In Space No One Can Hear Your Infantile Jokes
Bulletstorm is a game that has been released just in time to head up an emerging trend of playful, consciously stupid shooters. It’s a game that delights in the absurd, intentionally fuels an inevitable media backlash and anticipates general accusations of poor taste by gleefully embracing a 12-year-old boy’s sense of humour and implementing it into its very foundation.
Fortunately, despite all of the trappings that surround it, Bulletstorm is good.
Much has been made of the title’s “trick-shooting” mechanic and it turns out that the hype, for once, lives up to itself. Bulletstorm was advertised as something different for the FPS and it actually is. This is because of a simple set of mechanics that serve to encourage endless abstractions of the genre’s typical “get from A to B” objective set. Instead of pushing players through linear shooting galleries, Bulletstorm asks us to spend time experimenting within each level, trying to pull off the most ludicrously violent acts possible.
Points are awarded for successfully completing these actions, and the combination of rewarding deviant activity and naming these acts with bad puns (kill an enemy using level hazards and “Enviro-Mental” pops up on screen or take a goon down with a shot to the posterior and “Rear Entry” skill points are awarded) works well. The system is also instrumental to the game and, rather than exist as a feature point for the back of the box, “Skillshots” are made into the primary mechanic for advancement.
Bulletstorm points players in the right direction by offering up a menu that shows exactly which actions will earn the most points and builds in incentives for inventive playing by rewarding variety. It puts an achievements/trophies list into the game’s foundation and taps into that same narcotic sense of delight that accomplishing these (usually arbitrary) goals brings.
The skill system is fleshed out further through upgrades (Dropkit sites) wherein accumulated points can be cashed in for wilder weaponry to accompany the game’s built-in sliding, electric whipping and kicking abilities. Upgrades work in service to the skill point mechanic so that, by the game’s end, the combination of endless action-based rewards and strange guns has turned every battle into a frenetic, frothy-mouthed encounter. The whole thing has a very nice, very arcade-y feel to it that acts as a great throwback to the kind of FPS play that predominated before the titles like the Call of Duty series sparked a genre-sweeping focus on realism.
It has, in many ways, a touch of the excitement that Grand Theft Auto 3 brought to gamers back when it was first released in 2001 (“I can actually do that? And the game was designed for it?”). It also carries direct overtones of its two developers’ legacy. Shades of People Can Fly’s Painkiller and Epic Games’ Gears of War are ever present in Bulletstorm. It knows it’s silly, it doesn’t care to hide it and gameplay is designed with skillful, yet frantic, combat firmly in mind.
Fortified with Extra Pulp
Bulletstorm could have gotten away without much in the way of story but it provides a surprisingly good, pulpy tale that helps provide a sense of drive and purpose to the game. The single-player campaign is driven through a comic book revenge plot wherein you, as Grayson Hunt, seek revenge on a former employer by chasing him across the ruins of a desecrated “resort planet.”
It’s beautiful to look at as well. While main character models are somewhat underwhelming, enemy and level design is gorgeous and, best of all, brimming with a full colour palette that underscores the fact that Bulletstorm is meant to be a departure from the industrial greys and battlefield browns of many current-gen shooters. The aesthetic is mixed between lush jungles, dark caverns and war-torn cities that resemble a bombed-out Caribbean retreat.
The locations never become stagnant because Bulletstorm constantly changes set-pieces from level to level, providing new visual thrills and the opportunity to fight enemies in a number of inventive ways. An early contender for my videogame moment of the year is a particularly inspired segment, early in the game, in which you remote-control a half-robot/half-Tyrannosaurus in the ultimate culmination of insipid boyhood fantasies. The usual case of “FPS-fatigue” is handily avoided here. Bulletstorm never stops throwing new and interesting scenarios at the player, maintaining a sublime pace and great momentum.
Because of this commitment to variety — and the nature of the malleable gameplay mechanics themselves — replayability and overall value is incredibly high. Bulletstorm features a standard, single-player campaign (that takes roughly 8-10 hours to complete on average difficulty), an arcade mode (the score-centred Echoes feature) and an entertaining multiplayer component.
The only aspect of the game that feels lacking is the puzzling exclusion of a co-op mode. Bulletstorm practically screams for it with its single-player AI companions that interrupt more than assist and a set of online and offline play modes that seem custom-fit for local (or, at least, online) two-player. Echoes mode could have provided the same entertainment of Modern Warfare 2’s Special Ops or Resistance’s local multiplayer — but with the added benefit of intentional jokes for fodder. Although it doesn’t seem fair to knock a game for what it didn’t choose to do, it is frustrating just the same.
Multiplayer itself will also stand as a point of contention for many. Online play is confined entirely to matches that place you and up to three others against increasing waves of enemies and, at least as of yet, no other modes exist. The reasons for this are pretty clear — maintaining the single-player campaign’s Skillshot mechanic in a group setting — but the lack of even a few other cooperatively-based objectives is unfortunate. Other titles have proven that non-deathmatch styles of multiplayer can be exciting (such as Left 4 Dead and Uncharted 2) and, by failing to provide them, the game has essentially guaranteed that no lasting community of players will develop around its online component.
In spite of these problems — all sins of omission, really — Bulletstorm is still very easy to recommend. The game itself, once you look past its over-the-top trappings, is a mechanically interesting title that accomplishes a lot by digging back into what has made so many past FPSs fun and then amplifying these traits so that they translate to contemporary sensibilities.
Bulletstorm feels like a breath of fresh air in a genre that often forgets that too much of a focus on intense simulation can turn games stagnant. The game brings a welcome change of pace, packed with content, polished to a mirror sheen and bursting with an undeniable sense of joy, even in its most twisted moments.
Despite its rough exterior, Bulletstorm is clearly a labour of love, a heart-studded letter to a different kind of shooter and an invitation for players to fall head over heels for something that, for all intents and purposes, is really kind of gross.