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Not a Hero: gangster madlibs, an acid-drenched Boondock Saints, and exploding cats

"Have you played Blackthorne?" John Ribbins asked. Ribbins is the creative director and game designer on Not a Hero, the next game from Roll7, the developer of the 2D skating game OlliOlli. Not a Hero is a sort of 2D mixture of the classic sidescrolling Blackthorne set in a world that seems like a combination of the Boondock Saints and mescaline.

Your boss is named "Bunny Lord," for instance, and every mission begins with a briefing that includes randomly generated elements. The briefings hold together enough to make sense, but are random enough to feel like the badly translated words of an insane man. Or in this case an anthropomorphic rabbit. The game is coming to the PC, PlayStation 4 and Vita in early 2015.

The play itself is pleasantly simple. You walk into a building, you kill everyone you see, and you move on. I’m guessing some of the missions get more complicated than that, and there are objectives that you can only complete by not taking a bullet or only firing a certain number of rounds, but the core concept of a 2D, stylish cover-based shooter is handled with skill and grace. If those words in that order sound good to you, and you don’t mind a whole lot of violence, you’re probably going to really enjoy this.

Plus, the little people scream in a very disturbing way when killed. "It’s just a regular scream," Ribbins said. "But we sped it up. It’s somehow worse."

Imagine stepping on gerbils, and knowing they died in pain.

In the beginning

"[Not a Hero] started off as a randomly generated dungeon crawler called Jeffrey Archer," Ribbins said. "It was the same level structure as this, it just wasn’t fun. Then we drew a gun on one of the guys, and thought it would be cool if there were guns, and I had been playing Blackthorne again because I have it on a ROM, and the whole cover system is so cool. So literally prototyped it with cubes and a level, and you could take cover and hide."

He showed that prototype to other devs and they were eager to show their input. What if you could slide on your knees and fire? What if different ammunition did different things?

You can slide from cover to cover, and roll forward and knock people down and then execute them. Once you begin to understand the controls and mechanics you learn how to move through the levels smoothly, with only a few moments of rest when you wait for your opportunity to take a shot. Reloading leaves you locked in place for a moment or two, unable to fire. Enemies that hear you reloading will bumrush you to try to take you out.

You can take four hits. If you don’t get shot for a few shots they’ll regenerate. Getting caught in an explosion will take you down to one health, so the next bullet will kill you. It’s an interesting way to handle getting caught in a blast; you won’t die, but you’ll be vulnerable for a few moments.

You can find explosives that you throw and detonate remotely. There is a cat that explodes. Ribbins was amused the talking rabbit was fine, but I had questions about a kitty who was apparently filled with gasoline. You unlock different characters with different abilities as you play.

Imagine stepping on gerbils, and knowing they died in pain.

The animations for things like reloading and the executions are satisfying in a way that’s tough to describe. The game reeks of style, even when it’s making fun of itself.

Ribbins filmed himself reloading an Airsoft gun for one of the reload animations and used that as reference footage. If you’re wondering why one reload animation has 50 frames or so while the rest are much more basic? Now you know.

It’s a basic idea that’s executed with exacting precision. As I watched the rabbit mob boss beat a character to death, and then shoot him, and then beat him some more, I thought that this was a game that knows exactly what it wants to be, and doesn’t mess around when it comes to getting there. The blood pooled on the virtual ground. The gerbils screamed.

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