oni's Bulletstorm (PC) review

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Kill with skill

 

Bulletstorm is to modern military first-person shooters what Red Alert is to World War II-strategy games. It feels as much like a parody of the super serious, military-jargon spouting games that rule the genre these days as it feels like a throwback to a time when 'fragging' was accepted parlance. It's ridiculous in almost every way, but with a wink and a knowing nod. It has a certain charm almost entirely missing from today's self-serious shooters, which is most welcome.
 

Kill with skill, agent!

The core tenet of Bulletstorm's gameplay is 'kill with skill'. The game scores you on every enemy you kill, and the more creatively you compose your symphony of death, the more points flash on the screen and the more the pleasure centers of your brain respond in kind. Just getting an old-fashioned headshot is nice, but it's worth a measly 25 points. Kicking a guy with your boot, suspending him slow-motion in mid-air, using the four-barreled shotgun (the fantastically named Boneduster) to blast him into electrified cabling, thus frying him to death, is worth considerably more. Paying attention to your surroundings is key to getting the most points, and thus the most fun, out of Bulletstorm.

As such, the game challenges you to make it more fun for yourself. At a certain point I found myself with a surplus of skill points, more than I could ever spend at the drop pods that let you buy ammo and upgrade your weapons, but it's simply so much more fun to use the environment and your unique skills to set up elaborate chain combos of destruction. Between the futuristic space-leash, which lets you lasso enemies to you, the mighty boot and the game's outlandish arsenal of weapons and environmental hazards, you'll keep discovering new ways to knock off the opposition throughout the game.
 

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The variety in gameplay options keeps the game interesting, along with the beautiful vistas of the alien planet Bulletstorm takes place on. As Grayson Hunt, you've crash-landed on this planet in an attempt to bring down the flagship of the cartoonishly evil General Serrano. Hunt and his squad, Dead Echo, used to work for Serrano, but after they found out they were being manipulated by the good general they decided to go rogue and bring him to justice. The beats of the story are entirely cliché and the game embraces this wholeheartedly. Hunt is a brash leader whose solution to most problems involves blowing stuff up while swearing a lot; Ishi is a cold man driven only by logic and the circuits wired into his brain; Trish is the bad-ass chick that doesn't take any shit. If you've seen some of the (god-awful) ads for this game, you know what to expect: ridiculous dialogue and made-up swear words. The pleasant surprise is that it's not half as grating as those ads suggest, and is actually legitimately funny in spots. What little story there is works, and can be strangely involving, because it never attempts to make you believe these are real people rather than caricatures.

People Can Fly, the developer of Bulletstorm, has made excellent use of the Unreal Engine, no doubt in part because they are owned by Epic Games. Unlike most UE games, Bulletstorm has a bright and vibrant color palette which it puts to great use in the game's stunning backdrops. Bulletstorm's world has a lot of elements from our own, but feels just alien enough to make it stand out. The character models display the engine's signature chunkyness, but the vistas are truly sights to behold. The game looks simply stunning, especially on a high-end PC. On medium settings it's still no slouch and will hold its own against the console versions. It's the first game to come along that really makes me wish I had a better PC.
 

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Bulletstorm's campaign is punctuated by rapidly changing scenery, big environmental set-pieces and the occasional boss battle. There are very few lulls in the action, save for the game's somewhat slow start. The pacing is incredibly tight and no section outstays its welcome. The only downside is that it's a bit short - it can easily be finished in around six hours, which seems to be the de facto norm for shooters these days.

Rounding out the package is a high-score based challenge mode called Echoes, which sees you playing through chunks of the campaign as quickly and stylishly as possible to gain a high score on the leaderboards and a ranking between one and three stars. The skillshots-system really comes into its own here, as the first skillshot of each type you make will earn you bonus points in every round, so it behooves you to switch it up as much as possible.

While there is no competitive multiplayer mode, there is a wave-based cooperative mode, Anarchy. Up to four players are dumped in a small arena with a set number of enemies per wave, and in order to move on, a score threshold needs to be passed by the team. This mode encourages teamwork and communication above all else, as the goals quickly become too high to accomplish by simply running around and doing whatever you please. As such, it is best played with friends. The network code seems ill-equipped to handle the frantic action with a tiny bit of lag, causing leashed or kicked objects to stutter around all over the place.
 

Conclusion

Bulletstorm is a shotgun blast of fresh air to the face in today's landscape of self-serious first-person shooters. The beautifully imaginative and colorful backdrops provide a welcome change from war-torn countries ripped from the headlines. The pacing of the campaign and the variety of ways to kill keep it fun until the end, which came sooner than I would have liked. This, along with the limited multiplayer, is the only real strike against the game, which I otherwise heartily reccommend to anyone who doesn't mind a few dick-tits.

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