A videogame history of bullet-time

2001 - Max Payne

This is where all the tricks of the trade coagulated into one big, beautiful, tortured slow-motion glory shot. Few can forget the first moment they tapped the relevant key in the training level, the whooshing noise that heralded bullet-time, the half-spoken cry of, “It’s Payne!” from the gangsters turning the street corner, and the glorious tracking of the bullets that would finish them off. In time, mods would not only implant Matrix-style kung-fu moves but also the fateful Lobby scene that Max had been born to ape. A landmark in extreme gaming violence. Hurrah.

2002 - Jedi Outcast

Sure Obi-Wan never danced around Vader in giddy circles, but that didn’t stop Kyle Katarn from presenting himself with a dose of Force Speed whenever he wasn’t using his powers to knock stormtroopers off high ledges. At the time of Jedi Outcast the bullet-time train was really rolling, so full-on spinny slo-mo cameras were used when you offed lightsaber-wielding enemies, while more traditional world-slowing techniques could be enforced on your surroundings during more general combat.

2003 - Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne

What better way to improve the unsubtle art of slow-motion than have all manner of on-screen paraphernalia and physics imbued bodies flying all over the shop? Max Payne 2 was keen to impress, and so was heavy on situations in which, for example, someone left thirty plastic chairs sitting on an explosive crate. It turned out that flaming barrels and enemies precariously balancing on scaffolding made for even better bullet-time. Who knew?

2003 - Enter the Matrix

Unfortunately, the official Matrix game had the very worst implementation of bullet-time around. As you played through the game you could easily forget you had slow-motion chopsocky or bullet-dodges, as the bad enemy AI and your overpowered character rarely made it necessary to perform in the usual digital goop. Compared to Max Payne’s Kung Fu and an unofficial mod that recreated the simple joy of The Matrix’s lobby sequence, the official game felt little more than lightweight fluff. The fact that Enter the Matrix was so up itself and devoid of fun would prove to be an indication of the way the whole franchise was going. Sometimes guns - lots of guns - are not enough.

2005 - Doom 3: Resurrection of Evil

By the time the Doom 3 expansion pack rolled around, the bullet-time production line had become an efficient and ubiquitous industry. True to form, Resurrection appeared late to the party with both and performed with neither. Repackaged as Helltime (patent pending) it looked pretty, but added little to the game. A pattern that would be repeated in games for several years.

2005 - FEAR

FEAR was the game where bullet-time tweaked the details to a new level. Here ‘Reflex’ time made a game a show-stopping must have. FEAR’s particle effects, flying sparks and the beautiful animation of your enemies’ leaps and vaults were visceral in the extreme in slow-motion, while the ability to toss a grenade and then shoot it into combustion in mid-air was an unparalleled by-line in shooter history. Whenever you hear an enemy goon say, “Shiiiiiit”, in a desperate low bass and try to run away, remember that FEAR did it first, and better.

2006 - Tomb Raider: Legend

The quest for decent Lara-on-human combat remained unfulfilled with Legend’s odd mechanic of having Lara undertake graceful slow-motion leaps hither, thither and off the barrel-chests of her gun-toting foes. Things were only marginally better when the remake of the original Tomb Raider, Anniversary, appeared one year later, and that was only because you were leaping out of the way of a dinosaur. And dinosaurs are always cool. Still though, if there’s one thing that’s not needed in a Tomb Raider game it’s slo-mo.

2007 - Call of Juarez

That cowboys have rough edges is easy to believe, but that they had the ability to slow down time – as in Call of Juarez – just didn’t meld with the Wild West action or setting. Developers Techland repeated this mistake by letting Brother Ray keep this ability in the game’s prequel, Bound in Blood. In recent times, Rockstar has nailed Wild West slow-motion shootery with the DeadEye system in Red Dead Redemption - here Techland didn’t come close.

2007 - TimeShift

Proof that the attractive sheen of bullet-time had worn off in gaming circles, TimeShift was cruelly ignored. A tight, ferocious shooter that genuinely added new and interesting gameplay to an increasingly elderly concept. Freeze enemies and steal their guns, reverse time and watch the world unwrap around you... if it had been released a few years earlier it would have been dynamite. Please, please, please check the game out on Steam, it remains a hugely satisfying game to play.

2007 - John Woo’s Stranglehod

Better on paper, and on console than on PCs, Stranglehold was nevertheless the bullet-time phenomenon coming full circle. The director who mastered the art of slo-mo combat and his iconic star, Chow Yun Fat, entered the realm of gaming with a game-only sequel to the masterpiece Hard Boiled. The physics and the sheer cinematic pizzazz of its bullets caught in motion were a joy, yet the rest of the game didn’t do its cinematic predecessor justice.

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  • breadkiller - February 23, 2013 6:02 a.m.

    I wish you could have included non-shooter games like Prince of persia's Sand powers and Need for Speed's speedbreaker
  • Jack Slate - December 2, 2011 11 a.m.

    How could you forget Dead to Rights?? This list also forgot: Total Overdose (and it's sequel Chili Con Carnage) Rise to Honor (with Jet Li)
  • ChrisAntistasMarvelousMechanicalMolestorium - September 7, 2010 9:26 p.m.

    I have a friend thaqt had /no idea/ what bullet time was. She had apparently heard of it, because when she sat down to play some Halo for the first time, she exclaimed, "It's bullet time!" Indeed it is.
  • Johnny2900 - September 5, 2010 5:53 p.m.

    slow-motion bullet time may be over used be we can never seem to get tired of it...
  • Sleuth - September 3, 2010 1:50 a.m.

    Witch Time in Bayonetta was pretty awesome!
  • pin316 - September 2, 2010 12:28 p.m.

    Awesomeness - any article which brings back memories of Max Payne abd MDK is full of badassery. Two of the most fun games i ever played on my PC. I like the modern implementation of bullet-time effect in action games, where you get a set window of slow=motion time automatically as a reward for pulling off perfectly timed really makes sense to me, and works well (as long as it's not too easy to trigger - it should always feel like you've earned it i reckon) Also, a shout out to Stranglehold. I picked it up from the bargain bin purely on the basis of Chow Yun Fat and John Woo being involved, and i really enjoyed it - a couple of the levels got a bit messy in places, but it actually felt like playing through a John Woo film. The cinematics and set pieces were genious, the Tequila Bombs like Precision Aim and Spin Attack were a lot a fun, and the interaction with the environment (slow-motion sliding down banisters, or rolling through a corridor on a cart, or just blowing up huge pieces of the landscape) was brilliant too!
  • Dorglesisthebest - September 1, 2010 10:36 p.m.

    Killing Floors Zed time was neat, but remember it only lasts a few seconds, is unpredictable and really rather useless if you dont count the cosmetic effect.
  • santaclouse37 - September 1, 2010 7:44 p.m.

    Great article, but you forgot Matrix: Path of Neo (Just like everyone else), which, while still mediocre, was far better and more fun to play than it's older brother.
  • Boxer47 - September 1, 2010 7:38 p.m.

    Great article now I know where bullet time started. I like having that feature they should put it in a game but as an unlockable or cheat
  • Chickenfoot - September 1, 2010 5:07 p.m.

    Aw. I love timeshift. And I was really impressed with the multiplayer.
  • GamesRadarJoeMcNeilly - September 1, 2010 2:36 p.m.

    LOL @The_Tingler: when I saw that feature on the tracker, I was all, "I need to make a video for that!" It could have been much, much longer but I think it came out alright. Bayonetta would have been a good one to include, since most of the entries are (by necessity) shooters.
  • philipshaw - September 1, 2010 11:05 a.m.

    I think after the last 2 matrix films came out and were shit, is when people stopped caring about bullet time
  • pimlicosound - September 1, 2010 10:49 a.m.

    One more for the list of "games you missed": Mass Effect 2 has bullet time as the Soldier's special ability.
  • jackthemenace - September 1, 2010 8:36 a.m.

    CoJ:BiB's slow-time wasn't that bad! and the cow shooting part in the second level was hilarious! and you really shouldn't have missed out Bayonettas witch time, that was epic. But, to be fair, Slow-motion is never good as a main point, ony a helpful side-feature, like darksiders cronomancy, whcih was, in turn, pretty crap
  • MaynardJ - September 1, 2010 8:27 a.m.

    Is there any western-themed shooter that didn't have bullet time?? Gun had it too, so you could shoot flying arrows out of the air. Also, I love seeing MDK get the tribute it deserves.
  • marioman50 - September 1, 2010 7:16 a.m.

    The screen shot used for Max Payne 1 is actually from Max Payne 2. How do I know? No spikey hair and constipated grimace link
  • gbiZZle08 - September 1, 2010 4:49 a.m.

    anybody else notice that the names for bullet time for stranglehold and singularity are flipped?
  • NinjaJamez - September 1, 2010 3:35 a.m.

    the sniper rifle on resistance has a pretty useful "bullet time"
  • MrKENnedDy - September 1, 2010 3:31 a.m.

    IIRC, didn't Scarface the World is Yours have a bullet time feature. Another game that had bullet time was the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Sure everyone knows you could rewind time, but you could slow time down (and the Prince moved in real-time). Shame GR that you guys missed that. reCAPTCHA: wtf is bangends kong?! Is that Donkey Kong's redheaded stepson?!
  • The_Tingler - September 1, 2010 2:49 a.m.

    Excellent feature, and I'm amazed that you got that video in the magazine!

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