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GDC 2012: Lollipop Chainsaw hands-on preview

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Lollipop Chainsaw is sheer Suda 51-fueled lunacy, as I learned at a party kicking off the week’s Game Developer’s Conference festivities in San Francisco last night. Servers decked out in zombie-wear(-and-tear) worked their way around the crowded room as attending members of the press vied for a seat at one of the many stations that were set up for sampling the game. Hardly an ideal environment for getting a sense of how this story-driven single player third-person brawler is set up, but the party atmosphere at least felt like a good fit for the bizarre happenings on screen.

I’m not clear exactly when in the game the level that I played comes from, but it opens with the zombie-killing cheerleader Juliet riding in the sidecar of her dear, old dad’s badass hog. The old man looks, dresses and talks like a ’50s greaser. He also seems to have some hidden superhuman talents, as I see later on when he vaults up the sideof a building.

I honestly couldn’t hear a lot of the exchange between father and daughter, but it was something to do with the disembodied head of Nick, Juliet’s sweetheart whom she carries around on her belt. The old man is giving his little girl a hard time because any new member of the family must embrace its zombie-killing ways, and Nick’s absent body is going to get in the way of that. Juliet explains that Nick is deadly with his tongue, though that just angers dad even more.

Not every word came through, but it’s clear enough that James Gunn’s writing talents are being put to good use in the script for Lollipop Chainsaw. The little I could make out was definitely funny, and it was made all the better by some competent voice-acting. There’s definitely a Shadows of the Damned vibe here, only with a much more light-hearted tone. That’s the impression I got from the brief bits of story I picked up, at any rate.

The motorcycle ride ends at a giant — we’re talking skyscraper-sized — arcade that’s been built in the shape of an oversized coin-op machine. The zombie threat has brought Juliet here for reasons that aren’t clear, but that doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this demo. There are zombies to be chainsawed, after all.

The controls are going to take players a little bit of getting used to. Juliet’s two main chainsaw attacks are mapped to the A and Y buttons on an Xbox 360 controller and her punch-and-kick attacks are handled by X. You can press B to make her jump; jumping toward a zombie triggers a contextual vault over the undead foe. The chainsaw also doubles as a firearm, with LT dipping into an aiming mode and RT firing. It’s a powerful weapon, but it uses ammo.

The key to success in Lollipop Chainsaw‘s combat seems to hinge on varying up your attack combos at all times. Juliet can perform some impressively over-the-top moves, and she can visit the game’s stores to buy even more combos. Downed enemies explode in a shower of gold coins, providing a funding source for any shopping sprees. It seems like you get more coins for performing more stylish and varied kills, but I couldn’t get a good sense of how that works.

The level I played starts out in a pretty standard arcade game room. Wisecracking zombies — yes, these undead can talk — gather around various coin-op machines, seemingly oblivious to the threat that’s entered their midst. Not for long though. I strike out quickly and decisively, chopping and hacking at various enemies and watching gleefully as severed limbs fly in all directions.

At one point as the battle is winding down, a headless, grey cheerleader shambles out of a nearby elevator. This proves to be a perfect platform for Nick’s head. Juliet plops the noggin down on the undead cheerleader’s neck stump and a button-pressing minigame unfolds as Nick uses his new body to dance across the room. No, I have no idea why.

The level alternates between these fairly straightforward combat rooms and a few zanier minigames, all of which pick up on the level’s coin-op arcade theme. The first one plays like a Tron version of Pac-Man… on acid. The camera moves to an overhead perspective as Juliet runs around a maze, picking up the set of eight keys required to escape while avoiding patrolling beings that look like pixelated Pac-Men, only they all have sharp teeth, dog ears and wear a red fez.

Once again, no idea why. Does it really matter?

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The next arcade-riffing minigame I play is an obvious nod to Elevator Action. Looking on from a 2D, side-scrolling perspective, you guide Juliet through a series of doors and elevators and she works her way up in a Tronified building toward her goal. Zombies of various types pop up along the way to complicate things, as do a few more of those button-pressing minigames.

The final arcade riff that I get to try out — and, ultimately, die on — is a 3D-world version of Pong. The camera sticks with a standard third-person perspective, but the once again Tronified world — all glowing blue lines and minimal detail — is a giant Pong table. A deadly, white ball bounces back and forth around the room as hordes of zombies come at Juliet. The ball is equally deadly to all, and it’s what ultimately ends Juliet’s adventure for me.

Lollipop Chainsaw seems to be fun and bizarre in all of the right ways, but it’s still in need of some polish, and maybe a little balancing. The zombies you face off against are pretty hardy; they’ll shed limbs quickly, but they’ll keep on coming. The camera is the real problem; it’s downright unfriendly at times, spinning and swerving in every which way. The manual camera controls feel like they could use some tuning as well.

As mentioned above, the controls also take a fair bit of getting used to, especially for anyone who’s played this sort of third-person brawler before. It’s a strange setup, having the two chainsaw attacks positioned at the top and bottom points of a standard controller’s cross-formation face buttons, while the non-chainsaw melee strikes and jump buttons are sandwiched between them on the left and right points. I’m certain there are elements that I just wasn’t getting a strong handle on, what with no one being there to guide the demo.

All that said, I had a ball running around and slicing hunks of zombie meat off of my attackers and collecting the sweet, delicious showers of coins that they exploded into. Hopefully there will be some more chances to check out Lollipop‘s deranged action in a quieter setting before the game hits its June 12 release.