A warm return to the Cold War.
Games have come a long way over the past twenty years. Narratively, mechanically, and artistically, the medium has long since evolved beyond simplistic games with base stories and one-note protagonists. As much as we love to chat about Duke Nukem here on Chooch – arguably to the point that he’s become somewhat of an unofficial mascot for the site – he’s a perfect example of just how far we’ve come. Duke Nukem 3D was a simplistic, fun shooter, with an essentially non-existent story and a character that, honestly, didn’t have much going for him outside of being a parody of typical 80’s and 90’s action heroes.
When Duke Nukem Forever came out, it was apparent that 3D Realms (who did the majority of work on the game) had failed to move with the times. Now that they’ve lost the rights to Duke, they’ve dreamt up Bombshell alongside the folks at Interceptor, and sadly, they’ve shown little to suggest that they’ve finally caught up with the rest of the industry.
That’s not to say of course that Bombshell is just a re-skinned Duke Nukem Forever – far from it in fact. Whereas DNF was a lame, generic first-person shooter, Bombshell has more in common with something like Diablo, with elements of Dead Nation thrown in for good measure. Bombshell’s an isometric shooter with RPG elements, though these elements aren’t exactly deep either. You gain experience points and money as you level up, and you pour these into upgrading weapons, health, armor, special powers and the like. There’s no speccing in different directions here, so you’re essentially just raising the numbers on your health meter and dealing a little more damage to enemies with these upgrades.
While the game isn’t exactly deep, it’s not this lack of depth that I have the most issue with, but rather, its tone. Duke was campy, self-aware, and for the time, actually kind of funny. Bombshell is none of these things – it jerks between being a straight-faced action story and a horribly outdated comedy far too often for either to have any effect. When the game does try to pepper in jokes, they often take the form of memes – many of which you won’t have heard since 2008 (“it’s dangerous to go alone!”, really?), and that’s being charitable. If you’re expecting something that’s tonally compatible with 3D Realms best output, you’re going to be pretty disappointed with what Bombshell has to offer.
Storytelling wise, Bombshell is also lagging far behind most modern games. This is a game that starts with a text crawl exposition dump and that layers on story through voiceover during loading screens It tells it’s story in such a mid-00’s way that it’s honestly jarring, especially if, like me, you’ve spent the last few months playing games like Tales from the Borderlands, Kentucky Route Zero or That Dragon, Cancer. It’s really, genuinely disappointing, as the thought of a light-hearted, well-told story in this universe is quite honestly an exciting prospect.
The way the story is told drops the ball more than anything on its characters, and none more that Shelly herself. While I don’t love her design, it’s not quite as gratuitous as I’d initially braced myself for, and you do get the sense that she could be a great protagonist someday. Unfortunately, the shoddy storytelling holds her back, and moments that should be integral to the development of Shelly as a character fall flat as result. There’s one moment, two or three hours into the game, where a big plot point involving the President (another wasted character with an awesome concept) is dropped on Shelly by the game’s lead antagonist, Heskel. Shelly reacts with shock and horror to the revelation, but it’s delivered in such an uninspired fashion that it may as well not happen at all.
The game’s voice acting holds Bombshell back too – it’s almost all well below par with its contemporaries. Shelly’s voice isn’t terrible, although it took me some time to get on board with the performance (and her constantly spouting the same lines over and over didn’t speed things up), and her sidekick/robot arm, Amiga, is only tolerable. Jon St. John (also known as the voice of Duke Nukem) steals the show with a fantastically hammy performance as the villain, but all the tertiary characters sound as if someone rounded up the QA team and had them deliver the lines. Good voice acting can really add something to a game – again, I’m gonna bring up Tales from the Borderlands here – but bad voice acting can also stand out like a sore thumb, and with Bombshell, that’s the case.
If it sounds like Bombshell might just be a little lacking in the depth department, the way the game actually plays really hammers that home. There’s very little strategy involved in any of it, with your default weapon, the Ion Maiden, and your Bowling Bomb projectiles sufficient for about 90% of the experience. The only time you might need to switch to one of your more powerful weapons, such as the Motherfrakker (really, it’s a shotgun but it still does damage from long range) or the P.M.S. (really) is during boss fights, which are themselves pretty bog standard affairs, and for a lot of them, the Ion Maiden is just fine.
There’s so little nuance to the combat that it quickly becomes a slog, and the only one of your special powers you’ll ever need is the Bubbleshield, and even then, it’s really only necessary if you ever get swarmed by enemies. Of course, even if you do get swarmed, the game’s enemy AI is so poor that it’s not really that much of an issue. Enemies routinely line up in single-file and lurch slowly towards their death, with little more for you to do than just tap the right trigger until they fall over. If Bombshell feels like it, sometimes the game will allow you to perform an execution move, but half the time the game just doesn’t register what you’re doing, even though it’s prompting you.
But anyway, that AI. At one point, I was stood on a platform, with about twenty enemies on the other side. As I shot at them, I noticed they were all, very slowly, one-by-one, attempting to walk off the platform to get closer to me. Of course, walking off the platform meant certain death, so I just sat there, and watched as moronic enemy after moronic enemy shuffled to their demise. They’ll often get stuck on level geometry too, and it almost feels like cheating when you’re mowing down enemies who don’t even register that you’re there.
Graphically, the game is kind of a huge mess too. The environments are pretty ugly, and there’s little variety between the various settings in which the game takes place. Often the different planets and environments you’re fighting on feel like little more than re-skins, with some architecture seemingly copy-pasted from one to another, with just a new light filter placed over things. The game also has some problems with its depth-of-field, though it isn’t really anything game-breaking. It does make certain sections frustrating though, the first real boss fight against the Abomination being a particularly glaring example.
I know I’ve done nothing but rag on Bombshell thus far, but honestly, I don’t hate it. When I got into a rhythm, I found that time went by pretty quickly, and while I wouldn’t say I was having a blast at any point, I wasn’t having an actively bad time, either. Like I said earlier, I think there’s some real potential in Bombshell as a series, I just wish that they’d take the reigns off a little bit, invest in some better writing, and make a game that doesn’t feel like it’s already 10-15 years old on release date.
There’s apparently another Bombshell game – a retro-styled FPS – in the works already. I’m actually looking forward to it – I want to see where Shelly goes next, what 3D Realms can do with this franchise. If they can effectively channel the spirit of what made Duke 3D great, but modernize thing appropriately, they could have a hell of a game on their hands. That could be a long way off though, and for now, you’re probably best leaving Bombshell behind.