Hankering for a thick ol’ slab of unpretentious, frat-boy fun? People Can Fly and Epic Games deliver just that in Bulletstorm, out now on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 courtesy of EA.
Appropriately, given the pedigree of its creators, Bulletstorm is a happy marriage between the genocidal running and gunning of People Can Fly’s Painkiller and the gritty, ‘roid-rage attitude of Epic’s Gears of War. If you like either of those games, chances are high you’ll dig this game as well.
Like any other modern FPS, you stomp through roughly eight hours worth of linear levels, gunning down anything and everything that stands between you and the objective. But instead of just shooting shit willy-nilly, Bulletstorm asks you to dish out death with panache; to boot, slide-kick and leash bloodthirsty goons into the air like helpless ragdolls for you to decapitate, dismember and defame as you see fit, pornographic skillshot titles and point totals splashing the screen to give name and quantity to the carnage unfolding on the screen. If you aren’t blowing heads off, impaling bodies on sharp objects, feeding bad guys to man-eating plants, splattering dudes against giant cacti, hurling thugs into exposed power lines, popping enemies in the nads or up the asshole, and combining these and many other murder methods, you just aren’t playing the game properly.
Killing with skill is important, too, because it gives thought and purpose to an otherwise brainless blast-a-thon. Sure, if you really, REALLY want to, you can try to survive just pointing and shooting your way through, but you probably won’t make it very far and you certainly won’t have nearly as much fun. Enemies absorb bullets like sponges, so if you aren’t creative and exacting with your kills, you are likely to run out of ammo before danger passes. Performing a variety of skill shots is also necessary in order to earn points, which are needed to purchase ammo and unlock and upgrade your weapons.
On a base level, Bulletstorm looks, plays, and sounds as it should, only catching up on a few serious snags along the way. The controls are responsive and easy to operate, giving the player the power to whip enemies into the air and pull off precision head shots without interference. Coming off of Killzone 3, the weapons look and feel a bit wimpy in comparison, but their inventive firing capabilities, such as a flail gun that binds enemies into makeshift suicide bombers to be kicked into others and a drill gun that can skewer a whole row of enemies into a bloody, corkscrewing shish kebab, more than make up for the generic designs.
Visually, the game looks spectacular; particularly the expansive tropical resort environments that stretch on as far as the eye can see and explode on the screen with lush, vibrant colors rarely seen in Unreal Engine 3 games. And in terms of audio, although certain sounds seem almost directly recycled from Gears of War, the gushy, crunchy gore effects give aural backbone to the over-the-top violence.
But, as mentioned, the game does have its faults, some severe, others not so much. The main problem is that the story just isn’t very good. Normally I wouldn’t bother critiquing the narrative in a game like this, but, surprisingly, the storyline is treated as a focal point, and in contrast to the outrageous gameplay the plot tries to be serious and humorous at the same time. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work.
Bulletstorm tells a wholly forgettable sci-fi story about a team of meat-head mercenaries out for revenge against a potty-mouthed general who tricked them into murdering innocent people, and, well…that’s about it. The characters are bland stereotypes with detestable personalities, and in an effort to be funny the game’s writers try way too hard to push the envelope with the most absurdly vulgar one-liners imaginable. “You smell like a sun-baked asshole.” “Robot head jerk ass.” “Lay down cover for Captain Dick-hole.” “Suck the tears off my dick you ugly mud-fuckers.” These are actual quotes from the game – and dialogue like this comes across so forced during play that instead of conjuring laughs as intended, it only makes you roll your eyes and hate the characters even more. Or that could just be me – I prefer humor that comes naturally rather than so blatantly forced.
Other issues drag the campaign down as well. As enjoyable as the skill-based gameplay can be, eventually you hit a wall where you’ve seen the vast majority of the skillshots and earned more than enough points to upgrade every gun, and after that the rest of campaign sinks into a predictable rut of clearing wave after wave of the same enemies who do little but run at you like kamikazes or hide behind cover waiting to be leashed out. Also, as huge and gorgeous as the outdoor environments may look, in terms of gameplay the level designs often limit your movement to extremely narrow corridors. You typically have one or two AI companions fighting by your side, too, and in the narrower areas they tend to get caught in the line of fire and clog up your leash pulls and slide kicks.
Because of these negative factors, the campaign is a ‘one and done’ deal – you’ll have a blast the first time through, but are unlikely to want to relive it again. But the good news is that the campaign is really just a side attraction to the two other modes, Echoes and Anarchy.
Echoes mode is strictly a score-based mode consisting of 20 maps (14 by default and 6 that only unlock by using the included ‘Online Pass’ voucher) that basically have you replaying each level from the campaign in five-minute chunks without the storyline to bog you down. Your goal is simple: complete each map as quickly and with as many points as you can, and for each level you can earn up to three stars and put your score up against others via global leaderboards. The skillshot system lends itself so well to this style of ‘top your high score’ arcade gaming, and so long after completing the campaign I’m still having a ball replaying Echoes.
Anarchy mode, on the other hand, is the game’s only multiplayer option, and although it is limited compared to other FPS multiplayer systems and doesn’t run on the most stable servers (I’ve had intermittent issues with lag and disconnects), it’s a great fit for Bulletstorm’s brand of gameplay. Anarchy is basically a spin on a Horde mode, with teams of up to four players cooperating as a unit to clear waves of enemies and move on to the next by achieving the required point total before the last enemy is killed. The further you progress, the more you have to work together to pull off team skillshots for the big points – and you also have to perform well on your own to earn personal skill points to advance in level and upgrade your gear. It is simple and straightforward, but don’t be surprised to find yourself intending to jump into a group to play for a few minutes, only to watch the hours pass by as you play “just one more wave.”
Bulletstorm really has left me feeling torn. On one hand, the skillshot gameplay is fresh and exciting, and the balls-to-the-wall arcade slant to the game is something the industry desperately needs to break up the monotony and predictability of sequels and ‘me too!’ cash-ins. But on the other hand, the dialogue and humor are completely lost on me, and the invigorating “kill with skill” concept does become old hat quicker than I would have liked.
But let me leave no doubt — Bulletstorm is one hell of a ride, and in the end gaming is supposed to be all about escaping reality and having fun. That’s what this game excels at. My recommendation is simply this: download the demo or rent the game first, and if you still feel the urge to “kill with skill” afterwards, don’t hesitate to upgrade to the full game.
+ Kill with skill gameplay rejuvenates the stale FPS genre
+ Lots of satisfying and extremely gory ways to make enemies dead
+ Unlocking new Skillshots and wracking up points becomes very addictive
+ Echoes and Anarchy modes add worthwhile replay value
+ Gorgeous environments
– Forgettable story with unlikeable characters
– Tries WAY too hard to be funny and controversial, and fails on both counts
– Skillshot gameplay doesn’t quite hold up over a full campaign
– Online performance is a bit shaky
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available for PC and Xbox 360
Developer: Epic Games / People Can Fly
Release Date: 2/22/2011
ESRB Rating: Mature
Source: Review copy provided by publisher