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Bedlam Review - Et in Arcadia Ego

Ian Cheong | 26 Oct 2015 22:30
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Bedlam is a video game about video games. Written by sci-fi author Christopher Brookmyre and based on the book by the same name, Bedlam takes players into an alternate reality made up of video game worlds. Inspired by popular first-person shooters, I was interested to see how Bedlam's fictional environments - and I mean 'fictional' in the sense that they're fake games based on real ones - held up in comparison.

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In Bedlam, players take on the role of Heather Quinn, a.k.a. Athena, a gamer and programmer who wakes up trapped in a first person shooter called Starfire as one of its characters. Like all the other worlds in Bedlam, Starfire is largely inspired by real FPS shooters, in this case Quake. First making her way through Starfire and then into other environments through rips in the fabric of reality, or "glitches," Athena visits worlds inspired by Call of Duty and Halo. Athena even detours into retro games inspired by Pac-Man and Space Invaders in her journey back into the real world.

In her explorations, Athena discovers that there are other players like her trapped within games, which you'll largely hear as disembodied voices accompanied by an avatar. You'll hear them talk about their experiences in Bioshock, Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto 5, and so on, lending an air of authenticity to the game.

Throughout the game, you'll hear Athena, voiced by Scottish actress Kirsty Strain, make quips about her situation. The dialog is often humorous and Athena's frustrations as a woman who plays online shooters made me sympathize with her. At one point in Bedlam, I was transported into a Quake 3 Arena-like environment where I killed opposing players voiced by squeaky 12-year-olds who kept going on about pwnage and wallhacks whenever I killed them. The interactions between Athena and the boys were none too different than some of the real interactions I've seen happen in live matches of Call of Duty whenever a girl or woman spoke over her headset.

Despite the experience, I can't say that Bedlam is trying to make any sort of political statement about the way girls and women are treated in online games any more than it's making any statement about the obnoxiousness of teenage boys online. It's just a thing that happens, and that's replicated in the game.

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Bedlam plays like any other first-person shooter with some significant caveats. In contrast to the story and writing, it just doesn't play quite as well as the AAA shooters it attempts to emulate. On the console, the controls, particularly the way auto-aim centers vertically in the middle of the body you're targeting, make it almost impossible to get headshots on the zombie enemies that show up in the campaign. I had to switch to blowing them up by firing a rocket launcher at their feet. Compounded with the way melee attacks often fail to connect with enemies, the run-and-gun elements of the game often felt tedious.

Furthermore, some serious technical issues (at least on the PS4) caused framerate to drop significantly in the larger levels. Given that much of the action towards the middle to end of the game takes place in wide-open areas, the experience began to almost feel like an interactive slideshow. To my knowledge, the framerate problem only affects the console versions.

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The sluggish framerate made aiming and dodging enemy fire difficult, so there were occasions where I had to resort to exploiting the game's save and reload function. Due to what may be a design oversight, health and armor packs respawn upon reload, so it's possible to exploit this.

At times, it was necessary for me to reload the game anyway because of a serious bug that makes every weapon, aside from the one you already have armed, inaccessible. Reloading was the only thing that fixes it.

Technical issues aside, the level design is worth talking about. In RedBedlam's attempt to replicate the variety of levels in first-person shooters, missions in the Quake-inspired Starfire world take place in brownish corridor-like environments, while the environments in the Halo-inspired Planetfire world are lush, semi-open areas similar to the ones you might visit as Master Chief.

As with most level-based shooters, it's possible run past enemies to get to the next area-so that's what I did-at least towards the end when my framerate was consistently low. There are only a few points throughout the game that made it necessary for me to deal with waves of enemies before I was able to proceed. The game's level design isn't all that plain, though-there are a couple of platforming sequences and a tricky sewer maze that mix up the flow.

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The locations change, but the way you kill enemies does not. When you're in the Call of Duty-esque Death or Glory world, it's not possible to take cover or regenerate health. As a result, Bedlam's attempts to replicate newer shooters feel incredibly superficial because they only do so in terms of textures and level design, but not in mechanics.

The biggest aspect of Bedlam that kept me playing was my interest in the story, its characters and my curiosity of its emulation of other game worlds. In that respect, Christopher Brookmyre's writing was worth the inconveniences I had to deal with. The game's cliffhanger ending makes me want to see what else Brookmyre and the developers have in store.

Bottom Line: Bedlam serves as an homage to the first-person shooter genre. It's not quite as polished as the games it emulates, and its nature as an imperfect replica should be quite apparent to any FPS veteran. In spite of its shortcomings, Bedlam is highly entertaining and well worth your time.

Recommendation: For fans of the FPS who enjoy an intelligently-written story with great voice acting who don't mind technical issues and imprecise controls.

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