Bulletstorm: Review (for real this time)

Bulletstorm - Hekaton

Our entire Awesomeness Quotient for the month has been used up with just this one screenshot.

Now that we’ve all enjoyed my hilarious joke, here’s what I really thought about Bulletstorm.

Straight up, I’m going to confess that it’s a long while since I’ve had this much pure, unadulterated fun with a game. I can’t remember the last time I blasted through an entire single-player campaign in one sitting.

I also have to confess that since completing the game, getting a healthy quantity of stars in Echo mode – essentially Bulletstorm time trials – and dabbling for a few hours in multiplayer Anarchy mode, my love affair with the game has waned.

Perhaps it was just chemical attraction. We met, we bonded, our bodies pumped out hormones – deeply manly hormones, of course, the sort of hormones that enjoy a spot of murderin’ – and for a time we were wrapped in homoerotic embrace. But then the lustre faded and we awoke, covered in blood and other more personal bodily fluids.

But lets put this aside – I’ll return to it later – because it’s time for me to explain what the game gets right and why, if you have any time at all for first person manshooting, you will probably love it.

In design terms, the game is fucking fan-tastic. That’s “fan-tastic” as Frank West would say it, so you know I’m being 100% serious here. The variation in environments is great, with each Act moving you to a significantly new locale, each Chapter offering up new scenery within that locale, and even within Chapters the environment design makes every area a distinct battleground. Ditto the enemies and the weapons, which scale up with just the right amount of challenge. The game is chock-full of mooks to play with but, having said that, the first time you encounter Freaks or Burnouts you’ll find your previous tactics wanting; you’ll have to get inventive. And being inventive is what Bulletstorm is about… to an extent.

Bulletstorm - mooks

Who'd be a mook? The best you can hope for is a memorable one-liner being spouted as you're dispatched by the hero. The best these tools ever get is a dick joke.

The weapons are brilliant. You’ll always be forced to lug around a boring old assault rifle, yes: it’s a workhorse, a gun-of-all-trades. But it also has hefty ammo reserves to fall back on once you’ve exhausted your more exciting toys. Then there’s the leash, your other trusty tool, which can be used to grab distant or concealed enemies and pull them towards you.

The other weapons all have their own charms and you’ll find your favourites. I liked the sniper rifle with the remote-control bullets, the revolver with mounted flare gun and the explosive bolas best. There’s nothing quite like tying up the frontrunner of a pack of enemies and using him as an impromptu landmine, right? All of these weapons tie in to the game’s chief innovation: the Skillshot system.

Unless you live under a rock or don’t really follow games – in which case hello and welcome to Arcadian Rhythms, I’m pleased that Google has led you here – you’ll be dimly aware of what this system is. Essentially it awards you points for every enemy you dispatch; the baseline is a measly 10 points. Kick a guy into a cactus and that’s 50 points – or 100 if it’s the first time you’ve done it. Or you could kick someone off a cliff and, just before they fall, shotgun them in half. That’s about 100 points: 50 for the fall and 50 for adding insult to injury.

The Skillshot system is great, it really is: it encourages experimentation with the environments, it pushes you towards being inventive in order to gather more points (and in so doing unlock more weapon upgrades), and it also discourages you from sticking with your one or two favourite weapons – a perennial problem with the FPS genre. On the other hand, it’s strangely limited. There are about 130 skillshots in single-player mode including weapon-specific skillshots and unique environmental interactions. What’s missing is the option to chain these together. If you drag a guy towards you from behind cover, turn and kick him towards some loose electrical cables, then stick something explosive on him and detonate it while he’s being shocked… you get nothing more for it. The game only allows multiple skillshots to be applied when it says you can. It’s understandable – too many chaining multipliers would throw the point gathering and upgrade progress askew and thus unbalance the game a tad, not to mention the additional development and testing demands – but it’s also disappointing.

Bulletstorm - Anarchy mode

That's not to say it isn't still fun to pull a guy through the air by his face.

But you won’t care about that for quite some time. On my first playthrough I unlocked about 90 single-player skillshots; that meant another 40 for me to find. I knew what some of them were but others remained a mystery… an exciting murder mystery.

But enough about that: how about the story? Yep, we all play manshoots for their plot, obviously we do. Why else would anyone bother with everybody’s favourite Mad Dog McCree remake, Call of Duty?

Bulletstorm may surprise you thanks to its genuinely well-written story. It’s very macho, superficially very dumb, but it’s a loving pastiche of the sort of beefy-men-with-guns games that essentially define Unreal Engine 3. It plants its tongue in its cheek and gets on with sharing its turned-up-to-11 over the top tale of violence, betrayal and more violence, and it’s better for it. Bulletstorm walks the fine line between being dumb and being mockingly detached, chiefly thanks to some memorable characters. Grayson, a cocky alcoholic with a sense of fun matched only by his loyalty toward and guilt concerning his team; Ishi, torn between his human and AI personalities, is perpetually conflicted and regularly irrational (so that’s why he sometimes gets stuck on walls!). Then there’s Trishka, cut straight out of the bad girl with an attitude mold but – and I cannot stress how happy I was to see this – never reduced to a love interest and always driven by her personal motivations. And finally there is General Serano, a complete and total arsehole who gets many of the game’s funniest lines.

Bulletstorm - Grinder wheel

The grand prize for most improbable vehicle goes to this thing. I still haven't figured out what it was originally built for. Possibly the planet was colonised by a splinter group of rogue unicycle enthusiasts.

Then there’s Anarchy mode. Eschewing the deathmatch-oriented approaches of other FPS games, People Can Fly have instead gone for Horde-style co-operative gameplay that makes use of the skillshot system, introducing additional skillshots that require two or more players to complete. Some of these are very tricky, but pulling them off… well, you’ll feel like Barry Big-Balls, that’s for sure. Especially if you just shot a guy in his.

It’s a double-edged sword, sadly, because for this game mode to work you need to be playing with people who understand the game and maintain constant communication. This makes it a game to be enjoyed among friends rather than random players, and this in turn makes it difficult to find a match worth playing. But even if you have no Bulletstorm-owning friends do give it a go: it’s still rewarding.

There are parts of Bulletstorm that are easy to criticise. Its marketing campaign made fun of the Call of Duty series and its attendant hangers-on (Medal of Honor, I’m looking at you) but Bulletstorm boasts its own on-rails sequences and even a QTE where your interaction is reduced to pushing buttons to make a cutscene progress. Maybe no one told the marketing guys about that. I bet they feel real silly now.

In terms of replayability the campaign may reward two playthroughs but not much more than that. I recommend doing the campaign on Normal first so that you can enjoy and explore the skillshot system. Then, repeat it on Very Hard for a real challenge. Echoes will provide plenty of entertainment but some levels can seem overly easy after beating the game; perhaps this will be expanded in future DLC.

My ultimate conclusion? I insist that you play this game. It is big, brash and beautiful. Its sense of bombast and desire to entertain will reward you. Its core gameplay is more-ish and finds a good balance between reactive skill and quick planning. Its story, characters and setpieces will stick in your imagination. Innovation? Nah: the gameplay is basically what The Club should have been. Perfect? Not by a shot, and you won’t enjoy it forever. Fun? You bet your dick.

Bulletstorm - hekaton's mouth

Predictable joke about a breath mint, sir?