More Than Just Another FPS
Judging on first impressions, you could be forgiven for thinking that Bulletstorm is a largely unremarkable shooter, with a couple of unconventional mechanics thrown in for novelty’s sake; The humour is immature, the characters appear generic, and it takes about an hour before the game lets up on it’s plot dumping and simplified gameplay to actually introduce the key mechanics which really make things interesting. However, once you get beyond Bulletstorm’s potentially cringeworthy dialogue and weak opening, you discover a genuinely exciting and enjoyable first-person shooter.
In Bulletstorm you play as Grayson “Gray” Hunt, leader of Dead Echo, a squad of space-faring bounty hunters under the command of foul-mouthed military man General Sarrano. After one particular mission they stumble across some files which reveal that contrary to what Sarrano had told them, the people they’ve been hunting down are not criminals or dangerous individuals, but in fact complete innocents. After a partially successful attack on Sarrano’s ship, all of Dead Echo is wiped out, save for Gray and a now half-robot version of his fellow squad member Ishi Sato, and they become stranded on a planet populated by mutants and madmen. It then falls on Gray and his bio-augmented companion to set out to find a way off-world and get revenge on Sarrano.
The real hook of Bulletstorm is that it’s not just about making your way through the levels systematically trying to headshot or gun down every enemy in your path, instead the game adds a few original systems to the mix which ensure that Bulletstorm is much more exhilarating than your bog-standard FPS. The game gives you the unique ability during battles to deploy a leash which allows you to pull enemies towards you, or give your enemies a prompt kick to send them hurtling away from you, both of these causing them to fly through the air in dramatic slow motion. Utilising these mechanics to yank helpless enemies out of cover or send shocked enemies gliding across the battlefield is wonderfully empowering and is a big part of what makes Bulletstorm the game it is.
The combat is also greatly improved by the game’s “skillshots”, various different creative ways to dispatch your enemies which will net you points when used. They range from killing enemies after you’ve kicked them into the air, to blowing up explosive barrels near them, to kicking them into helicopter blades, and the game has a huge number of these moves for you to execute. Generally, the more imaginatively and spectacularly you can dispose of an enemy, the more points you’ll earn. It’s a great incentive to encourage you to find flashy and varied ways to dispatch bad guys, levels are well-built to give you plenty of opportunities to utilise them, and racking up a bunch of points after pulling off a particularly rewarding skillshot is always fun. However, it would feel more fulfilling if it felt like acquiring points actually led to some kind of greater goal. They don’t contribute to any kind of final score for the level you’re playing and most of the time they aren’t even used to confer any particularly noteworthy upgrades to your character.
The points are used when you find one of the various “dropkits” scattered throughout the game. There you can sink your earnings into the somewhat mundane causes of obtaining more ammo and expanding your ammo capacity for each weapon. Now and then you will also get the chance to unlock the “charge shots” for your weapon (very powerful single shots of which you only have a limited amount), or unlock a new weapon entirely, but I can’t help thinking that with the points system being possibly the greatest draw of the game, it should have fuelled something bigger. The problem is also somewhat exacerbated by the fact that it's not too hard to end up with an excess of points and have nothing to spend them on at all.
None the less, the unique features of Bulletstorm are a joy to play with, and it manages to just be a pretty damn good FPS at it’s core. Combat stays intense, with enemies trying to engage you at both long-range and in close quarters, levels are backed by an energetic soundtrack largely consisting of grand orchestral pieces and grungy metal music, and the game equips you with an arsenal of weapons which overall feel satisfying to wield. Some of my personal favourites are the default assault rifle which pleasingly chews through crowds of enemies, the shotgun which sends them haplessly flying backwards, and the sniper rifle which has you guide the bullets you fire from it into enemies using the right stick.
When it comes to aesthetics, Bulletstorm is also surprisingly picturesque in appearance. While the protagonists may look like personifications of the term “Grim and gritty”, and the game is filled with plenty of ruined buildings and gory combat, the world is often bright and colourful, and not afraid of showing off some wonderful vistas and beautiful landscapes. It’s a shining example of the fact that your game being packed with gruff military types and buckets of blood doesn’t mean that your environments have to be low contrast and devoid of colour. Unfortunately, the trappings of this game aren’t all sunlit horizons and exciting orchestral music.
One of the defining components of Bulletstorm is it’s characters, and they have no qualms about spouting off plenty of dialogue whenever the opportunity arises. The cast of the game are probably best thought of as a caricatured version of Gears of War’s delta squad; The humour displayed by most of them often involves simply slamming different curse words together or taking simple sarcastic jabs at each other, while much of the dialogue from your bio-augmented buddy Ishi goes in the other direction and is hyper-serious for the sake of being hyper-serious.
All of this is rather tongue-in-cheek, and overall Bulletstorm can be seen as a humorous parody of games which try to be as gritty and macho as possible to appeal to the 18-35 male consumer base, but it’s sometimes hard to tell exactly how much of a nod and a wink the game is trying to deliver its lines with. What’s more, joke or no joke, after hearing voice clip after voice clip about “Dicktits”, “Assmaggots”, people having the dick scared off of them, etc. or listening to another conversation in which the characters are unable to communicate in anything but blunt anger or sarcasm so thick you could cut it with a knife, it all becomes rather boring. That’s not to say that there aren’t some laughs to be had at the ridiculous dialogue of Bulletstorm, or that there aren’t some genuinely enjoyable interactions between the characters, but too often the humour is abrasive, and too often characters won’t communicate with each other in any interesting way.
Outside of the main story mode Bulletstorm includes two other modes; Echoes Mode and Anarchy Mode. The former consists of small snippets of the campaign you can play back through with a score awarded to you for your performance upon completion. It’s fun to see the game introduce the scoring system it feels like the campaign mode really needed, and the basic gameplay still holds up, but these sections just don’t feel quite the same outside of the main story, and they’re only so impressive when you’ve seen them all before. Meanwhile, Anarchy Mode, is an online mode to similar to Gears of War’s “Horde Mode”, in which groups of players must team up to take down increasingly numerous and ferocious waves of oncoming enemies.
Sadly, it just doesn’t feel like Bulletstorm’s gameplay maps well into a multiplayer setting. The instinct when playing Bulletstorm is just to go nuts and rip apart everything in sight, but doing so in a game with other players can easily lead to lots of “kill stealing” and one or two players hogging all the enemies, while others are left to pick off the dregs of the alien hordes. Effective and fair completion of the Anarchy Mode levels, especially if players are to complete the unique “team skillshots”, seems to require patience and a degree of self-restraint it just doesn’t feel like the core game mechanics were built to accommodate.
Overall, it doesn’t feel like the points system in Bulletstorm is everything it could be, the modes outside of the main campaign leave something to be desired, and the dialogue can get old fast, but at it’s core Bulletstorm’s unique mechanics and well-crafted combat make for hours of pure, simple, chaotic fun. If you just want a game where you can sit back, relax and kick, leash, and gun your way across a planet of grisly bad guys it’s hard not to recommend Bulletstorm.