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Review: 'Bullet Witch' casts a weak spell

By Marc Saltzman
Gannett News Service
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What's a video gamer to do while waiting for blockbuster titles such as "Madden NFL 08" (August 14), "Halo 3" (September 25) and "Grand Theft Auto IV" (October 16)?

The answer is to rent some games for the weekend, such as Atari's "Bullet Witch," an average sci-fi shooter for the Microsoft Xbox 360.

This third-person shooter takes place in the year 2013, after our planet has suffered fatalities in the billions because of natural disasters, war and infectious diseases. As if this weren't enough, an inter-dimensional portal opened up, allowing demons to seep through and attack those few people remaining.

This is where you come in. You play as Alicia Claus, a beautiful witch who is as powerful with her magic spells as she is deft with a trigger finger. She wields a huge "gun-rod," a kind of broom-shaped weapon that can be upgraded over time.

But gun battles with hoards of demons get tiring after a while. For one, while some might run for cover, the not-so-bright creatures basically stand there and let you shoot them down one by one.

Another issue is that the action sequences repeat each other often, which works something like this: fight baddies, move ahead and watch a short story sequence, then fight more baddies and move ahead toward the end of the level. You start with the gun-rod as a machine gun, but in time it can be switched to a shotgun, sniper rifle and Gatling gun.

Magic spells, however, produce a more exhilarating effect than the predictable gunplay. Pressing the left or right shoulder button brings up a magic wheel, whereby you can spin and select what kind of magic spell to invoke -- if you've earned enough skill points to unlock it.

Highlights include "Willpower," which creates a shock wave that sends nearby objects hurling toward enemies, and "Lightning," where Alicia summons a bolt that kills the enemy instantly. Visually speaking, the effects of these spells (and others, including summoning a meteor shower) are quite gratifying.

It's too bad the huge and detailed environments in "Bullet Witch,"
such as accurately modeled suburban neighborhoods, are as linear as they are. That is, you're given the impression you can go anywhere and do anything -- as in "Grand Theft Auto" -- but you soon realize you're on a short leash and must follow a specific path.

Another problem with the game is that it can be cumbersome to control Alicia's movement with the Xbox 360's left analog stick while moving the camera with the right analog stick. It's like having to play actor and director at the same time, which might work for some games (usually when the camera is somewhat automated, but lets you swivel it around for a better view) but not when both are continuously mandatory, as in "Bullet Witch."

This single-player adventure has its strengths -- namely, big and attractive outdoor environments and impressive spell casting effects -- but dumb artificial intelligence, repetitive gun battles and awkward controls bring the game down to a C-grade experience.

And at only six or seven hours of play, you can easily tackle this single-player shooter in a weekend. But if you need to get your action fix while waiting for this year's more eagerly anticipated video games, you could do worse than "Bullet Witch."

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Alicia Claus is a beautiful witch who is as powerful with her magic spells as she is deft with a trigger finger.

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