Hands-On With Bedlam, The FPS About FPSes

By Alec Meer on July 25th, 2014 at 3:00 pm.

I’m rocket-jumping over Helm’s Deep. I’m pinning Nazis to 1940s French churches with catapult bolts. I’m shooting Strogg-homages in metal corridors with a chunky, low-res shotgun, and frankly that much Quake IIiness is enjoyable enough in and of itself that it doesn’t need any era-mixing funny business anyway. I’m finding glitches that transport me – and whichever weapons I’ve accrued – across and through a brief history of first-person shooters, with occasional sidetrips to other eras and genres of gaming.

I’m a gun on legs, because Bedlam is a game all about shooting games that were comfortable with being just that, and about a time when the world accepted they were just that, before cutscenes and quick-time events were put in place to pretend there was something more going on in shooting games than just that.

Perhaps there is meta-commentary about shooters, but Bedlam’s certainly not trying to Do A BioShock. It’s trying to be more of a love letter to the earlier, more innocent years of what is perhaps the defining videogame genre. Or, at least, the most lucrative and notorious genre. Based on the book of the same name by Scottish author Christopher Brookmyre (diverting from his usual crime fare into sci-fi), this echoes and tries to recreate his clear love of pre-Modern Warfare FPS.

While the novel didn’t really work for me – I felt it tried to do too many things at once, especially tonally – the sections wherein it attempted to describe what a Quake II map (and its AI characters) would look and feel like in reality worked well. And, conceptually speaking, the idea of a game protagonist skipping through the ages of virtual gunplay is an excellent one, and it’s that concept that Bedlam the game most concerns itself with.

I played a few levels of a pre-Early Access build earlier this week, and must note at this point that what I played is indeed very early. It also boasts neither the budget or price tag (it’ll be £12.99 when it hits Early Access on 8 Aug) of a contemporaneous Patriotic Soldier Man or Universe-Saving Space Marine title. I don’t want to spoil all the games it homages, but it does run closer to the present day than the stuff I’ve mentioned already.

That means more up-to-date graphics than the consciously retro fare you can see in these screens. There’s also a Tronish bridge-world between games/eras, sometimes accessed as part of level progression, but sometimes entered via a ‘glitch’ and housing secret, agreeably inappropriate weaponary. Hence, Quake II – sorry, Starfire – with a crossbow or Call of Duty – sorry, Death or Glory – with a remote-detonating grenade launcher.

While the graphics, level design, weapons and enemies might change (although the latter two do bleed between eras at certain points), something that doesn’t is the player’s abilities and movement. I was a little surprised by the latter, as throughout their long and bloody history, movement has been arguably more important to shooters than the shooting has. The movement in an early Quake is very different to the movement in an early Medal of Honor, which is very different to the movement in a latter-day shooter. Developers Red Bedlam have, however, opted to make the player character move in the way a contemporaneous FPS protagonist would, regardless of which era they’re currently visiting. They want consistency and they want relative modernity of feel, even if much of the scenery is conscious retro-homage.

There are two particular ways, beyond the merely visual, in which Bedlam tries to show us how different – and how enjoyable – Old Man Shooter was back in his blocky youth. One is, as I’ve already mentioned, rocket-jumping. Rarely seen outside of Team Fortress 2 these days, this iconic and semi-lethal nugget of emergent gaming gets to play a role in a singleplayer campaign. During my visit, the developers were wondering aloud over just how far a rocket-jump could hurl an adept player, fearful that it could see people soaring to level exits within seconds.

I opined that this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as, thanks to the boost distance in the build I was playing being set to basically ‘outer orbit’, I was several hundred feet above a Tolkien-esque fantasy town at the time, but it’s fair enough that the team would want people to actually see what they’d made. I’m pretty sure Bedlam will wind up being a gifthorse for speedrunners whatever the devs settle on, though.

The other more-than-skin-deep exploration of older shooter values in Bedlam is the level design. The Starfire sections, for instance, switch between the steel corridors of early id games to the multi-tier jumpad-filled arenas of Quake III and even the vertiginous zero-G of Unreal Tournament’s Facing Worlds. The World War II ‘Death or Glory’ levels, meanwhile, have sniper-filled European apartment blocks to sprint through, and dangerously open plazas – y’know, the changing beats of olden CoDs and MoHs. All that said, sprinting and constant shooting are the order or the day, even though height and cover and buildings are there if you want them.

Whatever the locale and whether you’re wielding a Luger, laser rifle or fireball-spewing sword, there’s one constant – almost cutscene-free plot and dialogue from protaognist Athena, a foul-mouthed, pun-loving Scottish lady who’s found herself Tronified into a computer game, then summarily dragged off into other ones still. There’ll be professional voice-acting added later on, but used for placeholder speech in the build I played was Christopher Brookmyre himself. Never mind that he’s not a woman, he sounds a hell of a lot like Peter Capaldi, and that coupled with the proliferation of cheerful obscenities had me feeling I was playing Malcolm Tucker Does Quake. I hope to God they keep the Brookmyre recordings in there as an Easter egg, no matter what they wind up doing with the proper voices.

Clearly, Bedlam’s trying to bite off an awful lot. What I played was very early, and when it takes to Early Access on August 8th it’s certainly a case of only having so much done, with only so much polish, rather than one of those that tries to squeak out a couple of weeks of free QA while the team’s busy squashing the last few release candidate bugs. About the first third of the game will be playable, comprising the Starfire and Death Or Glory sections, and that’s a good few hours of time-hopping alien’n'Nazi-shooting, but what I saw needs a fair bit of work on optimisation, AI and assorted buffing up. Early Access is as Early Access does.

The concept’s great, the modernised old school weapons feel good, it’s drenched with enthusiasm, and the no mess, no fuss approach to shooters is refreshing, and as someone who’s lived through all these huge changes to the shooter formula it’s damned exciting to see the timeline play out a high speed. There’s a lot of work left to be done though, and I do need to see how it evolves over the next few months before I’m pointing my thumbs in any one direction.

Bedlam, from Brighton developers Red Bedlam (confusing, innit?) is out on Early Access on Aug 8th, for £12.99. Full release date is TBC.

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20 Comments »

  1. Premium User Badge

    Wowbagger says:

    I also thought the novel fell flat compared to Brookmyre’s usual fare but it had some nice references sown in none the less.

    I’m all over this though! it looks great and i’ll be buying in early.

  2. Taidan says:

    It’s a shame that it sounds like the “Tronish” sections are confined to a meta, bridging the other “main” sections, given that one of the best games in the genre was an actual licensed Tron game.

  3. J Arcane says:

    Sounds kinda like Evoland as an FPS.

  4. Runty McTall says:

    id.

    That is all.

  5. cunningmunki says:

    That top pic (and one of the others) looks just like Star Trek: Elite Force. Now that was a classic shooter.

  6. rpsKman says:

    id

  7. ScottTFrazer says:

    “Malcolm Tucker Does Quake”

    Yes, please. Actually, I would like an entire series of “Malcolm Tucker Does …” games.

    • Scumbag says:

      Going back to the Vic20 and C64 I’m sure there are a few games about named Bedlam.

  8. tangoliber says:

    We’ve had a decent amount of fast, projectile based FPS recently….to the point that I can start being more picky about them. I’m ready for them to stop being seen as old school shooters, and just seen as fast shooters, first person bullet hell, etc. I don’t play the games for nostalgia. I play them because the gameplay works. In my opinion, Doom 2 is still unsurpassed by any FPS, even if it were released today with the features that the source ports provide.

    • Stardreamer says:

      Describing games succinctly is something of an art, isn’t it? I’ve been wracking my brains trying to come up with a non-age related way to describe the type of experience Doom et al gives us but the best I can manage is “Doom Shooter”.

      You’re absolutely spot-on about Doom 2 still being an amazing experience. It’s really never been bettered. With the mods and source ports out there now….well, it’s like falling in love with your beloved for a second time.

  9. varangian says:

    Does the game try to replicate what most amused me about the first few chapters of the book? This was that the protagonist, Ross Baker, found himself not as the player of the Startfire 2 game but one of the cannon fodder Strogalike NPCs. So he spent his time watching in horror at his comrades obligingly standing next to explosive objects, failing to take cover and firing with ineffective weapons and total lack of accuracy against an equally inept NPC opposition. Every now and then an actual player would appear with much better weapons, speed, health and accuracy and zap all and sundry, including Baker on occasion. So his early challenge was to get out of his assigned role of an easy kill and find a way to progress through the game and find out what the hell was going on.

  10. Nate says:

    “movement has been arguably more important to shooters than the shooting”

    You get it. The reason that these games aren’t functionally identical to flash whack-a-mole is because of the movement.

    • bill says:

      And this is why so many of the ‘retro’ games recently haven’t got it. Because they’ve just tried to do retro style with modern movement, which doesn’t really work.

      It sounds like this has fallen into the same trap, but I hope not as it sounds cool.

      • Premium User Badge

        gnodab says:

        Exactly! This also the reason why Painkiller is infinity better than Serious Sam no matter what RPS says.

        Omitting the emulation of the different movement styles (esp. bunny hopping) makes the whole retro aesthetic pointless imo. I really hope they reconsider this decision, than i could get proper excited for the game.

  11. zeep says:

    Indeed movement physics.

    Though i played Quake 3 Arena endlessly in the past, from Instagib to Defrag, until i got tired of it. Then the above mentioned Star Trek Voyager:Elite Force relighted my passion all over again. STV:EF had a good single player section and then great multiplayer. Namely CTF In2tagib. All with the beloved Q3A physics. So much love!!!

    Any modern FPS arena shooter, -mimicking an oldskool FPS-, better bring it!

    Just seeing that title STV:EF makes me think of installing it again. Who knows some people may still play CTF.. If Gamespy didn’t kill it that is.

  12. Nixitur says:

    Man, I got really excited when I read the first half of this article, imagining running around demons and nazis at completely ridiculous speeds, dodging projectiles left and right…
    And then I got to the part where they say that it’s going to have “modern” movement physics and I immediately lost all interest.