To paraphrase Hot Shots: Part Deux, first person shooters are usually about killing things until they die from it. Doom? Kill stuff. Call of Duty? Shoot dudes in the face. Left 4 Dead? Work together to kill zombies. Semi-relevant objectives give context and bombastic weaponry provides variation, but in the end you’re always John Matrix in the last twenty minutes of Commando. Bulletstorm, the second game from Polish developer People Can Fly (working with Epic Games), has about as much interest in straightforward killing as Burnout does in clean racing. In both cases, it’s about the ridiculous and incredible actions one can perform on the way to the finish line.
Bulletstorm stamps its signature with three wildly impressive tools. An energy leash functions as an insta-lasso that not only ropes in an enemy, but also inexplicably (and awesomely) causes that enemy to float in front of the player for a few brief moments. This can lead to a procession of insanity in part supported by Bulletstorm’s melee tandem, the kick and the slide. The kick serves as a means to juggle or push the enemy, while the slide borrows Mirror’s Edge functional prowess and combines it with Vanquish’s badass finesse. It’s an odd combination, but ultimately the best of both worlds and serves as one of Bulletstorm’s more arresting features.
Of course, a bunch of weapons come into play. Standard measures arrive in the form of a pistol (Screamer), assault rifle (Peacemaker Carbine), sniper rifle (Head Hunter), and Shotgun (Boneduster) – but they’re all augmented with a secondary fire, dubbed Charge Shot, that serves a myriad of crazy purposes. For example, your Boneduster can blast off a shockwave and vaporize the skin off an enemy while the Screamer launches a firework and takes a guy along for the ride. More unique weapons include the Thumper, an energy-leash modification that creates a thumping AOE attack, and the Penetrator, which, naturally, launches a drill into an enemy and impales him onto a wall. Simultaneously offering old favorites with news spins, Bulletstorm’s loadout is a good mix of old and new.
One could theoretically play through Bulletstorm like a normal shooter, but why would you want to do that? Bulletstorm’s most visible feature and alluring hook are Skillshots. Skillshots, quite frankly, are one of the most exciting and original additions to the first person shooter genre. They take what was always an end and provide a tangible means. Simultaneously rewarding both style and precision, completing a Skillshot on an enemy grants points which can then be spent of ammo and weapon upgrades. With over a hundred different Skillshots available in varying degrees of difficulty, there’s plenty of incentive to figure out dozens of different ways to murder everyone on the planet. Better yet, Bulletstorm’s environments always provide an opportunity to augment the experience; hallucinogenic spores, man-eating plants, razorblade fish, and countless walls that seem to either be on fire or electrified are always at your service.
Skillshots aren’t limited to mere headshots and slide kicks. Fast Food is won by ramming an enemy with a hot dog kart while Fire in the Hole is earned by killing a miniboss by shooting him directly in the ass. While some are possible anytime, most are tied to specific weapons. Meat Fountain warrants killing two airborne enemies with one Bouncer cannon ball and Piledriver is gained by leashing an enemy and blasting him into a wall with the Boneduster. Best of all, Skillshots can stack. So if I get drunk off a bottle of Nom juice, set a few guys on fire, use a Thumper, and then start blasting enemies into cacti, I could potentially earn Intoxicated, Afterburner, Pricked, Gag Reflex, and Pump Action all at the same time. Is it gratifying? You bet.
Watching the screen light up with Skillshots made Bulletstorm feel like racking up a bunch of points in an arcade game. I despised Modern Warfare 2 for its relentless assault of text-based positive reinforcement, but in Bulletstorm every time I earned a Skillshot I felt like I had done something cool. The difference is profound; allowing the player to improvise upon a combat environment grants a sense of perceived freedom and, once skilled enough, talent to control the carnage. People Can Fly were aware of this and, with the exception of some areas in the final chapter, designed every environment with Skillshot potential in mind. “Murder playground” isn’t the most politically correct way to describe it, but it’s the best way to express Bulletstorm’s ode to inventive homicide.
Bulletstorm’s story is an interesting beast. Grayson Hunt is having a pretty terrible day. He got drunk, crashed his spaceship through his ex-commander’s Serrano’s ship in a drunken revenge plot, but both ships wound up crash landing on the same planet. If that wasn’t bad enough, soon after the crash Gray was responsible for his whole crew dying, save one guy, Ishi. Ishi, unfortunately, had to become a cyborg in order to survive and, as a result, Gray is witness to and victim of the constant war between Ishi’s humanity and cybernetic inclinations. Furthermore, his ex-commander survived the crash as well, and the distance between Gray and Serrano is littered with bloodthirsty freaks in an otherwise tropical paradise.
Ishi’s story is interesting, but I was left at a loss for his practical necessity. He’s objectively there so Gray has someone to talk to, but he doesn’t actually do anything. With his need to recharge, I wanted a co-op action hero like Jason Statham in Crank 2, but what I got was a guy who I observed firing at people while never actually killed anyone. He couldn’t be killed in combat, either, so that was nice, but it was one of the few aspects of Bulletstorm that came off half baked. It’s not super important, the more bodies for Gray to unleash nine flavors of hell, the better, but Ishi’s inclusion and the lack of true co-op was a puzzling addition.
Sandwiched somewhere between a random profanity generator and the mind of a fifteen year old, Gray and Ishi’s banter boldly goes were few games have gone before. “Here comes butterdick jones and his heavenly asshole machine,” “you just scared the dick off me!” and other select bits I probably shouldn’t reproduce emphasize Bulletstorm’s constant dedication to be as ridiculously foul-mouthed as possible at every single instance. It’s sort of hard to know whether or not Bulletstorm is mocking “bro culture” or embracing it, but either point of view is amusing.
I secretly enjoy being a snob about narrative and writing in videogames, but honestly I found Bulletstorm’s constant middle finger to political correctness quite hilarious. Gears of War 2 tried a similar approach, but for every giant worm meat circus there was a woefully melodramatic bit about Dom and his wife. It was a manic affair never quite sure of which direction to lean, but Bulletstorm is highly confident that it’s a ridiculous videogame and not aspiring to be high art. With crazy killing comes crazy profanity, apparently, and Bulletstorm is better for it. Gray’s means of redemption aspires for a few moments of dramatic tension, but the scale is always tipped in favor of disco brawls, getting drunk, and finding a remote control dinosaur that shoots lasers out of its eyes.
Substitute Alderaan for Stygia and you can get a pretty good idea of the setting. When it’s not busy lining up inventive means of homicide, the vistas traveled by Gray and company are actually quite impressive. Unreal Engine 3, while still saddled with pop-in issues, gives unexpected presence to a tropic paradise. Beachfront coasts are beautiful and bleed pastel shades of blue and purple while exotic waterfalls and abandoned mega cities fill out the background. It’s sort of crazy to say this in a game like Bulletstorm, but I frequently found myself stopping just to have a look around. With shooters we’ve come to expect an endless line of desaturated, war-torn cities and boring spaceships, and, while Bulletstorm sometimes strays into sewers and caves, it’s usually the exception and not the rule. Of course, all of that is juxtaposed with saw blades the size of buildings and the worst profanity imaginable, but that’s Bulletstorm.
The campaign’s distinct lack of filler nets eight or so hours of play time, but unless you want to replay the whole thing (chapter select is available with different difficulty, but stunted by some restrictive weapon issues) you’ll likely head over to Echoes. Echoes breaks off bite sized portions of the campaign and reorganizes them into time-based levels with high scores as a goal. If the campaign was about discovery and improvisation, Echoes is about memorization and efficiency. In this regard it almost becomes a ballet; perfectly rehearsed by the player while appearing jazzy to the casual viewer, but it’s not quite as fun as it should be. Twenty levels require the player to earn one to three stars, though I suspect the meat of this mode will be in the online leader boards. It’s puzzling to see Echoes separated, rather than integrated, into the campaign and a few newer sections would have been nice, but it’s perfectly functional for what it is.
A multiplayer component arrives in the form of Anarchy. It follows the Horde mode rulebook of throwing waves upon waves on enemies at four players and forcing them to maintain survival, only with specific attention paid toward Bulletstorm’s most attractive asset, Skillshots. It’s not enough to merely survive, but also to rack up enough Skillshot points to progress to the next wave. All of the Skillshots from the campaign carry over with a bunch of new Team Skillshots that encourage players to work together for bigger point hauls. In theory this sounds great, but so do most online experiences before the public gets their grubby hands on them. If you’re playing with people you know, then it’s probably a blast, but if you’re playing with randoms (as I did) and they don’t like talking or doing anything that makes sense then you’re in for a long day. Your mileage may vary, but the circumstances under which I played weren’t very flattering.