There are so many online shooters these days that some companies can't even give them away – just ask Icelandic outfit CCP Games about the popularity of its PlayStation 3 experiment DUST 514. With the space utterly dominated by blockbuster brands like Battlefield and Call of Duty, you'd think that smaller studios such as Edge of Reality – the team behind Activision's recent mechanical misfire Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark – would be eager to avoid a skirmish with said seasoned series. Loadout, however, is not backward about coming forward, hopping into the PlayStation 4 firefight with polka dot panties and a cabbage patch dance routine to match. The question is: can this free-to-play pretender hold its own against the big guns?

Unfortunately, the answer's no – but there are some pleasant ideas on offer that almost make up for its trashy art style. Proving that size really does matter, the main metagame here will find you forging weapons out of the gear that you recover from the release's six main arenas. Taping together different barrels, stocks, and magazine clips will result in all-new tools of destruction, and you can take these out into a shooting range to see if they're to your tastes. Obviously, you'll be doing a lot of grinding to make the weapon of your dreams, with loot included in crates and boxes that you'll attain as you play. However, there's also the option to stump up for some Spacebux, which will buy you the pieces that you need in exchange for real-world cash.

We were having a torrid time with the title until we spent a few pennies on crafting the perfect piece, and noticed our enjoyment increased significantly beyond that first investment. The problem is that it can take hours to build a weapon that you really feel comfortable with for free, and your interest will likely lapse long before your lips touch the Holy Grail lingering tantalisingly on the horizon. Part with a bob or two to make something that you find satisfying, however, and you'll see your interest soar – well, until you get tired of it and realise that you haven't got the bits that you need to start afresh. It's this craving of new kit that's supposed to comprise the chief appeal of the product, but we found it more of a deterrent than a draw.

Part of the problem is the interface, which is a bit of a mess. There are plenty of sorting options for the parts that you do have, but while it may look like you have all of the components required to build a lightning spouting super shotgun, you'll often find that it comes up short when taken into battle. Plug in a few premium pieces, though, and you'll get something closer to the human mincer that you originally had in mind. This wouldn't be so bad if you could dole out Blutes – the title's second currency, which is accrued during gameplay – but almost all of the game's good stuff is restricted to the aforementioned Spacebux, and while you will garner some during the core co-op campaign, you'll need to pod out for a meaningful amount.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with the developer wanting to make a crust, and it's clear that it's thought carefully about how it uses microtransactions to fund its foray – but we're not sure that forcing freeloaders to spend several hours with a drab and dreary pea shooter is necessarily the best advert for the game. It doesn't help that the "story" sees you essentially playing multiplayer matches with bots, with the woolly controls well and truly exposed as you attempt to take out puny peons rolling around the cel-shaded stages. The game gives off plenty of good feedback when you eventually land a hit, and the binding of key commands to the DualShock 4's shoulder buttons keeps your fingers on the sticks, but the controls just aren't tight enough to cope with the pace of the action.

The same is true in competitive multiplayer, where you'll be taking on teams of likeminded adversaries in a variety of deathmatch types. Death Snatch is essentially Kill Confirmed with test-tubes, while both Domination and Blitz encourage you to control designated strongholds. It's here that the spray and pray mentality of the game works best, as you offload explosives into the general vicinity of players and watch your kill streak increase. It's mindless but entertaining at first, and this initial gratification also applies to Jackhammer – an alternative to capture the flag, which involves a giant hammer that you can wield and use on opponents for bonus points. Alas, unless you really love the firearms that you've fashioned, you can get a similar experience better elsewhere.

The developer would perhaps point to the crude form of comedy as something that sets its package apart, but Helga – one of three customisable characters – with her stretch marks and Miley Cyrus taunts is not exactly our kind of eye candy. We get what it's going for, and there is some charm to its comic book-inspired environments, but with only a handful of arenas and cosmetic items extremely expensive, you're going to be up against a lot of repetition, which will grate the more that you play. One victory dance in particular, complete with a flabby bass line and whistle effect, will leave you reaching for the mute button when you're inevitably matched up with someone that's all too eager to break it out every ten seconds or so.

Conclusion

New shooters need to be special to stand out in an arena of bigger brands, and Loadout doesn't quite have the quality required to back up its ideas. When you've got a good gun, the game's not a complete washout – but the free-to-play affair ultimately blows its load with a lack of variety and a lousy sense of humour. You'll find the fun faster if you cough up a bit of cash, but only diehards will stick around for more than a handful of rounds.