow to get underway, Necrovision is ultimately pretty generous. Painkiller had a tarot card system that encouraged replay; if you met special objectives for each level, you unlocked bonuses you could accumulate and bring into the game. There’s a similar system with Necrovision’s challenge rooms. Beat the challenges and you’ll unlock something you can bring into any level you play. It’s a shadow of Painkiller’s system, but it works as a way of saying, “Hey, here’s a little something more than just running through the levels once”. It’s a generous enough package at a low enough price that I’m glad I didn’t just write it off after all.

It’s just a shame the technical aspects are so ungainly. Necrovision is full of “if only”. If only it had a better engine, if only the animation wasn’t so terrible, if only the gunplay was better, if only the art design was more careful, and so on. There’s no denying this is a bad game. But there are degrees of bad. And as with bad horror movies, there are types of bad with their own loopy charm. Some bad deserves more than being written off as simply bad.

[Note: Necrovision is available on Steam for $13. The sequel, Necrovision: Lost Company is available for $20. Both games are available for $25.]

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