It doesn’t take a huge amount of journalistic nouse or perception to take one look at Pistol Whip and come up with comparisons to John Wick, SuperHot and Beat Saber. In many ways, it feels like the developers, Cloudhead Games, are practically baiting me to do just that. It’s one of those titles that will be constantly referred to in terms of being a mashup of other games and films. ‘It’s Mrs Doubtfire meets Das Boot!’ That kind of thing. However, you won’t find that sort of lazy comparison here, oh my no. I’m also resisting making constant wanky allusions to Japanese crime films you won’t have heard of, either – no matter how much they want me to.
By this point, VR is becoming primarily the premier consumer electronics method of pretending you’re Keanu Reeves. Of all titles available on the Quest, Pistol Whip gets closest yet. It wants you to feel like you’re starring in a cool, stylish action film. The opening screen of the game stands you in front of a pulsating cinema box office, gun in hand. You shoot a poster, and a sexy voice breathes ‘Pistol Whip’ at you; almost an offer, or an invitation. Rather like Left 4 Dead, the levels are presented as film posters, all of different identities and flavours. There’s an aluminium briefcase to your left containing different handguns to pick from. To select something, you shoot it. You shoot everything. It’s the perfect hors d’ouevre for what’s to come.
The game plays out like an on-rails shooter. No, wait, stop! Come back. If like me you lived through the earlier days of VR or even just the Quest’s launch library, then you’ll probably be about sick of that particular genre. Pistol Whip is different. It doesn’t want just to give you bad guys to shoot; it intends to choreograph you doing it. The levels are recognisable urban environments, rendered in a distinctive limited palette. The almost-neon, glitchy, aesthetic is a triumph, allowing the imagination to run riot. The waves of sharp-suited villains rushing the player are carefully sequenced to the music – shoot them accurately on the beat and not only will your score skyrocket, but you will edge ever closer to full Keanu-rvana.
The more levels you play, and the higher up the difficulty levels you get, you’ll discover the intricacies contained in the initially simple gameplay. As you shoot and reload to the music, dodging bullets and scenery, waiting for the perfect beat to cap a fool, you will appreciate the way that Pistol Whip is training you to be a bullet ballerina, the antagonist in a pitch-perfect dance of death. For all of the inevitable comparisons to countless other films and games that I could draw for this title, it’s Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver that I often think of most. Whilst the action in that film centres on cars rather than guns, the careful and perfect timing of music to on-screen antics is definitely similar, and a joy to be part of. This is demonstrated perfectly by the use of the titular pistol whip. The rare occasions when a gangster fool stumbles close enough for you to smack him with the butt of your gun are perfectly judged, like a hi-hat hit in the middle of a drum solo.
By default, there’s an aim-assist active which is designed to help you shoot accurately without worrying too much about looking down the sights. This might seem like heresy, but believe me, it’s pretty much necessary given the pace of the game. When you’re in there, ducking and weaving and trying to shoot on target and on time, you’ll be glad it’s there. There is an option to turn the assist off, but be warned. It will not only hand your ass to you but will also mince it with some fresh herbs first.
DUAL HAND LUKE
If there’s one thing that feels slightly unusual at first, it’s that your non-shooting hand is useless. Unless you have the dual-wield modifier active, that gives you a pistol in each hand (and reduces your score), the other controller is redundant. I find myself gripping the ‘gun’ in both hands, with the other hand underneath for support, like in them fancy films. (Either that or using the redundant arm to flail out while shooting like RoboCop – also valid). I did have a brainwave while playing that the unused controller could be used to activate Dead-Eye (non-assist) mode on the fly. Bringing up the non-dominant hand to support the butt of the gun could enable a non-assisted aiming mode for higher scoring, a bit like scoping in a flat FPS. Delightfully, I suggested this to the developers, and they thought it was a good idea and that they may consider implementing it in future. So bonus points to them for recognising my budding design genius.
The game puts a heavy emphasis on the rhythm-action nature of the gameplay. This makes it unique, in a way that belies all of the influences it wears on the sleeves of its sharply-tailored black jacket. While other devs are falling over themselves trying to reconcile and capitalise on the massive success of Beat Saber, Cloudhead Games have taken a step back, donned some shades and picked up a Glock before running headlong at a different target. The confidence, exuberance, and style of Pistol Whip are quite breathtaking. If there’s one thing that does frustrate slightly, it’s that the game’s music is very much standard EDM/electronica of the type that every rhythm game of this generation is using. It’s varied and brilliantly utilised, but different genres would be so welcome. There’s a lot of Tarantino DNA in Pistol Whip. It would be the final cherry on the cake if the game utilised a similarly playful and eclectic approach to music selection to accompany its precision action.
Can you tell that the game is so good that I’ve been forced to nitpick?
The only other caveat I’d really offer is that the game is very active. If you’re not used to jumping, leaning and dodging for long periods, you’ll definitely feel it in your legs for a few days after your first session in the game. Not necessarily a bad thing by any means, but worth mentioning before you give your gran (or your editor) the headset and tell her to blast away.
There are ten levels in the game; ten different music tracks and unique environments to run through. Technically you can ‘complete’ the game in less than an hour, if you’re a big wuss and put everything on easy and breeze your way through. But that would be massively missing the point and the appeal. The challenge is considerable, and even on Normal difficulty, you’ll be more than breaking a sweat. You’ll want to beat your score, find cooler ways to best specific sequences, see how you fair on higher difficulties, or try dual-wielding your way through the levels like Harvey Keitel with a bus to catch. There are modifiers and options a-plenty to both tailor the game to your play style and provide additional challenges once you think you’re approaching mastery. It’s also one of those show-off titles you’ll want to share with friends and family, and I will wager a fair few of them will end up putting a Quest at the top of their Christmas lists as a result.
TLDR : Summary
So much more than the sum of its parts, Pistol Whip is an addictive title that is immediately appealing and compulsive, but with huge amounts of replayability for dedicated players. An original title just bursting with style, it's a must-play and a system seller. So immersive that you'll want to wear a sharp suit to play it.