If Wolfenstein 3D and Doom are Elvis and the Beatles then that makes Halo and Call of Duty Van Halen and the Village People. Carrying the metaphor further, this positions People Can Fly/Epic Games’ Bulletstorm as the Sex Pistols.
Similar to how Malcolm McLaren’s miscreant boy band put some of the snot and attitude back into rock n’ roll, the game is a return to rawer, simpler shooter impulses without pretense or adornment. Fun and mayhem rule the day instead of gritty “realism” or pretentious storylines and the game is completely unashamed of what it is or what it sets out to do. Of course, neither “Never Mind the Bollocks” nor Bulletstorm are without creative precedent. The record owes an ample debt of gratitude to the Stooges and the New York Dolls, the game pays tribute to everything from Id’s genre-defining titles to Platinum Games recent exercises in excess (notably MadWorld) and on through to Epic’s own Gears of War franchise. Yet like a good rock band, it never feels overtly derivative or redundant and it has plenty of fresh notes to bring to the screen of its own accord. The game is a post-modern example of the first-person shooter, and for once it’s refreshing to play a game that returns us to the youthful, shameless pleasures of the first generation of this genre. There’s more Duke Nukem in this game than Bioshock.
The player controls Grayson Hunt, a space-pirate pastiche of Captain Ahab and Marcus Fenix that looks a little bit like a beefed-out Trent Reznor. As the game begins, he’s drunk and winds up wrecking his ship along with a capital ship on a Stygia. The setting is unique and compelling. Stygia is in ruins from the start, but it is made clear through suggestion and narrative hints that it was once a sort of Bacchanalian pleasure planet, and most of the game takes place amongst the ruins of its posh resorts. Lush greens, vivid blues, and warm oranges inform the color palette of the frequently stunning graphics generated by the updated Unreal Engine 3.
Most of Grayson’s crew is killed in the opening scene and his buddy Ishi has half of his head replaced with angry robot parts in a botched field surgery at the crash site. The remainder of the game finds them sparring verbally with the emasculating female survivor Trishkala and trying to catch up with the R. Lee Ermy-esque General Sarrano and find a way off the planet. The story is rather stronger than I expected, and plentiful dialogue (full of cavalier but never quite offensive profanity) gives the characters an unanticipated presence. Grayson’s quest for revenge against his former employers turns into a redemptive journey, and along the way there are some interesting points of darkness explored among the jokes and genuinely funny banter. I particularly liked one bit where Sarrano points out all of the bodies of regular folks that Grayson’s actions have precipitated. Unfortunately, the climax is somewhat unsatisfactory and feels rushed but the fact remains that the game is definitely several cuts above the usual fare in FPS writing.
Of course, you don’t necessarily come to a game called Bulletstorm looking for excellence in storytelling. Despite the quality of writing and scenario design, you came here to shoot at things. Fortunately, the core shooter mechanics are rock-solid. Enemy AI is serviceable, but it’s of the “kill that guy at all costs” variety. There is no cover, but there is a Vanquish-like sliding move. There are ten weapons and all are wildly different. All feature two firing modes, and although there are the standard assault rifle/shotgun models there are also guns that fire grenade bolos and drills. One of the game’s defining moments for me was when I fired a shot with the sniper round and I was able to steer the bullet, effectively chasing the target as he dived for cover. Obviously, this game is not gunning for realism.
The arsenal also includes Grayson’s great big boot for melee and, of course, The Leash. The Leash is an energy lasso the player uses to yank enemies from behind cover and put them in a slow-motion stasis so that it’s easier to target certain body areas, kick them into a nasty mess of rebar, or into the mouth of a man-eating plant. Much like MadWorld, the player gets points for pulling off spectacularly homicidal combos (“skillshots and the more you perform one, the less points you’ll score. Newly discovered skillshots- and there’s 131 one of them across different weapon types, game areas, and situations- net the most points, and the points can in turn be spent to upgrade weapons and buy ammo.
The skillshots are a smart mechanic because it brings the modern gaming drive toward achievements and trophies directly into the gameplay, inviting experimentation and offering the player micro-goals throughout the game. It’s entirely possible to just blast through the game with just a couple of the weapons, but in doing so you’ll blow right past the fun. One major complaint about the skillshots is that they don’t always seem to register. It can be sort of frustrating to keep attempting the one where you have to shoot a guy in the balls and it never seems to register. It seems to be a hit detection issue.
As far as level design is concerned, the game is linear. Get over it. It’s modern design, so you’re not going to be free-roaming around a giant level looking for a key card. No, you can’t go anywhere you want and do whatever you want. There are set pieces and passageways between them. This is not a bad thing, because the game keeps focus and maintains both a distinct pace and a narrative velocity. Instead of picking flowers and wasting game time in checkpoint races, you get well-directed and way over-the-top rail shooter sequences including two that I thought were among the best I’ve ever seen. Instead of 50 hours of directionless ambling between side quest-dispensing NPCs, you get an eight hour campaign that rarely lets up in intensity. The game is also very focused on the single-player experience despite a rather fun “Anarchy” offering for online play that is basically a co-op horde mode with twenty waves that get ridiculously tough.
Echoes mode also extends the gameplay beyond the campaign. It breaks up key scenes in the game into small sequences and it becomes something of a score attack exercise. You’ll get graded across a number of metrics including the number of unique skillshots performed, total points accrued, and the time it took to complete the Echo. It’s a one to three star rating, so if you’re anything like I am about these kinds of gameplay modes then nothing less than three stars will ever be satisfactory. With full leaderboard support, this is where the game has some serious legs even without a lengthy single-player story or traditional multiplayer.
Before I close, it also bears mentioning that the game, just like with the Sex Pistols, isn’t nearly as vulgar or offensive as the press has made it out to be. There’s tons of dick jokes, but I never found them particularly egregious or off-putting- and I despise potty humor. The violence is greatly reduced in comparison to something like Dead Space 2, and even though you’re shooting guys in the ass with a super-powered four-barrel shotgun, it maintains an almost Road Runner-esque sense of absurd mischief instead of aggressive malice and the bountiful fun is never mean-spirited or nasty.
After playing so many dour, po-faced shooters with a pretentious air of self-importance, it’s refreshing to play game that says “screw it, you’re here to shoot the place up and raise hell so let’s go, boss”. And then it laughs with you the whole way, throwing everything from giant dinosaurs to baddies wielding outsized chainguns in your face.