For those of us who’ve been playing first-person shooters since the days of Doom and Wolfenstein, it might be hard to truly appreciate how far we’ve come without going back and playing those games. Bedlam does us the service of providing a retro revival without forcing players to dig around for floppy disks or old consoles; taking a trip through eras of various first-person shooters, Bedlam provides fun action, a strong story and stellar voice acting, though it likely feels more at-home on a PC than a console.
You play through the game as Heather Quinn, a woman trapped inside an 90s-style FPS with no knowledge or understanding of how she got there. The world of “Starfire” is your classic, space-based retro shooter similar to Quake 3D; as Heather tries to figure out how she got stuck inside the game she fights through hordes of enemies with the weapons she picks up: rocket launcher, minigun, laser pistol, it’s all there. But Bedlam isn’t just a straight “I’m stuck in a video game world” story, it’s a “I’m stuck in a video game” story, which means she’s not just traveling from story level to story level; she also has to fight her way through a Domination-style map, capturing three points on the map before the enemies overrun her, work through a Deathmatch scenario and fight off whiny American teenagers…and that’s just in Starfire.
Bedlam borrows from multiple iconic video game franchises including classic Call of Duty, Halo and Unreal Tournament, including some interesting nods to Ultima 3D/Elder Scrolls, Pac-Man and Space Invaders (the latter two are really interesting to try to do in first-person). Each of these levels offer weapons specific to their genre, and they work according to their franchises: weapons from “Death and Glory” work like guns in the WWII-era Call of Duty games: they’re old sniper rifles, machine guns, and bolt-action sniper rifles, each of which allow you to aim down the sights for precise fire. The Starfire weapons, on the other hand, don’t allow ADS, but reload faster and tend to auto-aim a bit more than the DaG weaponry.
As you travel through each franchise, you’ll carry the previous weapons you’ve picked up with you; though each of them have their own style, none of them feel overpowered. Still, actually engaging in combat can prove to be a real hassle, and in many cases I actually found myself trying to avoid combat altogether instead of engaging in gunplay, which is a weird feeling for a first-person shooter.
Though the following statement may sound like “Read Playboy for the articles,” Bedlam is best played to experience the writing and story. Though the concepts behind each of these different shooter environments are sound, the actual execution of combat is difficult and inaccurate, particularly with precision weapons like the WWII sniper rifle and the future-shooter railgun. Often you’ll need nearly pixel-perfect aim to score hits on your shots from a distance, and though Bedlam has auto-aim, it always lags behind a moving target by a hair, meaning precision weapons like the railgun become virtually useless.
I ended up turning off the aim assistance completely, but I kept getting the feeling the aim was really designed for play with a keyboard and mouse instead of a controller; my aim constantly jerked around while using thumbsticks on my PS4 controller regardless of how much I calibrated my look-speed settings.
But seriously, the writing and story.
Bedlam is actually based on the book of the same name written by Christopher Brookmyre, who also writes the game, so the plot and script are a blast. As Heather goes through the virtual worlds she meets other players stuck in-game, members of a group that call themselves the “Diasporadoes,” people who jump from game world to game world. They’re being hunted by The Integrity, a group of game police trying to keep characters in the game worlds they originally came from to prevent the spread of The Corruption, a world-destroying force moving through space. There are a couple key twists throughout (no spoilers) to keep things interesting, and the dialog is top-notch, with communications between the Diasporadoes feeling like hearing teammates talk over Skype or in-game chat.
Heather ends up building real connections with the other outlaws, sharing backstory about how she came up with her gaming tag, what it was like to grow up as a girl gamer, and the work she was creating before ending up in Starfire. Brookmyre’s expertise as an author shows in the character building of Heather, Bedlam, and the other Diasporadoes, and it makes the stakes feel very real even in a game about being trapped in a game.
The gravity of the plot doesn’t stop the game from being laugh-out-loud funny, though. There are tons of gaming references that people will love if they’ve played first-person shooters for years, and not-so-subtle puns tip players off to inside jokes they might be missing if they didn’t play the original game (when Heather arrives in “Planetfire: Ascension,” she yells, “Hello? Hallo?… Halo?“). Also, as an American, I really loved the Scottish scripting and voice acting; Heather Quinn is a vulgar Scot, and she whips out some crazy Scottish insults that both left me doubled-over with laughter and reaching for a dictionary. Best of all, Brookmyre’s female characters run toe-to-toe with their male counterparts in a way that feels natural. Heather makes jokes and comments about double-standards in gaming like being forced to be a male character, or American, but at least she’s not running around in some skimpy outfit for “developers to wank over.”
It feels true-to-form and insightful, though not preachy. Regardless of Brookmyre’s intent to level the FPS playing field for women by his portrayals in Bedlam, the characters level the field themselves with their dialog and experience.
Bedlam is a great game to add to the list of modern shooters in that it’s not just about the shooting. I’ll admit, more attention should have been paid to the combat, as the last few levels get controller-throwingly difficult because of weapon imprecision, so if you’re primarily looking for a new shooter to play, look elsewhere. That said, I won’t recommend passing on the originality and writing in Bedlam for those issues; the frustration I experienced at the end simply was overrun by the humor, thoughtfulness, and experience of the game’s script and level design. Turn the difficulty down to Easy, throw your retro hat on, and laugh your way through a thoughtful, innovative, well-written shooter that makes you yearn for both the days of the past and appreciate the potential of the future.