If there was ever a time to fasten a canon to your temple and go gallivanting about in an alien spaceship — it'd be right now, in Alientrap's latest looter-shooter and long-awaited pirate-centric sequel, GUNHEAD. Having had the opportunity to champion such epic crusades across the vast oceans of stars and intergalactic belts, I can safely say that, as far as compelling shoot-and-loot entrées travel, GUNHEAD actually has all the right components to make it not only memorable, but a journey that's also worth revisiting once or twice in the future. But I'm getting a little too far ahead — to the point of overshadowing the lion's share of the experiences that Alientraps’s bullet-rattling creation has to offer.
To put you in the picture, GUNHEAD is a first-person shooter that takes all the fashionable elements of a cel-shaded blueprint, and with it, crafts a procedurally generated alien universe in which you, a fledgling space pirate, must explore, study, and essentially rob blind. That’s the basic premise, in a nutshell, and it does all in its power to carve out a sturdy 3D model of its 2D prequel, Cryptark. Question is, does it do it well, or does it stain an otherwise fantastic series?
Having plucked the bones of a couple dozen of derelict vaults and shot the lights out of an army of drones, I can just about bring myself to answer the aforementioned question. Care to join us for the ride out into the stars? Then let’s dive right in.
A Pirate’s Life
If you happened to merge the likes of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel with Bulletstorm, then there’s a good chance that you’d wind up with the basic outline for GUNHEAD. Simply put, you take on the role of a rogue space pirate—a gun-toting mercenary who’s been granted the rather unfortunate gift of being suited, booted, and glued to a selection of guns stapled at the forehead. However, unusual predicament cast aside, your goal is to essentially load up on advanced weaponry and tech, and scrub through a series of procedurally generated spaceships—empty vessels in which humans are no longer present, but the AI continues to hold each fort and rain havoc down on anyone who dares trespass.
The goal behind GUNHEAD is all rather simple: break into a spaceship, take down the enemy drones, and smash the living daylights out of the Core—an item that serves as the “brain” of each vessel. Like any roguelite, the more you manage to bag during each trip, the more you’ll have to upgrade for later exploits in more advanced locations with tougher opponents and security measures. What’s more, if you’re able to complete a series of additional objectives, such as not taking any damage, then you’ll also earn even more cash, with which you can use to buy more gadgets and gizmos.
As far as glossing over all the cards go, GUNHEAD doesn’t, nor did it ever, strike me as being all that unique. Matter of fact, I already had a vague idea of what I’d be getting up to before I even fastened the first canon to my scalp. But that didn’t exactly matter, as I wasn’t in it for the story, but the mind-bending, bullet-swatting pandemonium that called out to me from the elevator pitch. But, did I find it?
There’s a Story?
Weirdly enough, there is a storyline in GUNHEAD, though at no point does it ever really make an attempt to provide context to the situation at hand, nor does it ever really delve all that deep into your purpose outside of being a space pirate. Sure enough, you are there, as are a fairly bite-sized portion of original characters, but aside from a few short discussions between raids explaining why you’re doing what you’re doing (I’m still not entirely sure), there isn’t a whole lot to write home about.
Truth be told, GUNHEAD could’ve quite easily left out the entire narrative and poured all of its attention into fleshing out the overall gameplay experience. As I honestly couldn’t really care less about the characters or the subplots that it attempted to create, I often found myself wondering whether or not I could just skip over the mindless jargon and dive headfirst into the thrill of the combat. I wanted to get my hands dirty — but not at the cost of losing half of the time listening to small talk that, quite frankly, didn’t really bulk out the overarching conversation.
When all’s said and done, the story was clearly an afterthought for Alientrap; it probably didn’t need to carve one out, but made the choice to spin a quick yarn, regardless — if only to tick a couple of additional boxes. Was it worth the effort? Not exactly. Did its gameplay make up for the lack of lore and context? To a degree, yes.
Load ‘Em Up
When it comes to delving into a genuinely solid and compelling roguelite experience, the first thing you should aim to grasp is whether or not it bears any replay value. To this end, I found that GUNHEAD had all the hallmark qualities of a lionhearted shooter: it flowed surprisingly well, and it had enough upgrades, weapons, and procedurally generated vaults to scrub and pluck clean. And so, I can’t really complain all that much — even if said vaults did become a little repetitive after several hours of extensive training and running the same old motions.
Arguably one of the best selling points in GUNHEAD is its ability to allow players the opportunity to use a myriad of weapons simultaneously. As it turns out, weapons aren’t loaded onto a conveyor belt or traditional weapon wheel, but instead mapped to a specific button on the pad. Therefore, if I wanted to storm a spaceship with a multitude of weapons and gadgets without the burden of having to alternate between bags, I could. And so, for this reason alone, I always felt as if there was enough of a variety — even if it did mean spamming multiple buttons all at once with little to no control or strategy.
As far as combat goes, GUNHEAD isn’t the most forgiving first-person shooter I’ve ever played, nor is it the type of game to hold your hand and gradually walk you through the process. Point is, you will die, and you will have to face the fact that unfair competition and questionable spawn points go hand-in-hand with the procedurally generated maps. Needless to say that, while I did often struggle to confront certain waves of enemies, I always found myself willing to return — if only to rewrite my wrongs with a stronger loadout and plan.
GUNHEAD is an absolute blast to play, if you’ll pardon the pun. Visually, it looks and feels like a traditional cel-shaded shooter—a trigger that I’ve been longing to re-activate for quite some time, all things considered. What’s more, its aesthetics bring me back to the core of some of Gearbox Studios’ earlier worlds, too, which is always a welcome surprise in itself. And so, for what it’s worth, I can’t really fault the graphics; the developer opted to take the easier, significantly less-detailed route, and it stuck with it decision right through to the bitter end. Granted, it isn’t the most breathtaking locale I’ve ever had the chance of seeing, but it is, for lack of a better word, adequate, to say the least.
Visuals and intricacies cast aside, the bulk of the game all falls beneath the umbrella that is a traditional roguelite looter-shooter experience. And to answer the question of whether or not it captures the essence of the award-winning genre well — yes, it most certainly does. Sure enough, it does have its odd technical mishap or frame rate issue, but for the most part, I found myself struggling to pinpoint an anchor that would essentially drown out an otherwise perfectly enjoyable experience.
Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t play GUNHEAD for weeks on end, as I came to learn rather quickly that, even after exploring the one spaceship, there were only so many assets and features to comb over until it all became a little one-sided and predictable. Having said that, if you’re looking for a hearty shooter that’ll tide you over for a few hours, then there’s a good chance that you’ll find something to love here. Again, it isn’t perfect, but it does just enough to foot the bill.
GUNHEAD Review (PC)
A Mid-Level Shooter
While GUNHEAD is certainly entertaining in short bursts, it doesn’t necessarily do anything to give itself an edge over its roguelite rivals. Sure enough, it performs rather well, but due to its lack of replay value and somewhat predictable chore-core gameplay structure, it’s difficult to recommend it to anyone who’s after more bang for their buck.