25th February 2011 - Bulletstorm is the collaborated project of Epic Games, the creators of the Gears of War series, and People Can Fly, the minds behind the PC killfest known as Painkiller. The game has been marketed as an “unrealistic” shooter, so much so that the team made an interactive parody of the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series called Duty Calls. Furthermore, what I would charitably call a news article circulated the internet about two weeks before the game’s release claiming that playing it would turn our youth into rapists. But weak controversy and mockery of modern shooter trends only go so far. In the end, the big question still remains: is the game fun?
You play as Grayson Hunt, the leader of a pack of soldiers, who have gone rogue after being manipulated by their corrupt commander, General Sarrano. While being in the farthest area of space away from civilization, Grayson has a little too much to drink and goes rabid the minute he sees the guy’s ship. The suicidal assault goes horribly wrong (or right, depending on your viewpoint) and Grayson, his target, and what’s left of his crew, are stranded on planet Stygia, a former resort planet falling into disrepair and home to psychotic tribalmen, cannibals, and the like.
For a game that’s being sold as a mindless rollercoaster ride of fun, the plot is not just dreary and uninspired; it also gets in the way. The entire first hour or so is mostly governed by cut scenes and quick-time event sequences, and really watered my enthusiasm for the experience as a whole. Grayson is a one-dimensional “screw-up with a heart of gold” stereotype, the bad guy is foul-mouthed and evil because he has to be, and the female character is just as psychotic and unapproachable than any of the guys, and so on. It is only when the game gave me some weapons and introduced the Skillshot system that I forgot all of these bad first impressions and had the time of my life.
The single-player campaign runs you through Stygia and not only asks you to “kill with skill” but it demands it of you. You gain Skillpoints every time you kill an enemy, but if you go about it creatively, you’ll gain even more. For instance, just aiming down the sights of your rifle and killing some guy will score you ten points, but if you kill him with a headshot, you’ll gain twenty-five, and if you shoot him in the groin then kick his head off, you’ll get a hundred points, and so on. The problem however, is Skillpoints aren’t just for bragging purposes, it’s also the game’s currency. At certain checkpoints, you are able to trade in points to unlock new alternate fire modes for your weapons, increase ammo capacity, but most importantly, to buy ammo. Enemies will drop ammo occasionally, but trust me when I say it’s never enough. Add to this mix the bonus points one gets for discovering new Skillshots, and you have a system that perfectly loops and reinforces the new mechanic.
As if that wasn’t enough to make anyone’s juvenile hyper violent fantasy, the enemy designs and level variety is great. Each level in the campaign is distinct in its appearance and in the monsters that appear. One level will have you running through a collapsing hotel; another one will have you on a giant rover, outrunning a super-sized wheel. There is a lot more than that, but that would be telling. As for the enemies, there is at least one new enemy type brought in at every level, all the way to the finale, all of which are engaged differently.
Kudos must also be given to the guys at People Can Fly for their weapon design. In Painkiller, there were such memorable weapons, like the baddy pinning Stake Gun to the mini-gun that was also a rocket launcher, and Bulletstorm is proof that they haven’t lost their touch. Literally every single weapon in this game is running on what is known as the “rule of cool.” Don’t bother figuring out the science behind it, it’s just cool. Your shotgun has got four barrels, you can guide the rounds your sniper rifle fires, even make them explode if you want to, your revolver shoots flares, and you have a gravity defying sci-fi leash to whip people around with. If you can’t find the fun in that, you are clearly dead inside.
The single player Campaign is diminished somewhat by the fact that there isn’t a whole lot of exploration to be had with the Skillshots. Instead of allowing players to experiment and generate some impressive kills, points are only awarded and are limited to what the developer thought of, and are given to you in the pause menu. So by the end of the campaign, I was just grinding the same old Skillshots over and over because most of them were already unlocked. That being said, every gun in the game has at least ten specific Skillshots to them alone so it is a very robust system, just not as expansive as advertised, and the Campaign is well paced at about nine to ten hours.
There are two forms of Multiplayer to be had in Bulletstorm. The first one, Echo Mode, can’t really be called Multiplayer in the traditional sense, because in practice it’s just a way for you to compare high scores with your friends. Echo Mode allows you to pick three weapons and go through a level of the game with no scripted events and a Skillshot blank slate, meaning bonuses for variety, and see just how many solid points you can build up. This mode I found to be very fun, especially after finishing the campaign because now, instead of thinking twice before using up valuable ammo, I can just turn off my brain and play. The second Multiplayer mode, Anarchy, is a bit more traditional: you and three or so friends are put on a map and you have to work together to fight wave after wave of enemies, with Skillshot thresholds appearing between each wave, until the session is over. The word of the day in this mode is “Co-op,” which, unfortunately, means your experience is relative to how communicative and friendly your partners are. My advice is going in with some friends, because the experience is rewarding, but in terms of accessibility, the mode is hit-or-miss.
Epic’s Unreal Engine shines again in Bulletstorm. The environments are well detailed, the lighting is great, and the character models are well rendered. However, the faces of the main characters do come off as unrealistic during cut scenes. Lip sync is a bit off all around, mouth and eye movement is unconvincing at times, but it doesn’t necessarily fall into Uncanny Valley territory.
The sound effects between revving up a mini-gun, hearing helicopter blades slash across rock, and the jingle of shell casings hitting the floor are well done in Bulletstorm, every weapon and creature sounds unique. The voice acting is good, Steve Blum is still a treat to listen to, and everyone involved just invoke the impression that they were having fun with these characters. The score feels a bit unusual, especially when there’s also a heavy metal soundtrack involved which feels like the game shifts between shooter and space opera.
Modern First-Person Shooters are games I’ve stayed away from as of recently because the focus has been on multiplayer that only gets marginally tweaked or improved with each installment, and some of the more popular franchises I found uninteresting or just plain ridiculous because it has been long after they’ve jumped the shark. That being said, I could not put down Bulletstorm. I mentioned that Grayson Hunt was some drunk with no real character quirks, at the same time I was laughing with him all the way through the campaign and flat out busting a gut at his crude language and bizarre one-liners. You have to hide behind cover every now and then for your health to come back, but at the same time you take so much punishment and chew through at least fifty enemies before you have to take cover that I can’t hate it. The Set Pieces in the campaign were over-the-top, ridiculous and just so grin-inducing that I’ll probably play it again just to experience it all a second time.
In the long run, Bulletstorm is an immature, in your face, over-the-top shooter that probably won’t win any awards at the end of the year, yet there are so many reasons you should pick up a copy. Get it for the Skillshot system, get it to show off your skills, get it to take a break from realistic shooters, get it for access to the Gears of War 3 Beta. Whatever your reason, you won’t be disappointed.
AAG SCORE: 8/10
+ Well executed Skillshot system
+ Great Weapon Design
+ Great Enemy Design
+ Great Level Design
+ Good Voice Acting
- Clichéd, Yawn worthy Story
- Hit-or-miss Multiplayer Modes
- Lip Sync slip ups
- Unfocused musical score
Reviewed and Written By Tyler Chancey