An ongoing look at the Early Access scene, courtesy of MCP – CHUD.com’s one and only gaming department! Since you can’t review an unfinished game, we tell you what they’re about, what state they’re in and what you get for your early buy-in.
Today we check out a project that reprises that much-missed PC gaming tradition, the game/book crossover, while diving headfirst into some classic FPS gameplay …
There was once a time when every self-respecting PC game seemed to come with an accompanying novella. Before the days of extensive in-game codexes, developers would choose to stuff their lore into reassuringly thick paper books that would come nestled inside the game box alongside the bundle of floppy disks waiting to be painstakingly loaded into your 486. It’s a tradition that has held on throughout the years, albeit in the form of separately available tie-in novels for the likes of World of Warcraft, Dragon Age, Mass Effect and most recently Elite: Dangerous and Wasteland 2. Less common, however, have been book/game pairings specifically developed in tandem with equal narrative importance.
Bedlam, a collaboration between developers RedBedlam of Brighton in the U.K. and cult Scottish crime author Christopher Brookmyre, is such an endeavour. Brookmyre’s novel was released a few months ago, a hugely entertaining mashup of The Matrix and Tron, with a dash of little-remembered John Ritter comedy Stay Tuned. It follows the adventures of Ross Baker, a humble scientist working in the Scottish labs of an American tech company, who volunteers for a supposedly innocuous brain scan and finds himself stuck in a chaotic digital world built from a number of video games. The game, which is currently in Early Access on Steam, takes place after the events of the novel and stars Heather Quinn, a colleague of Baker’s who finds herself in the same predicament. Like Baker, she wakes up in 90s shooter (and clear Quake II analogue) Starfire and is forced to defend herself from a deluge of blocky cyborgs and A.I.-deficient space marines.
The game makes an instant impression, and not just for voice actor Kirsty Strain’s Glaswegian brogue (Accent fans take note): not only is it very true to the opening section of the novel, with Brookmyre directly transplanting lines of dialogue and moments from the page to the screen, it musters a convincing approximation of Quake‘s zippy physics and twitchy shooting. The indoor sections in particular capture the look and feel of id’s classic very effectively, even if it takes a little time to settle into the comparatively sparse mechanics. The section of game available to backers at the moment sets the premise by having Heather jump into a hilarious Unreal Tournament pastiche, complete with ultra-floaty gravity and whining American teens on voice chat, then a WWII cover-based shooter. Sadly, the proliferation of waist-high cover strewn around this level serves primarily as a visual gag, with the actual shooting mechanics keeping to the slidey Quake-esque template.
This is a shame, as it seems that part of the potential of sending the player on a ‘grand tour’ of gaming genres opens the possibility of gaining access to new mechanics along with your arsenal of weapons (Which even after this initial two and a bit levels ends up ludicrously extensive). It’d be especially fun to see the game eventually tackle more of the games included in the novel, such as the 2D-based world based on ZX Spectrum classic Jet Set Willy – proof of Brookymyre’s gamer credentials right there – and a contained universe of floating Minecraft-constructed archipelagos, which could lead to the player adopting all manner of new abilities and play mechanics. For now, however, we get a handful of levels, a fairly short ride for the $20 RedBedlam are charging, but is at least worth monitoring for a possible purchase once more content is added. As it stands Bedlam provides a fun dose of old-school run-and-gun, barring a few bugs here and there (I did find myself stuck on level geometry a few times, requiring a restart). Those of you who like a dash of humour in their games will also have a good time, with Brookmyre’s script riddled with snarky one-liners. Oddly, I found that the jokes actually played slightly better in the context of the game, whereas in the book they sometimes felt slightly at odds at moments where the story skewed towards a more serious tone.
Overall, at this stage Bedlam offers a very entertaining, if content-shy, retro blast that has the potential to become a genuinely clever genre mash-up. Fans of FPSs and Brit humour will especially enjoy what’s on offer, though those without a particular love for either of these things may be advised to hold off and wait for future updates. In the meantime, much like its accompanying book Bedlam may not be the deepest thing out there, but as a blast of full-pelt retro love will certainly entertain. Whether it eventually does more depends on how far RedBedlam want to take it on a conceptual level.