Free-to-play often turns into pay-to-win in the gratis games that have been popping up for the PC of late, and Bullet Run is no exception to this rapidly emerging rule. Acony Games has crafted a speedy multiplayer shooter with loads of frenzied shooting and a promising if cliched gladiatorial game-show premise, but the whole thing collapses around the price required to properly play the game. The basic freebie is little more than a demo with few options to customize your look or loadout. If you want anything else, you've got to dig out the plastic and pay for every little accoutrement, from powerhouse automatic weapons to crowd-pleasing stuff like face paint and new ways to taunt enemies. In the end, this free game can easily wind up costing you considerably more than a full-priced shooter.
Like so many other games, books, and movies, Bullet Run is set in a vaguely apocalyptic future where boredom with sitcoms has caused the networks to stage gladiatorial games where synthetic humans kill each other on live TV. This old chestnut goes back to at least that Star Trek episode where Spock and Bones were forced to fight each other with tridents and swords in front of the cameras in a modern Roman Empire, so it's not exactly the freshest backdrop for a shooter. But story was never going to be the strong point of a game like this, and the game-show vibe adds to the atmosphere, with booth jockeys hooting and hollering during every match.
There aren't any Damon Killian-styled barbs here, though, and the commentary is repetitive (you soon get very tired of hearing about ticket sales for Frag Fest and that you were nothing more than a speed bump after a kill), but the lines still add to the sense that you're in a digital take on The Running Man. Fans earned for match successes work as experience points, allowing you to level up. You also accumulate credits for kills and match victories that can be used to buy items (more on this below). Style is a huge part of the game. Play as the showman who wears groovy outfits, kills with flair, and then taunts the dead, and you gain fans and earn more loot.
The shooting action is respectably fluid. Running and gunning are engaging and draw you in, even while you recognize that the gameplay is about as innovative as the gladiator game-show setting. Still, this is an old-fashioned shooter done right. Weapons deliver a satisfying oomph, although some of the early weapons like the default MP5 are wimpy and inaccurate. Experienced first-person shooter gamers will settle right in to putting bullets in brains. Mouse movement for running, jumping, and targeting is slick and smooth. Match options are limited to Team Deathmatch and a control-point game called Dominion--standard options that offer fast-paced mayhem.
There isn't any originality in the half-dozen or so postapocalyptic settings, which include a ruined shantytown, a burning industrial zone, a run-down oil rig, an abandoned movie lot, and a crate-strewn warehouse, but they are smartly laid out. They come with nooks and crannies and choke points that reward those who think before they shoot, but the landscapes are packed tightly enough together that the fighting is always fast and furious. Everything looks pretty good, too, even if the fine detail is nowhere near what the Unreal engine used here is capable of producing today. The only serious issue with the maps is that there aren't enough of them. You can get bored after no more than a few hours of play because you're running over the same old ground, in the same old modes, again and again.
The lack of options in other areas is also more than a little bit frustrating. The free version of Bullet Run comes with precious few choices. You can barely customize your initial character's appearance, being allowed to make just a few free tweaks to hairstyle, shirt color, and the like. As a result, matches tend to look like battles of clones, with everyone in the same hair, face, and outfit. Taglines above characters make it easy to tell who's who, thankfully, although you can easily rip off a bunch of rounds at an ally in the same T-shirt and ponytail as about half of your enemies.
Weapons are just as limited. You start off with that aforementioned MP5 SMG, a pistol, and some frag grenades. Every other item in the game--and even stylistic things like special haircuts needed to boost your style value and increase your attraction to the fans--costs you in one or the other of the two featured in-game currencies. You pay for all goodies with either the points that are earned very, very slowly during gameplay or the Station Cash that can be acquired only with real-world money at a rate of $1 for 100.
As you might expect, the game constantly pushes you into spending real money. Everything is insanely expensive, particularly when it comes to the credits earned during play. You start off with a wallet filled with 10,000 credits, but that doesn't last long, and your impulse buys are further limited with level caps on a lot of hardware. Want an M1014 combat shotgun? It can be yours for a measly 899 in Station Cash ($8.99) or a whopping 35,999 credits. This is a pretty nifty weapon, mind you, which explains the high cost. But these rates are seen across the board. A Mohawk haircut to get you noticed on the tube is 179 in cash or 4,700 in credits. Clown face paint is 129 in cash or 3,100 in credits. Cargo pants are 129 in cash or 6,249 in credits.
Seeing as matches generally return no more than a thousand points, and often as little as a few hundred, you will be playing a very long time to make enough to pay for that shotgun noted above. Or anything else. As an additional insult, your weapons degrade quickly with use and cost a lot of credits to fix. So even if you decide to go the cheap route and grind your way to better guns and gear, all the credits that you save can easily wind up going toward keeping your existing equipment working properly and doing full damage. This pushes you to skip over all this nonsense and spend some real bucks…or ditch the game entirely. There are ways to speed up your in-game progress, but they all involve spending real money. Various boosters like PR managers and stock options increase fans and credits, but they can be accessed only through Station Cash purchases. The Platinum membership subscription model that costs $14.99 a month helps a lot. Sign up for the long haul, and you are provided with rewards like boosts to the credits earned in matches, sales on equipment, special taunts, and more.
In the end, if you want to be fully competitive in Bullet Run you need to invest an incredible amount of time in the game, spend at least $20 to $30 for a range of weapons and gear, or subscribe. You might well need to do all three if you get really into the game, since even subscribing just speeds up the credit-earning process and gives you price breaks. The game is playable with both the default free stuff and the affordable lower-tier weaponry, but just barely. You can compete a fair amount of the time, especially when you're playing with a team that works together and knows the maps. Still, it is beyond frustrating to fill a bad guy full of lead from your entry-level SMG only to see him whip around and kill you with a couple of squeezes of the trigger. You can't help but think you're missing out on something.
Getting murdered so efficiently provides constant temptation to throw down real-world cash for the better hardware. Getting blown away by a level 28 star wearing expensive face paint and wielding a combat shotgun that makes your MP5 look like a peashooter will do that to you. This happens a lot, too, because you are regularly dropped into games with vastly superior foes due to the absence of any rating or tiered system for matches.
Bullet Run is more of a brisk Bullet Walk. The core shooting mechanics at the heart of the game are done well enough to appeal to anyone looking for a simple, swift multiplayer shooter. You can get hooked for a good three or four hours on the free part of the game before growing bored with limitations like the lack of maps and modes. But the cash outlay required for this ostensibly free game is simply not justifiable, especially at a time when there are other good options out there that come with low initial price tags and do not hammer your willpower and credit card with the lure of buying success.