Developer: People Can Fly/Epic Games / Publisher: EA / ESRB: Mature (Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol) / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99
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Hi, I’m Rob Smith, and I’ve just spent two days kicking ass, shooting ‘nads, and leashing fools into submission. I’ve finished Bulletstorm the new first-person shooter from the developers of Painkiller, via Gears of War maker Epic Games, and it certainly earns its Mature rating. So if profanity drops casually into this review, blame the game, not the playa’. But does its adult nature enhance or hinder a bold bid for glory in a franchise-dominated shooter market? You’ll find out right ahead.
Grayson Hunt, if he had a blond flat-top haircut rather than wavy black locks, could be mistaken for Duke Nukem. He lives a kick-ass-and-chew-bubblegum mercenary lifestyle, but he’s all out of gum and so replaced it with booze… and he’s definitely NOT all out of booze. Grayson and his Dead Echo unit friends discover that there may have been less-than-noble motivations behind the orders that directed them to eliminate particular personnel. This team’s skills–basically, intergalactic gun-toting bad-assery–have proved useful, but after a betrayal Grayson’s unit has a bounty on its head. “Half a million?” Grayson asks, “I’m worth twice that.”
Between revelations about Grayson’s evident fondness for booze and a battery of mom jokes the tone is set. This crew is lewd and rude, their language “industrial”. But the hint of a moral compass manages to permeate the booze haze and after crash landing on a once-spectacular, now damaged planet, the goal to find transport off-world is balanced by the simmering personal disputes that drive Grayson’s overwrought machismo.
The plot is threadbare and 100% predictable. If you didn’t see its key points coming you were probably playing with the sound off and one eye closed. But oddly, it didn’t hurt the experience too much. Because fundamentally Bulletstorm is 110% about the action.
Bulletstorm needs unique selling points more substantial than 47 uses of the word “shit” and maybe fifty-some uses of “cock” (those numbers according to producer Tanya Jessen). That’s where creative use of your boot to kick enemies and the Leash to drag and throw them become so vital. And they work. Booting or leashing an enemy into a slo-mo phase to then shoot them or ram them into walls, deadly plants, or off ledges is always satisfying. It sounds like it could easily get repetitive, but it really doesn’t over the eight to ten hours of single-player gameplay. Looking for those exploding barrels or aspects of the environment you can use to execute creative killing techniques is a key part of the fun.
These methods create a bullet symphony of sorts: a stylized tango of floating bodies, pained shimmys and sachets, and excruciating executions. It’s a balletic system of virtual carnage, rewarding your use of available props by doling out points for pulling off the skillshots. Double-tap A, for example, and you go into a controllable slide to take the legs out from under any target you hit. Secondary functions on each weapon add more death-dealing options, with particular favorites being the flare pistol and the flail gun.
As you’d expect, Bulletstorm throws in mini-bosses with big boss events, and a few original Hollywood-style action sequences that will cause chuckles of appreciation. In general, each of these big-scene events is worth experiencing as they showcase the over-the-top style. They’re fun, and this reinforcement of Bulletstorm‘s attitude through actual gameplay is actually a welcome respite from the ass-chewing language spouted by antagonist, General Sarrano. Seriously, take the Drill Sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, blend him with Jack Nicholson from A Few Good Men, then sprinkle liberally with Tourette’s (and, to be fair, a pinch of creative flair for the unexpected) and you’ve got a standout character. The reasons for his dominance are likely to be as much a talking point as are his qualities as an antagonist in this story, but he’s undeniably memorable.
This collection of action features–the slide, the kick, the Leash, the weapons–all contribute to the skillshot system that differentiates Bulletstorm from those other shooters. You score points, then spend them unlocking upgrades in a range of areas, like simply buying extra ammo or improving the Leash. You equip just three weapons at a time; your standard PMC (assault rifle) will be with you throughout, but the other two options let you choose your own play style, upgrade the secondary functions on your personal favorites, and actually provides another reason to play through single-player to see just how the other original tools will work in some of the frenetic combat moments.
Plenty of environmental achievements are also worth seeking out, like destroying newspaper boxes for fun, and finding beer bottles and either destroying them or drinking them (and earning bonus points for executing skillshots while the screen is blurred and the controls are wobbly).
It’s a fun package. It controls well enough, and in the skillshot system has managed to apply some brain requirement to what’s a generally straightforward shooter.
Visually, the planet is lush. It’s most impressive in the urban locations, clearly once-grand cities are now broken and mangled. Elsewhere the game doesn’t quite devolve into the ice level, lava level, forest level cliché, but it’s not far off. The style reminded me of Enslaved, blended with some Killzone. The character models are detailed in classic space marine style and all of the cut scenes are well animated.
The new Anarchy mode is possibly the most cooperative shooter format so far devised in the action arena. It simply cannot work if you don’t communicate with your three other teammates. Essentially it’s a progression of 20 levels where your team needs to accumulate a target number of skill points. (Though you can play with fewer than four, even on your own, where the volume of enemies doesn’t decrease to balance, just the target number of skill points required to progress.) Enemies spawn into six tightly designed arenas. Mid-wave, an enemy will enter with additional bonus points if you dispatch it with a specific style of takedown. In the later stages your team simply has to succeed with all the skillshots to have any chance of making the required total. That requires communication.
It’s pretty rewarding when you get it right, and in many cases, stacking team-based skillshot rewards on a single target can really crank the points. As we were playing, on one boss creature we earned the Rear Entry, Sadist, Double Penetration, and Boss bonuses, which catapulted our skill score over the target required. Environmental features also come into play; frying them in an electrified pool, impaling them on spikes, or crushing them in a revolving door all require a cooperation and skill that turned out to be really fun when it works.
It’s impossible to over-stress the value of communication here. Playing alongside squadmates that don’t know the difference between a Bullet Kick and a Bullet Slide will cause your progress to stall around waves 10 to 14 as by that point, on the race to 20, it’s imperative you succeed in the specific skill challenges to earn enough points to progress. I fear for griefers spoiling too many games, and while the learning curve of executing the team skillshots isn’t particularly steep, it does require every player to buy into the cooperative nature.
Another mode, Echo, parcels sections of the single-player into self-contained time and skillshot trials. Basically, you race through as fast as you can, scoring as many points as possible, leveling up, and earning bragging rights on leaderboards among your friends or other players.
I really suspect that Bulletstorm will be polarizing among critics. I can see the arguments that it’s pretty shallow, its story is almost ironically predictable yet wasn’t trying for the irony, and its overblown profanity may simply be too much. “You fungal rimjob” was one of my favorite lines, so you can see the flavor of its style. Some of the deaths are painfully hilarious, and the dialogue is worth hearing just to see how creative they can get with dick jokes. The story twists with Grayson’s foil, Sarrano, are the pulpiest of pulp, but you’ll remember your first decapitation, limb removal, and other skillshots well after you’ve forgotten the dialogue that led to the action. That’s what Bulletstorm is: fun action shooting for fun-loving action shooter fans. If you count yourself in that number, you’ll likely have a blast. If you expect meat or real depth, you probably haven’t listened this far.