Bulletstorm Review

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Descriptive Text Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: People Can Fly (Epic Games)

Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
Reviewed on Xbox 360

Grayson Hunt isn't your average, run-of-the-mill, peace-loving space pirate. He's the kind of space pirate who once headed up the known universe's deadliest black-ops squad, has a half-billion credit price on his head, and likes to shoot bottles off the heads of prisoners while drunk. He's a nice guy. Since you can't be an infamous space pirate without a heart of gold, know that Hunt went the space-pirate route when he discovered his black-ops squad was assassinating innocents to cover up corruption and carry out the vendettas of the galaxy's elite. Mad at his former handler, General Sarrano, Hunt smashes his tiny vessel into Sarrano's flagship, crashing both on the resort world Stygia, where the natives are out of control and radiation rains from the sky.

Who names a resort world "Stygia?" That's just asking for trouble.

Kyle Ackerman

Developer People Can Fly knows something about games that so many other developers entirely miss: how to have fun. Bulletstorm may be a flawed, unsophisticated shooter with a plot more awkward than a squeaking, acne-riddled teenager, but it's fun. The game so splendidly removed the obstacles to fun, like a horrible checkpoint system or unskippable, plodding cut-scenes, that it's easy to ignore the chaff and get right to the entertainment. Bulletstorm isn't perfect. I'm not sure it's even memorable – but it sure is fun.

It's Spectacular, but Does it Have to be Called "Gang Bang?"

Bulletstorm is a conventional first-person shooter, plodding through linear sequences and facing off against myriad frothing-at-the-mouth enemies. What elevates it is the arcade-style sensibility the game's "skillshot" system brings to the table. Everything you do is worth points, and the more spectacular or ridiculous it is, the more points it's worth. Just shooting someone isn't going to net you much in the way of points. Using your energy leash to lash someone out of a gyrocopter into the line of fire of another enemy, killing him before he hits the ground – that's worth a lot of points. It's a system that encourages players to go beyond just slowly taking out baddie after baddie, and to instead explore the absurd potential of weapons that fire drill bits like missiles and bolo chains with mines on both ends.

The energy leash in Bulletstorm feels like it was pulled straight from the code of People Can Fly's older effort Painkiller, and that's OK. It was fun in Painkiller, and it's fun in Bulletstorm. It's a whip of pure energy that can be used to lash distant enemies and hurl them into deadly exposed rebar or even Stygian cacti. When there are tons of crazy enemies rushing at you, lashing one through the air, or smashing a crew of cannibals against the ragged roof is what makes an over-the-top action game fun. Pulling one towards you through the air and then kicking him off a dam is the kind of gratuitous, juvenile joy that makes Bulletstorm a perfect outlet for gamers overwhelmed with shooters that take themselves too seriously.

Bulletstorm did a marvelous job of keeping the game flowing with its checkpoint system and clarity. While I continue to loathe checkpoint save systems, Bulletstorm included so many that I never had to replay long sequences. If I failed, there was one discrete action I had to complete, and I knew exactly what I had to do. The developer made sure my goals were clear – if an objective in a fight or while navigating the planet Stygia might be remotely unclear, one of my companions shouted help to me immediately. I never had to repeat a checkpoint more than once (except when I made the choice to foolishly pursue the wackier skill shots).

Sarrano Doesn't Need a DNA Bomb When He Has the F-Bomb

If Bulletstorm made a single mistake, it's that this game that thrives by not taking itself too seriously, is a bit heavy-handed in some of the story and dialog. That gets extended with all the quick time events (QTE). I don't mind regularly kicking in a door or pulling down a bus with my energy leash, but the quick time events (alternately pulling the triggers to go hand-over-hand on a steel cable) pull me out of the action rather than convincing me of the gravity of that action. At least, in Bulletstorm, failing a (QTE) isn't lethal, it just means settling for a lower score. That gravity in the plot is awkward, too. It feels like someone wrote (poorly) an extremely dark plot about tough guys in space, through the filter of a 13-year-old who watches a lot of low-budget movies – and then it got partially re-written.

It's as if there are two entirely different narrative voices in Bulletstorm, warring for control over the characters and the story. One clearly understands the juvenile thrill of Bulletstorm, expressing a childlike, yet ironic set of characters as tongue-in-cheek as the action. This is the voice that dominates when you go on a rampage with a remotely-controlled movie-monster that shoots lasers from its eyes. It's a joyful, spirited and uninhibited character that matches the unsophisticated fun of the game itself. Then there's the second voice that dominates the opening cut-scene and much of the game's story. This is the voice that thinks cursing is a substitute for emotion and shouts things like "I'm going to kill your dicks!" At least when that happens, the other voice often kicks in with something like, "What does that even mean?" If the puerile voice were more sophisticated, I'd think it a clever device, even paralleling the internal war of the cybernetic sidekick. Instead, it just feels like the game had an incomplete re-write sometime late in development.

Stygia Needs Even More Anarchy

Personally, I played Bulletstorm for the campaign mode, but it feels like the real game was built to be the "Echoes." The Echoes are shorter versions of the game's various levels, intended to be played as quickly as possible, with as many high-scoring skillshots as possible. Essentially, this is the arcade version of Bulletstorm where players compete for the top of the leaderboards, both in raw score and in star ratings. It's an interesting mode if you want to transform your play into a blood opera by knowing the maps so perfectly that you can amass unreasonable scores with flawlessly executed skillshots, but it requires a dedication that isn't for everyone. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of people outrank me on the Echoes leaderboards, so it's decidedly for someone (or, lots of someones).

Personally, I got drawn into the cooperative, multiplayer "Anarchy" mode. Unlike the horde-style modes in other games, where wave after wave of enemies attack you, Anarchy is rarely a question of survival – it's a question of score. Can you score enough points to graduate from that round to the next? Individual skillshots are still worth points, but rarely enough to make it through the mode. Instead, there are new environmental hazards (such as enormous grinding wheels, precariously hanging elevators and revolving doors) that grant many points when enemies are hurled into them, and lots of team skillshots that provide the big scores. This turns Anarchy into something surprisingly organized, given the name. It's a spectator bloodsport that requires team coordination to execute the really high-scoring maneuvers that will graduate you to the next round. Also, with General Serrano narrating, this was the first game I played a game in which the voice-overs were often cruder than other players on Xbox Live.

Bulletstorm can be excessively crude, juvenile and bloody, but those are all marks of a game that values entertainment over sophistication. This isn't a title that is seeking acceptance from the academy, rather, it's doing what games are supposed to do – entertain. At that, Bulletstorm is a remarkable success.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on April 19, 2011 10:58 PM.

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