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The art of designing visceral and engaging Bullet Time gunplay

A game design article explaining how to craft a Bullet Time mechanic that's both useful and fun to use.

Hard Boiled. The Matrix. Wanted. For years, movie audiences have been showered with over-the-top action movies that accentuate the on-screen violence to the point where the viewer can’t help but feel completely flabbergasted at the level of carnage that’s shown before him/her. Such popcorn flicks have not only dazzled moviegoers with their cinematographic pizzazz, but they also laid the foundation for exhilarating shootouts, something that games have attempted to replicate for the past decades.

As gaming technology got more advanced, developers became increasingly capable of designing shooters that featured gunplay that looked just as amazing as the gunfights seen in Hollywood blockbusters, mostly thanks to Bullet Time which was pioneered in the 1962 film Zotz.

An efficacious mechanic and visual effect, Bullet Time essentially allows the player to react more quickly to the in-game situation by slowing down time to a crawl and using his/her enhanced reflexes to riddle more of his/her foes with bullets in a shorter period of time. This superhuman ability not only strengthens the feeling of empowerment that the player gets when he/she is dispatching his/her enemies, but it also heightens the on-screen action to unparalleled degrees.

But a good Bullet Time mechanic is more than just a slowed-down version of regular gunplay. It is one that allows the player to perform moves that simply can’t be achieved in real-time, and rewards the player with glorious-looking kills that help intensify the adrenaline rush the player feels as he/she is blasting his/her opponents with glee.

To prove my point, I’m going to list the five components that can make for excellent slow-mo gunplay. For each element, I’ll include an example of a game that gets that particular Bullet Time aspect right.

1 - Emphasize the impact

One of the many advantages slow-mo gunplay has over normal gunplay is that the former looks and feels a lot more visceral and intense than the latter, thanks to the fact that the player is given more time to admire the onscreen carnage as he/she is making short work of his/her foes. This can be achieved through a mixture of audiovisual effects that amplify the already frantic gunfights and turn them into satisfyingly brutal set-pieces that keep the player on the edge of his/her seat and highlight the game’s presentational qualities.

F.E.A.R. perfectly takes that aspect to heart. This highly gratifying first-person shooter certainly pulls no punches when it comes to emphasizing the effects of gunfire on the environment and the player’s enemies. From the way the Replicas fly in the air after one shotgun blast to the shockwaves created by grenades upon detonation, F.E.A.R. never ceases to impress the player with the painstaking attention-to-detail that’s put into the dazzling particle effects and impressive-looking death animations, all of which look better in slow-mo.

Creating chaotic combat sequences is no easy task. The designer has to ensure that each element in the scene, from the way bullets interact with the environment and enemies to the audiovisual distortion created by the Bullet Time mechanic, gels well with the rest of the gameplay and presentational components that form the core of the gunfights. All of this must be done without impacting the player’s ability to play the game well or the game’s performance. When done right, slow-mo gunplay can amp up the experience’s excitement factor.

2 - Bring out the “gun-fu” flavor

Another critical aspect of slow-mo gunplay is making the player feel like a fearless action hero who performs daunting moves and executes his/her opponents in the most stylish and agile way possible. This visually appealing combination of gunplay and gymnastics, also known as “gun-fu”, can be the source of many “water cooler moments” and take gunfights to a whole new level where dynamism is concerned. Not only that, but it also helps preserve the flow of combat by keeping the player moving at a steady pace.

Max Payne 3 is a fine example of an acrobatic shooter. Like its predecessors, Max Payne 3 allows the player to unleash his/her inner John Woo by dual-wielding firearms and firing away at his/her foes in mid-air with ease and finesse. The Euphoria engine adds weight to Max’s moves like the shoot-dodge maneuver, and further enhances the “oomph” found in the game’s ballistic model. The result is a beautifully rendered extravaganza of bullets and gymnastics that puts most other shooters to shame.

When designing “gun-fu” gameplay, the developer has to make sure that the movement and shooting models are up to snuff and compatible with one another in order to seamlessly sustain the gameplay flow and keep the player continually engaged during combat sequences. If the designer tweaks the controls properly and crafts the gameplay scenarios in a way that allows for elaborate maneuvers, then the game becomes a truly spectacular and unforgettable shooting experience.

3 - Build the anticipation

The Bullet Time mechanic can also give the player the opportunity to watch his/her projectiles slowly make their way towards his/her opponents. The designer can use this effect to gradually build the anticipation by making use of several presentational techniques, such as air distortion created by the player’s bullets and tracking shots, that can really accentuate the potency of the fired projectiles as they progressively approach the player’s targets before the impact that I discussed earlier is created.

Sniper Elite 3 perfectly encapsulates the deadliness of the player’s rounds. To highlight the visceral nature of the sniping gameplay, Sniper Elite 3 makes use of a “bullet cam” that slowly tracks the player’s successful and skilled shots before they gruesomely hit their targets. The dramatic camera pans and increasingly loud sound effects serve to enhance the brutal satisfaction the player will get from hitting his/her targets as well as the eventually baleful impact his/her bullets will have on the Nazi opposition.

One of the best feelings the player can get out of a shooter is watching his/her bullets travel across the combat environment before they turn his/her foes into bullet-riddled corpses. The developer can further intensify the lethalness of the player’s projectiles by designing audiovisual techniques around them to give the player a very clear idea of the level of damage he/she is going to cause, and reinforce the feeling of empowerment that shooter fans crave from the games they play.

4 - Open up new gameplay abilities

Of course, Bullet Time shouldn’t just be visually astounding. It should also be an effective tool that the player can take advantage of when fighting his/her enemies. Being able to slow down time to a crawl can allow the player to perform certain actions that just can’t be pulled off in real-time. This is where the designer can create a new set of abilities for the player to use when Bullet Time is activated, unlocking a new layer of gameplay choices that can make Bullet Time gunplay a tactical endeavor as well as a fun one.

One game that gives the player plenty of combat options with Bullet Time is Timeshift. This first-person shooter grants the player the ability to both freeze and rewind time in addition to slowing it down. Those three potent time-manipulating functions not only enable the player to react more quickly to enemy projectiles, but they also allow him/her to fix previous combat mistakes and steal weapons from enemies. Having these time-bending abilities makes the gameplay that much more interesting and experimental.

Giving the player several abilities that he/she can use when Bullet Time is enabled can make the game consistently fun since the designer knows that having multiple gameplay options can keep gunplay from getting stale or repetitive. Even so, the developer has to craft those mechanics in a way that doesn’t overpower the player or break the game’s combat flow. When properly incorporated into the gameplay, Bullet Time “sub-abilities” can certainly make the experience more engaging and varied.

5 - Use it as a tool, not a dependency

Even though Bullet Time can be helpful and fun to use, the designer still has to remember that it’s just another mechanic in a long list of gameplay features that he/she includes in the game. As such, the designer should be careful not to build the experience entirely around Bullet Time since that would dilute the rest of the gameplay by potentially making non-Bullet Time combat boring. This, in turn, could make slow-mo gunplay unexceptional since that would be the only option the player would pick to have a fun experience.

Red Dead Redemption avoids making that mistake while still providing satisfying slow-mo thrills. The game’s “Dead Eye” mechanic, which allows the player to mark enemies before firing away at them, serves to complement the already solid and snappy gunplay, not to embellish it and hide potential gameplay shortcomings when playing the game normally. The fact that the player can also upgrade Dead Eye as the story progresses means that he/she is unlikely to get tired of using it throughout the game.

Although the designer should still strive to make Bullet Time tactically effective and visually attractive, he/she also has to find a balance between regular gunplay and slow-mo gunplay if the player is to remain constantly engaged and entertained throughout the experience. The ability to slow down time shouldn’t overpower the other combat options the player can choose from. It should be one of several potent tools that the player can use when he/she finds himself/herself in a pinch during combat and needs to turn the tables on his/her foes.


One of the hardest things a designer can do while he/she is working on the gameplay mechanics is making sure that no single option outclasses the others while still trying to make said option incredibly useful and appealing. The Bullet Time mechanic is no exception. When crafted and implemented properly, Bullet Time can make for some incredibly exhilarating and memorable gameplay moments that will leave a big impression on the player long after he/she is done playing the game.


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