ectoplasma's Bulletstorm (PC) review

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On Bulletstorm

Disclaimer: This is not a traditional review, it's more of an investigation. If you comment, I'm especially interested in what you think of the prose, since I'm no native speaker. 

It might not be apparent why Bulletstorm is fun and not just another repetitive, uninspired simulator of power fantasies. Well, it's still about projecting your ego into movable objects until they explode, but it also has some great craft to it. It's a FPS with fresh weaponry, interesting movement and control options, which incorporates a system of weapon interactions onto which an incentive/reward/artificial scarcity system is layered. Its overly cliché and foul-mouthed story manages to have more depth than expected (As effect of some cleverly employed understatement). Between the story and gameplay, which feel like disparate elements in most video games, Bulletstorm features clever use of quick time events as an intermediate, which make the transitions from gameplay to cut-scene feel less disconnected.

The first thing that struck me when I started playing the game was, that the controls feel spot on and the gunplay feels exceptional. Not many shooters achieve this, Bioshock for example is a great game which fails in terms of shooter mechanisms and many games remain in mediocrity. It's hard to pinpoint how this feeling of control and empowerment is achieved, but I suppose it to be a concoction of more or less distinct elements like framerate, weapon and enemy design, controls, sound design and so forth. A good example for Bulletstorm's satisfying weapon design is the pistol. It allows you to one shot certain types of enemies and has a perfect balancing for damage, reload time and clip size. Additionally it has a unique position in your arsenal. It is the only weapon which allows you to pull off a certain type of gameplay, namely popping a couple of heads in quick succession, one shot each. Not only does it make you feel like a badass but you also rack up a shit-ton of points (More about the point system later).

The way the guns feel, is enhanced by creative weapon design as well as the movement and control options. To control crowds of enemies you employ an ass kicking Duke boot, a physically unexplained electro-leash and a Sub-Zero slide. The Duke boot puts singular enemies in some kind of bullet-time stasis, they float in the air in front of you, moving slowly, following their by kick induced trajectory. This gives you some time to either dispense of them quickly or change targets since they pose currently no threat. The leash serves a similar purpose, it just allows you to pull enemies towards you, instead of sending them away. It also has a secondary firing mode that allows you to fling groups of enemy into the air, giving you a great setup for various forms of mass destruction. The slide is a great way to traverse terrain. You move forward very fast but have some level of steering control. While you slide you can reload and even fire, which makes it the perfect move to be a badass and retreat in time when being in danger. If you hit an enemy while sliding, they get suspended in the air in a fashion similar to the boot.  Your boot, leash and slide in combination with environmental hazards form an extremely powerful basic inventory. You could roll through most of the enemies by just utilizing named setup. And going Spartan from time to time, is necessary to rack up points (You need points to buy ammo). Although, by relying solely on whip and boot, you would miss all the creative carnage the arsenal of weapons at your disposal allows you to employ. And adequately, the game forces you to mix it up, by throwing different well designed enemies types at you.

As mentioned, the movement and control options paired with the weapon design, give you access to your own little sandbox of death. It's fun to experience and play around with the different weapons, firing modes and creating combinations of them. To give your experiments some kind of purpose, People Can Fly layered a skill shot system on top of your normal gunplay. And I'm not quite sure if that is really a good thing. The system works like this: Your ammo is limited, you have to buy ammo for points which you gain for killing people, watching events etc. Especially the secondary ammo for every gun is limited and has to be bought shot by shot. The amount of points you gain for a kill is determined by the skill-shot system. There are 131 possible skill-shots, that reward you different amounts of points. For example, killing someone nets you 10 points. Booting someone and killing him afterwards, rewards you 25 points. Kicking someone in the environment for some nice impalement nets you 100 points. Sticking explosives to an enemy and exploding him and some of his friends in proximity earns you like, alot of points. You are incentivized to achieve skill shots, since you need the points to restock your ammo (You need ammo to carry out skills shots) and upgrade your weapons (which actually only boosts the amount of ammo they can hold). This also incentivizes you to use your whip, boot and the options given in the environment, since they don't cost ammo, but produce points with which you can buy ammo. I feel this system is in line with other more recent developments in gaming, like achievement points. The gaming industry likes to give you a certain (digitally) objectified representation of the things you accomplished by playing the game, to make the effort and time you spent playing the game somewhat tangible. But it also works with a typical in game reward system - it is satisfying seeing all those blue, yellow and red numbers pop up, telling you how many points you earn, when you engage successfully in some friendly mass murder. But said system also takes some of the genuine play out of the game: Combining the given options of weaponry, movement and environment to create interesting outcomes (and feel like a badass, again) is now placed into a framework of efficiency. You don't play the game anymore, you start to game the point system. It led me to regularly inform myself about newly available skill-shots and trying to carry them out, as well as coming back to certain combinations which gave an assured boost in points instead of just, you know, playing the game (You also get a little check mark for every skill-shot you accomplish). This tendency of discouraging worry-free creative play by setting everything into a system of strong constraints and game generated incentives/achievements has me worried (I will elaborate why exactly somewhere else). But even accounting for all of this, Bulletstorm remains a great, creative and fresh gameplay experience.

If the game would hinge on its gameplay alone, it might be enjoyable but an a little forgettable experience. Luckily all the other areas of presentation are executed competently as well. The story is written by Rick Remender, a comic book author, who, to my great enjoyment, understands his trade and the effects of sincerity in video games. While the whole dialogue and its verbal expressions are totally over the top, beneath its painfully cool exterior you can find a system of meaningful human interactions. If you listen to some lines of dialogue, at first and especially out of context (demo, presentation), you will most likely be offended by its juvenile sense of humor. But the strange creations of foul-mouthed language (that's right dick-tits) is carried out with such great consequence and confidence (and self awareness), that it creates a system that once you allow yourself to step into it, makes sense after all. The language also serves a second purpose: Since the way the characters choose to react to situations is so over the top and alienating, the world, its events and sheer craziness become more relatable (A state only gains meaning in relation to another state). It even manages to pull off some genuine humor, even a slapstick scene that is executed perfectly can be found in the middle of this adrenaline romp (Which made me feel like in a lynch movie for a second).

That said, while the game tries to appeal to your inner 12 year old (with all the dick talk), it is neither misogynic nor homophobic. There are no derogatives for gay people found in the utterances the manly men throw at each other, nor are women depicted as weak or objects for men. One of the leads is a female soldier and she's just as badass as everyone else. Although the soldiers use to tease each other through ascriptions of femininity, I feel all is placed in appropriate relations: Idiot soldiers, speaking with idiot tongues, killing space mutants on a crazy planet use effeminization as derogative, while they get beat up and threatened by a female soldier who is just as mentally strong and skilled as they are.

In general, the campaign is very well paced, the activities are varied and the game features some great vistas and different locales whose vibrant coloring show a proud middle finger to the grayish-depressive shooter games we usually all so love to enjoy. And all of this is why the game is great. While it looks like more of the same on a first look, it turns out like more of the same but different. Bulletstorm is a fresh twist on a tried gameplay and definitely worth experiencing.

Most memorable moment: When the bickering between the characters suddenly turns to a dialogue with real emotional and moral implications.

Who should play it: People who think Machete is a great movie.

My Rating: 7.5 flexed biceps out of 8.

4 Comments Refresh
Posted by Lilyvalley

I've been on the fence about this game for a long time. I'm not sure you convinced me to buy it because it's a good game, but more likely because I want to see what I make of it myself. I liked the way you went about writing about this game and I could only think of two things to watch out for.  You, for example, wrote "[...] since they pose currently no threat." but I feel it should have been "[...] since they currently pose no threat." Other than a few sentences where the words were a bit jumbled, the only thing I can think of that you could improve is the length of the paragraphs. I had a hard time reading the biggest one because my eyes got tired from looking at a wall of text, but that might just be the website design playing tricks on me. Otherwise, well done!

Posted by ectoplasma

Thanks for your comment. Maybe as a clarification, I'm trained as a theoretical Sociologist, so there are two hurdles for me: Writing in good English as well as writing for a non-academic audience (Which might be another reason why my sentences look jumbled). If I continue writing, my articles will be targeted at a specific subset of gamers, but I decided to post it here to see how a more broader audience will react to them. So feel free to just tell me, that it all sucks, it's all helpful (Since I have to know what kind people might like reading what I have to say). Also pointing out specific language errors is helpful, since it's really hard to master a second language; nontheless I would much rather write about video games in English because of the bigger audience.

Posted by Lilyvalley

English is a second language for me, too, so I might be wrong. What I commented on was just what first hit me when I read it. Keep it up!

Posted by floodiastus

The game is great, I don't think people understand the irony and sarcasm in this game. Is it not obvious that all the dick-talk is the way we as a civilization is evolving right now, especially in America which is the Number 1 country in the world to celebrate retardedness instead of intelligence :) 
The best graphics I have ever witnessed on PC and tighter controls than ever. This game is pretty damn fantastic.

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