Need to know
What is it? Schlocky sci-fi
Reviewed on: Windows 10, i5 4690k, 8GB RAM, GTX 970
Price: $35 / £30
Release date: Out now
Publisher: 3D Realms
Developer: Interceptor Entertainment
I’m trying to turn in a quest, but I just can’t seem to find my NPC. I get turned around a lot in the looping, wandering architecture of Bombshell’s empty world. The mini-map is useless. Suddenly, I run into a pair of aliens. Before I can shoot, they spin in a circle, shoot at each other, and run off a cliff to their deaths. I turn a corner and spot the NPC. He praises me for staying alive with all these dangerous aliens running around. He thinks I must really be something special.
Bombshell is not something special. I was so ready for an interesting ARPG, focusing on loot, character progression, and dynamic combat in a sci-fi setting. I like Torchlight and Diablo as much as the next guy, but I’ll always take a laser rifle over a sword if I have a choice. Unfortunately, Bombshell makes a mess of everything that great ARPGs get right, and its B-movie sci-fi appeal falls completely flat.
Bombshell’s protagonist is Shelly, a former bomb disposal technician who got her arm blown off after a game of Hurt Locker went bad. When aliens attack the White House, Shelly takes her robo-arm and drives on over to save the president.
Obviously, the plot is ludicrous. Why is a one-armed veteran ordered to assault the White House alone? Why does no one have a gun as cool as Shelly’s? Why is the president wearing an American flag eye patch? Still, I can see how it could be fun in a Sharknado meets Plan 9 from Outer Space kind of way. Sadly, the dialog clunks and the voice acting is poor, ruining the joys of a ridiculous story done well.
There’s also the troubling fact of Shelly, herself. As a character and the butt-end of a lot of juvenile humor, she's hard to make sense of. Bombshell began life as a Duke Nukem ARPG, and the same 12-year-old sensibility stayed in place long after Shelly took over for Duke, but it's all confused. Take, for example, that one of the guns is called a ‘maxi-gun’ and another’s initials are ‘P.M.S.’ That's some really hacky comedy, and doesn't even make sense as a take on the Nukem mentality. Would Duke smash aliens with the Prostate 9000? I can’t quite picture it.
None of the jokes are any good, and Shelly isn’t a fun character to be around. As I click-click-click my way through rooms of aliens, she weighs in after every kill. “My car for your life,” she tells a corpse. I don’t have any idea what her car has to do with any of this—last I saw, it was parked at the front gate of the White House. “How many aliens does it take to change a light bulb? None—they’re all dead.” Ugh. Upon killing a mini-boss, she says “Yes, teacher, the dog ate my homework, so I killed the dog.” What dog? What homework? Please don’t kill dogs.
Bad as it is, plot and voice acting aren’t the meat of a good ARPG. (Did Torchlight even have a plot?) Great ARPGs are all down to a few key game mechanics that function in loops: fun combat, cool loot from dead bad guys, and interesting ways to upgrade the character. Bombshell flops on all three.
Armed to the arm
Shelly’s robotic arm is a mount for various weapons, including machine guns, laser rifles, and flamethrowers. As she runs around, she points, she clicks, and aliens die. It’s not much fun beyond being a simple target practice exercise. Even then, some guns feature a distractingly generous auto-aim mechanic that snaps shots to targets, even if it means they leave your rifle at an unnatural angle. When the only real gameplay challenge in Bombshell is fast and accurate shooting, I felt robbed that the game took aiming from me, too.
Worse, the aliens’ only combat strategy is charging in a straight line, shooting. Sometimes they don’t even do that: I once had an alien stand a few feet away and stare at me. Like a T-Rex in an ill-conceived amusement park, he couldn’t see me until I moved.
Compared to the chaos of combat in Torchlight 2 or the raw physical power in Diablo 3 (I’m thinking here of the barbarian swatting skeletons out of the stadium with his axe), Shelly just... stands there. She could move around and shoot, sure, but why? There’s no dodging or rolling, like in last year’s excellent Victor Vran. There’s no cover to find. When I realized that it didn’t matter if I stood still or moved around (enemies’ shots hit me either way), I stopped moving. My interest in mastering Bombshell’s combat mechanics vanished.
The isometric-ish overhead camera is also a problem. It’s zoomed in too close, so close that it has to draw back for any kind of platforming challenge (all of which are frustrating, anyway). It’s in so tight that I’m routinely shot by enemies who are still off-screen. There’s a button to zoom it in closer to check out Shelly’s character model, but no option to zoom it out.
Loot drops should be crucial in motivation here: the unexpected but powerful surprise piece of gear, the rare enchanted item, the slot machine payout of the RPG world. Sadly, the only loot to pick up is ammunition and cash. The cash can be spent on upgrading Shelly’s armor or buying a secondary fire mode for her weapons, but it all feels so pointless when the basic moment-to-moment game is so boring.
The more I think about it, the more Bombshell just doesn’t feel finished. Several levels feature long, wandering sections with no enemies in sight. Graphics are muddy and blurry, even at the highest settings. On my GTX 970, the in-game cutscenes stuttered and I saw a lot of screen tearing. A couple of times, I saw enemies fall through the floor and die. Once, I fell through the floor and died.
There’s not much I can point to as a recommendation for Bombshell. For crude humor and bombastic sci-fi schlock, look to Saints Row 4. For the brain-tickling feedback loops of great ARPGs, look to Torchlight or Victor Vran. Look anywhere, basically, but here.