Polish game developers People Can Fly are no strangers to over-the-top action. Their previous game, Painkiller, was as pure of a shooter as you can get – mow down wave after wave of advancing enemies and fight truly gargantuan bosses using a range of large, somewhat unconventional weapons. As the great Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw once said about Painkiller, “It’s got a gun that shoots shirukens and lighting. That could only be more awesome if it had tits and was on fire”.
For their next game, People Can Fly knew they’d have to step up their game and take their particular brand of insanity even further to stand out amongst today’s crowded first person shooter crowd. Enter Bulletstorm, and it is perhaps the craziest, most intense first person shooter of all time. It may also hold the record for the most uses of the word dick. But is it fun? Will it hold your attention in this crowded release season? Read on for the answer.
Bulletstorm tells the story of Grayson Hunt (voiced by the talented Steve Blum) and Dead Echo Squadron on a quest for revenge to find and kill General Serrano, the man who lied to them and set them up. Things turn ugly when, in pursuit of that revenge, Grayson crashes his ship and Serrano’s onto a lush and beautiful tourist trap world called Stygia. Of course, the beauty on Stygia is only skin deep, as death is waiting around every corner, and Grayson and company are forced to fight for their lives while searching for Serrano and a way off the planet.
The plot actually has a fairly serious tone to it, considering all the over-the-top insanity that takes place on the gameplay side of things. Grayson, in addition to searching for revenge and a way off of Stygia, is also searching for redemption for the atrocities he’s been led to commit, and for the death of his friends. His friend Ishi, mortally wounded thanks to Grayson’s bloodlust, now fights to keep his brain from being taken over by the very AI implants that saved his life. While it’s not going to evoke tears or win awards, Bulletstorm’s story gets the job done pretty well and adds a bit of seriousness to balance out all the crass humor and big explosions.
Bulletstorm is, at its core, a fast paced, arcade style shooter. That could describe any number of games in the FPS genre, but Bulletstorm brings some novel concepts to the table, as well as choosing to focus more on how you dispatch your foes rather than just the act of dispatching them. There are a number of ways Bulletstorm goes about this, the most immediate is through a scoring system and ‘Skillshots”. Skillshots encourage you to kill in creative ways and there really are a lot of them in the game. For example, why settle for shooting an enemy in the head when you can instead shoot him in the crotch, then put him out of his misery with a boot to the head? Sticking to the crude humor that permeates the game, the Skillshots often have amusing names full of sexual innuendo. Shooting a guy in the throat, for example, results in Gag Reflex. Blowing up a hot dog cart in the midst of a group of enemies is a Sausage Fest, and so on. It’s best that you not try to take Bulletstorm too seriously, lest you end up seriously misguided like Fox News.
You’ve also got some interesting tools at your disposal in Bulletstorm, the most important and useful of which is your Leash. Acquired early on in the campaign, the Leash is the key to many of the game’s more effective and rewarding Skillshots. Latching onto an enemy allows you to pull him toward you as well as applying a time displacement field on him so that he flies toward you in slow motion. You’ll also gain the ability to “thump” enemies with the Leash, sending them flying high into the air and suspending them there at your mercy for several seconds. In what feels like an homage to Duke Nukem, you’ll also be making a lot of use out of Grayson’s massive stompin’ boots, as kicking an enemy also puts them into a slow-mo state, allowing you to redirect them into environmental hazards like explosives or giant cactus spikes. Similarly, you’ve also got a speedy slide maneuver that lets you kick enemies at high speed as well as getting you out of harm’s way when the going gets tough.
Of course, no shooter is complete without a decent host of weapons, and Bulletstorm’s are some of the most over-the-top and satisfying weapons to ever appear in an FPS. There are 8 weapons total (as well as miniguns scattered about), and though that may not sound like many when you compare it to the 40-odd guns in a standard military shooter, each weapon is interesting, unique, and actually maintains its usefulness throughout the entire game. There’s a quad-barreled shotgun called the Boneduster and a drill/spear gun called the Penetrator, among others, and every weapon has its own set of Skillshots as well. Earning points from Skillshots allows you to buy alternate fire modes called Charge Shots and ammo storage capacity for each weapon, keeping them well stocked and powerful at all times. My personal favorite Charge Shot belongs to the game’s sniper rifle, which allows you to steer your bullet into an enemy, then steer the enemy into a group of his buddies and detonate the bullet still inside of him. It’s great fun you’ll wish you could hold more than 2 of them at the same time.
Bulletstorm’s unique arsenal of weapons as well as your Leash, kick and slide maneuvers combine with good level design and expert pacing to make for a very tightly focused and varied experience. One minute you’ll be on a high-speed train fighting off pursuing enemies as well as trying to avoid being crushed by a giant wheel of doom, and the next minute you’re fighting through a collapsing building or lush garden full of man-eating plants. And answer me this dear readers: When was the last time you got to take control of a huge robot dinosaur (whom Grayson lovingly refers to as ‘Waggleton P Tallylicker’) that shoots laser beams from its eyes? That should have been the tagline on the back of the box. Forget “Kill With Skill, We’ve Got Laser Beam Dinosaurs, Bitches!” Just when the action hits a fever pitch and threatens to become overwhelming, you’re given a break that’s just long enough to catch your breath, but not so long as to feel boring. It’s a balance that few games manage to truly nail, and never once during the 7 or so hours it took to finish Bulletstorm’s campaign did I feel as though the game was dragging or being artificially lengthened. It’s pure action through and through.
In addition to its single player campaign, Bulletstorm contains a score attack mode called Echoes and a cooperative multiplayer mode called Anarchy. Echoes is essentially the game’s arcade mode, taking various chunks of the single player campaign, cutting out the story bits, and challenging you to obtain high scores. There are 26 of these Echos levels and completionists will undoubtedly find creative ways to top the leaderboards. Anarchy Mode works like a team survival mode along the lines of Gears of War’s Horde mode or Halo’s Firefight. Up to four people team up to fight off multiple waves of enemies over the course of about 10 rounds. Players compete for points, but must also work together in order to achieve the required amount of points to advance to the next round. Team Skillshots are Anarchy Mode’s greatest strength, but also its greatest weakness. The problem isn’t so much with Bulletstorm, however, it’s a problem more inherent to the nature of trying to work with strangers over Xbox Live. People simply do not cooperate when you need them to. Your team will often find itself without enough points to advance to the next round because some Lone Wolf Call of Duty player is off doing his own thing instead of helping to obtain special bonus team Skillshots. So while Anarchy Mode can be great fun, try to play it with friends instead of randoms and I promise you’ll enjoy it more. Occasional connection issues also crop up from time to time, but no more so than can be expected from any online enabled game so soon after its launch. It would have been nice to have a few more multiplayer modes, maybe co-op for the campaign as well, though.
As far as presentation goes, Bulletstorm puts on one hell of a show. The planet Stygia is a beautiful and varied place with deserts, areas of lush vegetation, high-rise condos, giant shopping malls and expansive vistas. Everywhere you go, there are colorful sights to see, even in the midst of a crumbling building or a slime-filled, underground sewer. Bullestorm’s lighting is particularly impressive and you won’t be able to help feeling a sense of awe as beams of light come pouring through cracks or in between the leaves of trees. It’s just a vibrant, a stark contrast to the browns and grays of most modern day shooters. It’s a visual feast all around and the advantages to being owned by Epic Games are obvious, as People Can Fly was given access to all of Unreal Engine 3′s latest and most impressive advancements. On the audio side of things, Bulletstorm sounds just as impressive as it looks, with great voice acting, sound effects and a sweeping orchestral score punctuated by guitar riffs when the action heats up. The dialogue in the game will be enjoyable to some, but not to people who are easily offended or simply find no amusement in phrases like “Butterdick Jones and his Heavenly Asshole Machine” or “Take a lick of the salty taint of doom”.
Bulletstorm is a revelation, a colorful gem shining bright in the brown, generic sea of the first person shooter genre. It proudly stands among games like Bioshock and Borderlands, shooters in this generation that have dared to be different. It’s a game that gives me hope for the future of the genre and with any luck, other developers will follow Bulletstorm’s example and think outside the box a little. If you’re content playing the same old shooters, then keep playing them. For the rest of us who are looking for something a little different, Bulletstorm is a breath of fresh air, a real kick in the ass for the entire genre. If you favor originality even a little, Bulletstorm can not be missed.
Bulletstorm was released on February 22nd, 2011 for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Review is based on the Xbox 360 version.