Someone has set us up the Bombshell: Review

Time to kick ass and make braids...
Time to kick ass and make braids…

Bombshell is a new isometric action RPG releasing today on STEAM, hailed by some as the “spiritual successor” of one of PC gaming’s most iconic characters of all time Duke Nukem. During the zenith of Duke’s popularity, it was synonymous with ostentatious sexual themes, over the top violence, and irreverent humor, but also enjoyed commercial success and gamer popularity for years. During it’s now infamous fall from grace, other members of the nearly extinguished 3d Realms just wanted to get back to what they loved most: making video games.

That brings us to Bombshell, which was originally intended to be a new chapter in the Duke Nukem franchise. Developer Interceptor Entertainment, comprised of members from the original Duke and Max Payne teams, eventually settled with Gearbox Entertainment and with the loss of icon Duke rewrote their game to feature a new female lead Shelly “Bombshell” Harrison. The road to publish this game was arduous, but its finally here, and Bombshell aims at making players smirk once again with the irreverence and charm 3d Realms was once known for. This new chapter in their legacy is being opened with caution, aiming to win over gamers with a lengthy and entertaining adventure; will they succeed without the stamp of the “Atomic One’s” mighty foot?

Shelley Harrison stares out at the remnants Duke Nukem Forever.
Shelley Harrison stares out at the remnants Duke Nukem Forever.

Earth is under attack by aliens, known as the Kyrr. Eons ago the Kyrr’s home planet Kyrron was bountiful and beautiful, like Earth. An unfortunate event they refer to as the “Great Catastrophe” knocked the Kyrr homeworld out of orbit. With the loss of all they held dear, the Kyrr construe this bad hand as the universe has it out to “get them” (because advanced star-faring civilizations can get emo, right?). Through augmentations, these beings advance into powerful conquerors, and once they discover how to create portals, whole scale planetary invasions are underway as the Kyrr steal resources from other planets. That is of course, until they land on Earth, where one rather sassy woman stands in their path of conquest (stop me if you’ve heard this before, or have seen any 80s action films).

As stories go, Bombshell is campier than a Colorado state park. I have an unshakable suspicion that this game’s story and script was penned by an inebriated Dolph Lundgren. The way I imagine it, a dark dusty room was involved, inside a group of programmers being pitched the story, rounds of drinks and wispy smoke drifting about, sort of like this. Our introduction to Shelley Harrison is a series of images passing by as you pan around her garage. Photographs and reports reference her time as a bomb squad expert for the military. A broadcast announces Washington is under attack by alien forces. Shelly slides out hastily from under the jeep she was working on. Purses her lips to demonstrate she is either very miffed at this occurrence, or accidentally got some gasoline and Boraxo in places it doesn’t belong. There’s something unusual about this woman, if you missed it I’ll spoil it: it’s the lack of double-J jugs, exposed midsection, and energy shielded chrome thong (of course it’s the robot arm).

As the power rock chords escalate, flames erupt, bullet casings rain harder than water, and Kyrr invaders are chewed to the bone. Shelley’s multifunctional arm and quick maneuvers dice through groups of armored baddies. Grenade explosions send warriors swirling into the night sky. Grab a hold of the massive turret and time slows down, waves of oncoming Kyrr soldiers are ripped apart by the unending jackhammer of unstoppable slugs.

Once the attack on Washington comes to a conclusion, you travel to Kyrr itself, and beyond. Mystical halos of light filter through ancient grooves in the stone flooring, ice tendrils wave and shimmer through dark patches of ice, pulsating lights illuminate a foreboding metal corridor conveying both ancient mystique as well as futuristic marvels . Numerous explosions rock the screen with satisfying thuds, with showers of flames and smoke playing in symphony. Pushing enemies off walkways as they cartwheel into oblivion, trails of bullet casings, swaying illuminated tendrils and soft glowing runes as you walk by, are only a small sampling of the abundant details thrown in to add to the visual richness. Bombshell’s visual chaos satiates the eyes without complaint (side note: GTX 970/I7-4790K is enough to run all settings max except Nvidia Gamework’s Destruction maxed, it would tank FPS to around 40 no matter what else is turned down, at mid level it worked fine).

The musical score is the two pound rib-eye steak (medium rare, naturally), with the sound effects being the gravy, in this whole gaming entrée. Andrew Hulshult’s score choices are some of the best parts of Bombshell. From a classic 90s rock ballad introducing the game’s introductory menus, to intense and fast riffs as the combat boils over, shifting later to solemn reflective techno pulses or a lone wavering guitar solo for an ethereal and ponderous feel while exploring. There’s a nice gamut of music and sounds to blow things up to, well suited for this game’s content.

"Call me Duke one.. more.. time.. muthaf.."
“Call me Duke one.. more.. time.. muthaf..”

The problems with Bombshell however, hover around the story, voice acting, balance, and depth. The story itself pitches to and fro, like a boat in a tempest. Considerable time is spent on giving you details of the Kyrr, the worlds you are traveling on, Shelley’s background, Dr. Haskell, and so forth. These details are flat and uninspired, tossed in front of the player in an apathetic manner, like a school cafeteria tray.  Some of these key plot moments are unbelievably corny; like the Death Star-ripped metallic “Planet Eater” bearing down on Earth, or the interpersonal diatribe between Shelley, General Holloway, and the President of the United States.

Then without warning, the story will shift hard to starboard, with irreverent quips, fourth wall breaking commentaries, and the puerile names for objects in the game. For example, you pay for items using a Kyrr currency simply known as KY (unsure if it’s motion warming KY or Liquibeads). Want to buy the biggest weapon upgrade in the game? It’s going to take a lot of KY. The weapon names were mostly comical; the Personal Missile System (P.M.S.), the Ion Maiden, the Motherflakker, and the Maxigun all deserve top honors. You can count on each dialog exchange to end with a Shelley cliche one-liner. At one crucial point Shelley incredulously asks “Who writes this crap anyway”? There are also numerous lines where she’s comparing herself to iconic characters like Lara Croft and Indiana Jones; the connection never crossed my mind, but now that has been seen it cannot be unseen…

Games do need a story to piece together action sequences and progression. But what is Bombshell’s style? Silly, irreverent, and juvenile with absurd action sequences? Or a science fiction saga about a genocidal alien race embracing technological enslavement via cybernetic augmentations? It feels as if the game’s creators were afraid to commit and couldn’t make up their minds. Perhaps the intent was originally juvenile and crass but pulled the reins when featuring a nuanced female lead, thus pulling thematic elements around, instead of settling on one clear-cut stylistic choice.

This undecided seesawing carries into gameplay as well. To be honest, Bombshell would have probably made a better first person shooter than an isometric ARPG.  Enemies are well animated. They jetpack above and around you, dodging attacks, activating pincer ambushes you as you enter corridors, and swarm your position from multiple sides. From a first person perspective the skill necessary to connect with agile, airborne enemies and densely populated corridors might have provided a more tense edge, and visceral look for these kinds of enemy movements and the kind of combat taking place. Whereas the isometric view and quick dodge skills can make combat easy, and keeping action at a distant. Oddly an execution move was added to the game, again in first person may have allowed for up-close rampant violence, instead of an awkward interjection to the chaos.

Going from tranquil exploring to overrun by enemies is commonplace.
Going from tranquil exploring to overrun by enemies is commonplace.

The focus on chaotic combat overshadows it’s RPG side. Yes there are RPG aspects there, but they feel superfluous. There are no elemental bonus/dmg/debuff concerns (should I use ice weapons versus fire enemies, etc.) Shelly gains skill points as she advances in level. These points can be used on three attributes, health, your shielding, or your “NRG” which powers your abilities. Points can be used to enhance your special moves (of which there are only 4). Each of the 9 weapons have dual branching skill trees for their alternate fire modes, but there’s little reason to use them as much as your primary firing modes.

Skills and weapon upgrades do little to change gameplay, tactics, or the overall “shoot anything that moves” approach. There are also no items to collect. There are scattered GDF shops where you can buy ammo, which is readily available throughout levels and therefore a waste of precious KY, not armor or buffs. The lack of RPG depth is more apparent when compared to its ARPG peers, such as The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing and Torchlight.

How many aliens does it take to change a lightbulb”; as Shelley snickers I roll my eyes, “none, they’re all… dead.” Hammy lines like these are all over the place. Combined with the absolutely flat delivery from the supporting NPC cast, the tepid bits if dialogue were dripped on my psyche, subjecting me to a an auditory form of Chinese water torture. The absolute worst offender is the game’s main villain, Dr. Jadus Heskel, a cross between a Star Trek Borg, and Inspector Gadget’s Doctor Claw. Essentially none of the characters, Shelley included, are memorable or even likeable. And if you’re asking me to compare Shelley to Duke, there’s a wide chasm there. Duke is born unto a different gaming era. What was considered extreme then, is more fitting for an ‘E’ rating now, or a place on the cutting floor, because tastes and standards have evolved. It has nothing to do with a female role, I actually like the idea, but either Shelly “Bombshell” Harrison makes Lisa Lampanelli look like Kathie Lee Gifford — or just go a whole other route.

Solid blend of lighting and particle effects bring Bombshell's alien worlds to life.
Solid blend of lighting and particle effects bring Bombshell’s alien worlds to life.
Turret mode does make you wonder what the game would be like as an FPS.
Turret mode does make you wonder what the game would be like as an FPS.

Each planet is comprised of a number of expansive maps. There is plenty to explore. Several NPCs offer sidequests that pay out in plenty of experience points and glistening KY currency. Quests revolve around the now antiquated fetch-colored-object mechanisms: find 4 crystals and the door will open. With some of these maps being of considerable size, a lot of travel is involved. Also note as you approach a mission object it will be guarded, and when you head back you will be ambushed. It happens every time.

One puzzling design issue was how easily it is to enter the next section of the game. I often stepped through a doorway or elevator assuming it would lead me to another section of the same map (some do) to continue hunting sub-quest items, only to find myself on a new stage entirely. All of my sub-quests from the prior area went unresolved. These gateways between stages do not permit you to head back (while others do), and there are no differences between these map changing doorways, and no prompt you are about to forfeit your subquests. It can be an irksome experience, and completionists will probably have to seek therapy before they can finish the game.

Despite these issues, Bombshell does not feel like a bad game. An uneven one, certainly, but it does have its own charms and strengths. Bombshell, despite its many flaws, if fun. Yes fun, because I had quite a bit of it with Bombshell. Combat mechanics are solid, and entertaining even without intricate pen and paper RPG depth. Standing on a walkway with enemy Khyrr raining down on that position, there’s something so sublime with dispatching the attackers in the blink of an eye. Executing a fast punching dash at them, while dropping hive cluster bombs on the path; forcing them all over the edge and into a lake of planetary fire miles below in one fell swoop. Enemies increase in size and difficulty with some titanic boss battles.

Bombshell isn’t a difficult or complex game, its focus on explosions, one liners, and smeared alien remains is as obvious as the colossal talking metal arm on Shelley’s shoulder. I can’t escape the thought that it could have been so much more, but perhaps the door is opened for something bigger in the future. For starters, a complete focus on either puerile shenanigans and constant over the top action or layered dialog choices and a meaty science fiction saga — but not a sloppy hybrid of the two. A first person perspective with an in-your0face enemies or a more strategic blend of item and numerous skill based decisions for combat that befits ARPG gaming, not a mishmash of cafeteria goulash.

So many other aspects of this game are handled well, such as its soundtrack, visual and level design, and combat sequences that I was left wanting more. As it stands right now Bombshell lies in the same league with contemporaries like Halo: Spartan Assault and Shadowgrounds, while not having enough moxie to hang with the likes of Van Helsing, Grim Dawn or Torchlight. Regardless, there is solid entertainment to be had, and replayability with the inclusion of “New+” mode, modding tools, and extensive levels to explore. 3d Realms and Interceptor Entertainment wanted nothing more than to get back to the business of making “fun games” and Bombshell is not only proof they are moving in the right direction, but a foundation for new beginning.

STEAM

Score

Bombshell Review - 6

6

Flak It

Bombshell features a solid core of combat mechanics, visual design, and a genius soundtrack. It is light on the RPG side, with little depth to sink your teeth into, and no items or other details to tinker with for gameplay experimentation. A throwaway story and lackluster voice acting detract from the otherwise positive elements. Regardless, Bombshell offers plenty of entertainment within its confines.