In some weird alternate universe, John Romero is still a part of id Software and every first-person shooter out there is filled with new iterations on the old "riding the rocket" or "sucking it down" death messages found in the original Quake. Games went in a different direction in that universe, eschewing the petty grasps at realism found here in our dimension in favor of seeking out new--but still totally juvenile--ways to tell someone that they suck. On top of that, they're all finding bigger ways to blow things up and new ways to have guns rip polygonal bodies apart, often while making as many "edgy" references to Satan as they possibly can. In that universe, Bulletstorm gets two stars for being too colorful, wholly repetitive, and a shameless bite of the ideas found in the Grudgehumper series, namely Grudgehumper VI: The Devil's Warehouse. Back here in the real world, however, Bulletstorm is a refreshing shooter that challenges you to do more than just hide behind a burning car and shoot soldiers in the face.
Bulletstorm is the next game from People Can Fly, the people that brought you a gun that shoots both exploding ninja stars and lightning, which should give you a pretty good idea about where their head is at. That gun comes from Painkiller, and you can see some of the studio's past in portions of Bulletstorm. But there's also a distinctly "Hollywood blockbuster" edge to everything, courtesy of Epic Games, which bought the Polish developer back in 2007. In some ways, this game feels like a reaction to Gears of War, which some folks like to slag off as being too gray, too self-serious, and too repetitive. By comparison, Bulletstorm contains a bright, colorful world with a great amount of variety. It's hardly serious, and the way the points system is implemented all but begs you to switch things up as often as possible, which prevents the game from feeling like a one-note affair. Not every aspect of the game hits every single time out, but it's more than solid enough to stand out as something fresh and exciting.
You might not get any of that feeling from the game's opening hour, though, as Bulletstorm starts quite slowly. As Grayson Hunt, leader of an ex-military hit squad that wants revenge against the maniacal general that sent Hunt's team out to kill innocent people, you'll start out with an assault rifle and not much else. The tutorial sequence eventually introduces you to your melee abilities, which include a Sub-Zero-like slide and Duke Nukem big boot, both of which will knock an enemy into the air and slow them down, giving you the opportunity to gun them down while they're floating away. You'll also get an energy leash that can be used to pull enemies in, setting them up for a kick or more gunfire. The leash and your foot are also the main ways you interact with the environment, mainly by leashing things down to fill gaps or kicking objects that are blocking your path.
Before too long, you're introduced to the game's skillshot system, and this is where the game starts to come together. By killing enemies in specific ways, you'll earn points that can be spent on weapon upgrades and ammo. Some of these are as simple as shooting a guy in the head. Others require more setup, like using the leash's secondary ability to thump a group of enemies up into the air, shooting some other enemies that are still on the ground, and looking up to shoot the still-suspended bad guys afterwards. Or shooting a guy in his crotch, then running up and kicking him after he drops to his knees in agony. Or killing two guys with one bullet. The list goes on and on, so much so that the game gives you a separate menu for all of the skillshots so you can see how many of the 131 different tasks you've completed. The tasks are broken up by weapon, giving you new things to try each time you acquire one of the game's seven guns. This is the thing about Bulletstorm that requires you to play it differently than the average shooter... or at least you'll want to play it that way, because playing it like a standard shooter makes it a pretty boring game. If you're the sort of guy that likes to hoard ammo in case there's a big boss fight around the corner, you'll need to get past that and get into the idea of shooting off as much of your stuff as often as possible, because that's the way to keep the higher-scoring kills coming in. This, in turn, lets you get additional abilities and ammo for your guns, which gives you new skillshots to try, and so on.
Of course, all of this would be for nothing if the guns themselves weren't any good. Thankfully, weird future guns with multiple firing modes just happens to be People Can Fly's specialty, and the game delivers with things like the Flail Gun, which shoots out two grenades strapped together with a chain. You can take heads off with the chain itself, or wrap the grenades around enemies or other objects to set up some fun explosions. So, for example, you can wrap a flail around a garbage can, kick it at a group of enemies, and then manually trigger the explosion to take them all out. If you want, you can even wrap up one of your AI-controlled partners and hit the explosion when they're getting swarmed. Then there's the Boneduster, a four-barreled shotgun that will blast enemies in half if you hit them up close. Or the Penetrator, which fires a large, spinning drill bit that carries enemies away when you hit them, nailing them to the wall where the drill spins them around for few seconds. The weapons all also have secondary fire modes, giving you another layer of things to play with, though the secondary fires require their own ammo, rather than draining from your pool of primary ammo. In some cases, this will make you want to make sure those shots count, since they aren't as easy to come by.
The play in Bulletstorm is fast, even though you can slow down individual enemies with a boot or leash. The game keeps up a pretty frenetic pace once you start fighting, though it'll break up the action with quiet spots, giving you time to find a resupply point or exchange some dialogue to advance the story. Considering that you're usually trying to kill enemies in specific ways to score points, you might think that the speed would start to work against it. The game gets around this by making most of the AI fairly basic. Guys with melee weapons rush at you in a pretty straight line. Other enemies will take cover, but they're just as likely to pop out and stand there while you gun them down. The minibosses, which are armed with chainguns or other heavier weaponry, plod around and don't turn very fast, giving you plenty of time to outflank them. This doesn't make Bulletstorm completely simple, but the challenge comes from knowing just how far to push it and just how long to stay out in the open to nail some heavy skillshots before hanging back to let your health recharge. Overall, it feels pretty well-balanced, though I found myself wishing for some kind of sandbox sort of mode with no ammo constraints, just to have more time to play around with the various skillshot techniques. That said, I still managed to complete over 75 percent of the skillshots by the time I made it through the campaign.
Bulletstorm's script is ridiculous and curse-filled, and the recurring gag is that they like to insert the cursing into sentences where it doesn't make any immediate sense. So when you first meet up with Trishka, she threatens to "kill your dick." Later on, the general you're trying to murder starts calling your Asian associate "Sushi-dick." They talk about "getting all murdery." Out of context like this, it's going to sound awful, like the exact kind of forced attitude that ensures that the mainstream audience views games as power fantasies for the developmentally arrested. But you know what? In context, it's layered on so thick and at such odd times that it actually works pretty well. The script takes some time here and there to sort of wink and nod at you as if to say "yeah, we know, that doesn't make any sense at all" or "we're going to have the guy get offended at the racist remark because we know that obviously is way uncool." Your personal taste is going to dictate how much dick-tit you can handle, but after rolling my eyes at the writing for the first couple of hours, I started to get into it.
The nature of the story is probably what saves it from feeling like it's trying too hard. Over the course the game, Grayson goes from a drunken space pirate to the idiot that realizes he's doomed his entire crew to something approaching respectable. And it's interesting to watch as your partners grow together and grow apart over the course of the story. It's not some huge story with deep fiction and it's not going to spawn any novels, but for a game that's trying to get by on the number of ways which you can kill someone, it's surprising that the story is even cohesive to begin with.
In addition to the campaign, Bulletstorm has a single-player scoreboard-based mode called Echoes, which takes small segments from the campaign and breaks them out into mini-levels. The goal is to finish them quickly while scoring as many points as possible. You'll earn stars and hit an online leaderboard once you're finished. These are pretty good little chunks of action, but it's disappointing that so many of them are ripped right out of the single-player.
The game does have an online multiplayer component, but it's limited to a four-player wave-based survival mode called Anarchy. The spin this puts on the Gears-style Horde mode is that each level has a points threshold that must be met in order to proceed. So you can't just jump in there and lazily shoot enemies to move ahead. You'll need to work together to perform team skillshots, too, like yanking an enemy back and forth with multiple leashes or having one guy kick someone while the other follows up with bullets. Between rounds, you can spend your points on additional weapons and upgrades. Since this mode requires actual cooperation, it's best enjoyed with friends or motivated strangers who want to communicate about when to kick, shoot, or leash on those team skillshots. As you play, you earn experience points that unlock cosmetic upgrades for your armor and weapons.
The console versions of the game perform as you'd probably expect for a modern Unreal Engine game, but it feels like extra care has gone into giving the game a bright color palette. The environments throughout Bulletstorm are great, with majestic backgrounds and nice lighting both indoors and out. The PC version of the game, as you'd probably expect, is capable of looking much better than the console versions. It's a Games For Windows Live game on PC with its own separate set of achievements and full support for gamepads. With a mouse, you'll probably want to fiddle with the settings a bit, since it feels a little odd out of the box and maps controls in a way that makes perfect sense if you've played it with a gamepad before, but might not be the most intuitive thing for people who never venture off the PC.
After being really down on Bulletstorm for the first couple of hours, I was pleasantly shocked to see how well it started coming together once I started getting better at using the different weapons and once the story started moving at a faster pace. While it's easy to see spots where the game could have been more fully featured or offered more unique areas instead of repurposing campaign spots, it's a solid new entry that truly offers an alternative to the standard sci-fi or military-themed first-person shooter.