The Games That Make Murder Less Mundane

"Call of Duty" kills are boring next to those of "Bulletstorm" and "Bayonetta," so why not try a more creative slaughter sim?

Mike Diver

Mike Diver

A screen shot from 'Bulletstorm,' showing the "skill shot" scoring system.

At the beginning of March, VICE published a piece titled "Video Game Guns Get Everything Wrong." It got people thinking, talking, posting—on the socials, and in the comments. Some agreed. Others came on to say: "Hey, lighten up man. Killing all of these guys (be they human or otherwise) in Call of Duty, in Destiny, in Gears of War, in Killzone, in Battlefield, in Resistance, in Wolfenstein, in Doom, in Metro, in Counter-Strike, in Titanfall, in Halo—it's just for fun, yeah?"

And it is, for a while. I've played a bunch of first- and third-person shooters over the years, games from all of the above series and more. I've played those with stories that dig into your skin and leave you shaken by the climax of the campaign, like Spec Ops: The Line and BioShock Infinite. I've played others that feel like compact blockbusters of zero solo-mode replay value, like The Order: 1886 and CoD: Advanced Warfare, perfectly agreeable companions to a few evenings but unlikely to be reached for again.

Largely, though, these games all play the same: aim reticule, squeeze trigger, watch enemy die. And when they do, it's unspectacular, a non-event, just another tiny obstacle between title screen and end credits, an inconvenience of no real relevance. Yes, you can mix up your attacks in some games—but whether you're going in with plasmids or bullets, mashing a melee button or sniping from afar, the effect's the same. The three-dimensional representation of a human(oid) form drops, crumples, spills a little blood, and then disappears from the field of play.

But video game murder can be fun. It can be something to smile at, when it's done differently, creatively, in a way that makes you lean forward in your seat because shit, you've not seen a head explode like that before, or a torso severed in such a frightfully jolly fashion. And I don't just mean in terms of gross-out appeal, because as gaming hardware's developed so the eruptions of crimson and chunking of flesh have become photo-real repulsive—I mean mechanics, method, and the way in which extreme violence is repurposed as entertainment. Hell, if I'm going to murder a person made up of polygons, I want to be able to laugh doing it. And I didn't laugh once during Advanced Warfare. Not at anything intentionally amusing, anyway.

I guffawed all the way through my 12th year on this planet though, playing the shit out of Psygnosis's Amiga classic Lemmings, a puzzle game with a very clear message: get as many of these critters from point A to point B as possible, and if you have to sacrifice the few to save the many, so be it. You applied abilities to individual lemmings in order to overcome obstacles—to make them dig down vertically, to build steps, to block the way to fatal drops, or to parachute from a great height. You could also turn them into bombers, starting a five-second countdown above their heads before boom: a shower of tiny pixels across your screen, and one less lemming to worry about.

Bombers' selflessness for the progress of their kin only damaged the environment, though—other lemmings in the blast radius would be unscathed, via some miracle of evolution that only programmers Mike Dailly and David Jones knew about. But the highest of high jinx could yet be had by clicking on the "nuke" button, commencing a countdown above the soon-to-be-no-more bonce of every living thing in the level.

Oh, how we laughed, slipping past mates' sharp-elbowed defenses to detonate every one of their little charges in a mouse-wrestled moment of game-wrecking glee. Of course, when your pal did this to you, it bit. But it was his turn next and bollocks to him, because he was going to get the same treatment. Entire afternoons were lost to replaying the same handful of levels, as rodent annihilation became the primary appeal of Lemmings, rather than actually seeing more of the huge number of stages available. I know I never finished the thing. And people think online griefing is a big deal, honestly.

OK, I know: Lemmings, hardly the visceral thrills that today's high-def kill-sims offer the eyeballs. Fair enough. But have you played Binary Domain? Not a great many people did—the Sega-published sci-fi shooter, set in a world where robots, originally used as a labor force after a rise in sea levels dramatically reduces the human population, have infiltrated the skin-and-bones population without even knowing it (it's pretty cool), sold next to absolutely fuck all on release in 2012. I understand why, as the reviews weren't uniformly amazing, and screen shots just look generic.

But Binary Domain featured some interesting twists on the third-person-fill-everything-with-lead formula, not least of all a trust system where being a dick to your squad mates could lead to them being a dick right back to you later in the game, when you really, really need their help. Barking an instruction at someone who's supposed to be under your command, only for them to turn around and say "no," really felt different after the solo-mode-with-AI-mates gameplay of titles like Mass Effect and Gears of War. But that's not why I'm highlighting the game in this piece. To understand why I am, you have to see it in motion, as stills do the combat no justice at all.

You fight robots, a lot of the time. So what, right? But then you see how these robots fall apart under fire, and realize that this is actually something you've not seen before. You blast away their defensive layers, revealing the inner workings. You shoot out their legs and they crawl towards you, still determined to deliver death. Bits and pieces of them litter the scene, and the noise of the dismantling sounds so sharp that it cleaves memories of previous encounters with AI NPCs in twain.

If it's closer-up-and-way-too-personal combat that you dig, there are games that royally reward stylistic dismemberment: The two Bayonettas are perfect ways to get your bloody knuckled kicks, likewise the Devil May Cry series, just this month back in business with the "definitive edition" of the DmC reboot. By mixing up your techniques, each skirmish becomes a challenge, a new attempt at a high score. Both games rate your performance at a single-scrap level and then at each stage's conclusion: constantly earn the approval of the machine you're playing on by juggling enemies before skewering their guts and you've a chance of achieving a top grade, "SSS" for "SSSensational" in DmC, and a Pure Platinum trophy in Bayonetta.

But for me, the best recent deployment of devilishly demanding (but so, so satisfying) close-quarter brawling has been in another game from Bayonetta developers Platinum, 2013's Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. A hyper-speed spin-off from Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid series, this hack-and-slasher delivered a killer quirk on melee carnage by giving the player 360-degree control of a cut-through-almost-anything sword, leading to the joyous slicing and dicing of its cast of antagonistic NPCs. Rather like Binary Domain, its do-or-die battles are best appreciated when moving, with screens barely conveying the raw thrill of quartering an enemy with precise control when in "blade mode."

I've had a most marvelous time with other games to have taken the basic concept of murder and turned it into more than just a bit-part player in a bigger picture—both Bulletstorm and (another Platinum title) MadWorld park any plot-line originality to layer on extravagant ultra-violence until it smothers everything else to become the USP of each production. The latter uses the Wii's motion controls (oh, did the Daily Mail not like that it was on the "family friendly" Wii) to chainsaw through waves of enemies, and the player's character, Jack, can introduce helpless enemies to all manner of death-dealing environmental assets—a road sign through the face tends to end any disagreement, and using a dumpster's weighty lid to leave opponents in two halves certainly puts pay to their criminal intent.

Bulletstorm's magnificent battles are something else, though. Polish developer People Can Fly's 2011 title mixes accessibility with unique, score-chasing gameplay—so simply popping bad guys from afar isn't going to rack up the points. A better approach is to use your main man Grayson Hunt's energy leash to lasso enemies towards you, where you can mash them up before kicking them over the edge of a cliff. Or into the generous maw of a carnivorous plant, sparking electrical cables or various pieces of destructible scenery. Shoot a guy in his balls and it's worth more points than popping a bullet between his shoulder blades. Accuracy deserves reward, after all, and "skill shots" come many and varied. You can plough through the whole game as a standard first-person shooter, but not getting creative with your kill streaks means missing out on an often hilarious variation on modern gaming's most common gameplay types. Oh, and dick jokes. So many dick jokes.

If space marines cutting down mutants on a distant planet is just too real for you, the throwback-styled indie scene's got options aplenty for your bloodthirsty appetite. Hotline Miami, anyone? Swedish studio Dennaton's 2012 debut was like Gauntlet given a Drive makeover, its top-down perspective giving players every chance to plot their path through a building full of thugs to massacre. But with your character, "Jacket," only having a single hit point to his name (one shot taken, and it's restart time), absolute accuracy becomes paramount. No bullet can be wasted, or else you alert other assailants to your location. Go in full of bravado and you'll often be sent packing in a body bag. The game's recent sequel doesn't have quite the same puzzle-like setup as its predecessor—in the original, trial and error always produced results, even if a single stage took all day to master—but it's just as eager to decorate its halls with decimated enemy sprites.

I could be at this all day. But I won't. I'll stop here. There are plenty more games out there that render ruination in ways far more entertaining than the generic FPS titles that, admittedly, better lend themselves to online death matches. It's all a matter of taste, of course. Perhaps getting that headshot just right in CoD is enough for you? For me, though, I'll always be drawn to the games that make murder less mundane—and the above is just a small sample of what's available, should those iron sights on the guns that games get wrong become too rusty to care about anymore.

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