unclethursday's Bulletstorm (Xbox 360) review

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A return to roots, with a twist

Epic Games and their Polish subsidiary, People Can Fly, have decided to bring the first person shooter genre back to its roots-- with over the top action, insane killing and mayhem with powerful weapons and a new twist on the genre.

Bulletstorm is a return to old school FPS games. Big guns, big explosions and big buckets of blood are intrenched in Bulletstorm's design. In fact, it's so old school, there's no jump button.  But, Bullestorm also adds new mechanics with its skill shot premise. To facilitate the skill shot premise, players are given a leash that can drag enemies towards them and suspend said enemies in a time displacement field. The story eventually tells you that the leash is a semi-sentient AI that keeps track of how creative users are in killing foes. The more creative the kill, the more points are awarded. These points can then be spent at drop pods scattered throughout the game to buy ammo and charge shots for weapons or to upgrade the leash. As is said in the game, "the good soldiers resupplied, the bad ones didn't".

Skill shots aren't just awarded for a player's shooting ability, thought. In fact, some of the best skill shots in Bulletstorm revolve around using the environment. See a cactus? Then an enemy can be impaled upon it for the "Pricked" skill shot. Metal rebar? The Voodoo Doll skill shot.  Being creative with each weapon and the environment is the key to scoring massive points. Players are also awarded when they follow on screen prompts, as well.

This leads to a fun and frantic desire to pull off as many of the 131 skill shots in the single player game as possible. Using the leash and Grayson's boot can lead to an effect akin to organized chaos, with players looking for the most brutal way to dispatch their foes. The skill shot mechanic can lead to a bit of replay-ability, as well, as certain environmental skill shots are only available in certain areas.

This is especially played out in the Echoes mode, arcade-style romps through sections of the campaign levels where the goal is to score as many points as possible. This mode also has online leader boards, allowing for friendly competition between friends to see who can score more overall or on an individual level.

The story is actually a bit too serious for the over the top nature of Bulletstorm, with Grayson Hunt being a flawed, yet likable anti-hero out for revenge against a former commanding officer. Grayson and his crew learn on their final mission that the general sending them on these missions is merely sending them to kill political rivals or those who could expose his nefarious deeds. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that for all his bravado and love of killing things, Grayson is really just trying to atone for his past sins. It's not that the story is bad, but it doesn't exactly fit with the rest of Bulletstorm's over the top and in your face premise.

Bulletstorm also has online multiplayer in the form of the 4 player cooperative Anarchy mode. This mode is set on a specific map for each round, with 20 waves of enemies. Each wave has a required point total to achieve to move on, along with unique environmental skill shots on each map. The twist is that players can work together to earn team skill shots, which not only award more points, but also are a requirement every now and then on certain enemies as team challenges. This mode does not favor lone wolf players or players who get mad if someone "steals their kill"-- because team skill shots become very necessary in the later waves. For best results, get some friends together and work as a team.

There is no competitive multiplayer, but I would assume with all the time displacement abilities, it would be fairly hard to balance.

Unfortunately, there is also no co-op mode for the campaign. Bulletstorm screams for online co-op, especially since there is always at least one AI sidekick with Grayson at all times. The mayhem and different team skill shots would make the campaign infinitely more replay-able with online co-op. Why Epic and People Can Fly didn't do this is beyond me.

I suppose as a little thumb nosing to people who say the Unreal Engine 3 can only go shades of gray, Bulletstorm is actually a very colorful game. The lush environments are a bright contrast to the buckets of blood that will flow and everything looks great. There can be some stuttering in the cut scenes and texture pop in is noticeable in cut scenes as well, but on the whole the game looks fantastic.

The sound is equally impressive. The voice acting is well done, even if the dialogue sounds like something a 12 year old boy would write at times, with its constant references to male genitalia and overuse of the F word. Some of the dialogue is genuinely funny, but other times it seems like the writers put a genital joke or reference just to hear it being said.  So, if you don't like profanity, keep the volume down if you play the game. All the other sound effects, though, feel spot on. Weapons feel powerful with every shot, the splatter of blood and cracking of bones; it all sounds great.

The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions are pretty much identical, but I would lean towards the 360 version. First, because I think the PS3 controller is no good for shooters and the basic control scheme feels wrong on the Dual Shock 3; and secondly the first printing of the 360 version also comes with the ability to join the Gears of War 3 beta later this year. While this might feel like a way to get the game to sell fearing it can't survive on its own merits, like many people thought with Crackdown and the Halo 3 beta; Bulletstorm, like Crackdown before it is actually also a worthwhile game.

Sure, it has some faults, like a story too serious for the rest of the game-- with an ending that just sets itself up for a sequel with no sense of closure; context sensitive jump over areas that seem too focused on one specific piece of the geometry; losing enemies when they move to your side at close range; a lack of online co-op and potentially a lack of lasting appeal; but in the end, Bulletstorm stands on its own two feet.

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