The difference between clever and cunning.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Bulletstorm Review

Bulletstorm is a high action FPS from Polish based developer “People Can Fly”, perhaps best known for its old school shooter Painkiller and the work they did on the PC version of Gears of War. Bulletstorm takes more after the Painkiller school of gameplay than Microsoft’s cover based shooter, bringing a frantic energy to the increasingly stale conventions of the modern linear, cinematic shooter. The game is a lively, gore-spattered, obscenity riddled thrill ride with tremendously satisfying combat mechanics and a breakneck pace that rarely lets up. 

Made for TV

Bulletstorm’s story is straight from a Sci-Fi channel movie, but the strength is in the telling rather than what’s being told. You play as Grayson Hunt, member of a futuristic and morally suspect special-ops team called Dead Echo. The game doesn’t just tell you these things however. It doesn’t even show you. It has you do.

When sent to kill a man who turns out to be an innocent reporter documenting Dead Echo atrocities the game doesn’t just show via passive cut-scene. The game has you, the player, walking down the side of a skyscraper in gravity boots and pulling the trigger yourself. Flashing forward 10 years to Grayson as a drunken pirate the game doesn’t just tell you that Grayson is now a hunted man, but has you physically booting a bounty hunter into the airlock and flushing the luckless lowlife out into space. 

This game has really pretty backdrops.

When Grayson spots the much more powerful ship of his former commander, the deliciously foul mouthed and repugnant general Sarrano, you don’t just watch a cinematic space battle. You get an up close view manning the turrets as Grayson’s suicidal attack run cripples both ships and sends them crashing to the desolate planet below. 

The strength of games as a medium has always been their level of immersion and interactivity. This goes double for FPS games, which can achieve a level of direct intimacy that’s hard to beat. Like the Half-Life series before it Bulletstorm recognizes this and capitalizes on it to plunge you neck deep into the action. After all, why just show the player something when you can let them do it themselves?

I mean flat-out gorgeous.

The planet Grayson finds himself stranded on proves to have once been a holiday resort for the rich and powerful.  Today it’s a hellish but still beautiful place crawling with murderous gangs, feral mutants, and giant carnivorous plants battling one another through the gaudy ruins. Fortunately combat is one of Bulletstorm’s greatest strengths.

Whipping it good

This is the kind of game where simply shooting your enemies to death in center mass is not only ineffective but creatively bankrupt. Grayson, while not able to leap or climb outside of scripted sequences, is fast, resilient, and highly mobile. Success in combat comes from capitalizing on your abilities and weapons to move yourself out of harm’s way while flinging your enemies into it. 

Grayson’s a formidable man without even needing to pull a trigger, possessing a powerful melee kick that sends enemies hurtling backwards and a ridiculously fun ground-eating slide maneuver. Early on you also gain access to a sort of “energy whip” that can grab people and objects and yank them through the air towards you. Anyone hit by whip, boot, or slide becomes trapped in slow motion and surrounded by a distinctive blue glow for several seconds, giving plenty of time to line up precision shots or redirect them into one of the many, many hazards that litter Bulletstorm’s battlefields.

He'll be fine. The ground will break his fall.

And what hazards they are, from the classic explosive barrels and lethal falls to impaling cacti and spores whose fumes trigger indiscriminant berserker rage. The world around you is easily as lethal a weapon as the gun in your hand, if not more so. Combat is not a deliberate, tactical skirmish but a savage, highly kinetic brawl. Using the environment and your abilities to creatively and messily dispose of enemies is immensely satisfying, and a good way to save ammo too. 

Grayson is such amobile, and resilient character that hiding behind cover feels like a waste. It’s more effective to slide around dodging fire, especially if most of your enemies are flying through the air themselves from a case of boot-to-the-face. Health regeneration feels just right, allowing you to throw yourself into the thick of combat but not to be careless.


The gloriously destructive “Thumper” ability deserves special mention, snapping every nearby enemy into the air to splatter against the ceiling or hang helplessly suspended. It’s tremendous fun to use and a great way to even the odds in the larger and more frantic fights. Thumper charges are appropriately expensive for their power, but have the potential to earn back their cost and more if used skillfully.

Skill Kill Kult

You see Bulletstorm awards points on every kill. These points are then spent at “Dropkits” scattered across the planet on an assortment of ammo types and weapon unlocks. Simply shooting an enemy to death provides a piddling bonus but performing a “Skillshot”, or killing an enemy in a challenging or creative way, earns you significant rewards. The game encourages you to continuously try new weapons, tactics, and techniques in combat, rewarding you for being awesome and skillful.

Some Skillshots are environmental based, like kicking an enemy into a fire or off a cliff. Impaling a thug on a giant cactus spine nets you the “Pricked” Skillshot. Others are dependent on stunts with a particular weapon, firing mode, or enemy. Shooting a howling mutant in the groin and then the head earns you the “Mercy” Skillshot. (And gives you an idea of Bulletstorm’s juvenile but still entertaining humor.) 

Skillshots pay the bills.

Not every Skillpoint comes from combat. First person games have grappled with getting the player to look where they want them for ages. There’s no point in putting a lot of effort into a detailed set piece if you can’t guarantee the player won’t be off in the corner grubbing for ammo when it plays out. That’s why so many FPS games just use cutscenes or lock your view in place for certain sequences. 

Bulletstorm deals with this particular problem in a clever and rewarding way. When something dramatic is about to happen the game gives you a quicktime prompt. Hitting the button locks your view onto whatever is exploding, on fire, or coming to kill you (or all three). The faster you react, the more free Skillpoints you’re awarded. Bulletstorm literally pays you to pay attention.

There are dozens of possible Skillshots, ranging from the very easy to the highly tricky and situational. You’ll discover a lot of them just through luck and chance but the reward for pulling off a new one makes them well worthwhile. You don’t need to obsessively try to unlock every single Skillshot to succeed, (indeed you can generally scrape by with the ammo enemies drop and the rare supply crate) but most of the really fun alternate fire ammo charges require a steady stream of points to afford. In turn they allow for some lucrative Skillshots themselves, making for a gory positive feedback loop.
Why yes, that is a giant Murdersaw bearing down on us.

The weapons you’ll use to make those Skillshots are powerful and a cut more exotic than the classic FPS load-out, firing bouncing bombs, explosive bolos, and heat-seeking drills. Even the traditional shotgun has a ridiculous four barrels, sawing mutants in half at point blank range. As mentioned above all weapons have an explosive and deadly alternate fire mode that can clear a room and rack up some serious Skillshots to justify their cost. You’re restricted to only three guns at a time, including the default assault rifle, but you can change your load out at any of the ubiquitous Dropkits. A few weapons are introduced so late you don’t get to spend much time with them, but they’re all fun to use. 

Ain’t got time to breath

Bulletstorm sets a breakneck pace. Grayson and company move from one precarious scenario to the next with barely a pause for breath. Set piece after set piece places you in increasingly improbably and hilariously dangerous situations and balls remain firmly attached to the wall for the entire game. You’re continually crashing, fleeing, and watching everything explode around you.

One moment you’re fighting atop a massive hydroelectric dam as battle damage and millions of tons of water pressure tear it apart. The next you’re sprinting through a fallen skyscraper that bridges a bottomless chasm, trying to cross before the building gives way and slides into the abyss. A particularly memorable segment has you aboard a train trying to outrun a giant spinning buzz-saw of doom. Many sections include a visible timer counting down to horrific death and destruction, spurring you to fight harder and move faster to stay alive. These sections are frantic, but when you’re inevitably a hair too slow you needn’t replay too much content.

Other set pieces are just bizarre fun. Bulletstorm is packed with awesome moments, from mowing down gyrocopters with a mini-gun to battling gangers on the dance floor of a still functioning disco. One of the highlights puts you briefly in control of a death-spewing robot dinosaur and lets you turn it loose of a mob of hapless mutants. There’s almost always something cool and memorable going on. There is one oddly out of place traditional boss fight against a giant plant, but it’s quickly out of the way.

Always nice to see Piranha Plant is still getting work outside the Mario series.

The graphics are sharp and solid design keeps most levels feeling a lot larger and more open than they actually are. What really stand out are the backdrops. Bulletstorm has gorgeous backgrounds that also give you a great sense of progression and place in the world. A city glimpsed in the distance during the early levels grows steadily larger and more detailed as you fight your way towards it. 

Worst Family Fun Vacation Ever

Bulletstorm’s tone is that of constant giddy hyperkinetic violence, with traces of seriousness whenever there’s a pause for air. The game has a juvenile but genuinely funny sense of humor. Much of it comes from the interplay between Grayson and his grimly serious cyberneticly enhanced buddy Ishi, who acts as the straight man to Grayson’s clowning and the ongoing carnage filled lunacy constantly erupting around the duo. 

Grayson himself comes across as a not particularly mature or clever but fundamentally good natured fighting man. His constant stream of expletives feels less out of malice and more simply his default mode of expression. By contrast everything the relentlessly hateful antagonist Sarrano says seems calculated to tick off and hurt whomever he’s talking too as much as possible.

A motley and foul mouthed crew, but no babysitting required.

You’re never without at least one ally fighting alongside, usually Ishi. Their constant chatter adds flavor and humor and they’re quick to point out the way forward if your progress stalls. Bulletstorm avoids some of the cardinal sins of game design in that your companions can’t be killed, never get lost, and are useful in combat but not enough to upstage you. I point these things out because companion AI can be done wrong so many ways it deserves a mention whenever a developer makes it painless. 

 As goofy and juvenile as a lot of Bulletstorm is it manages the occasional clever moment. One escape sequence cuts you off repeatedly, toying with the player’s expectation that the game won’t leave them to die. One of the last encounters in the game pits you against an opponent equipped with the same energy whip and gravity boots as you, forcing you to experience first-hand what you’ve already done to scores of enemies.

Final Echoes

For all its many strengths Bulletstorm is still as linear and highly scripted as the Call of Duty and Halo series that it mocks in its commercials. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfLDz6Y31rc) There’s very little in the way of exploration, and most of the few puzzles actually solve themselves via explosion if you don’t figure them out fast enough. You just don’t get the Skillpoint reward.  That’s fine, because a linear and cinematic thrill ride is clearly what the designers set out to create and succeeded brilliantly in doing. 

Walking's fer sissies. Real men power-slide to get around.

Aside from the more than satisfactory single player campaign Bulletstorm features “Anarchy Mode” as its sole multiplayer option. Anarchy Mode takes the now ubiquitous Gears-of-War style Horde mode and adds the welcome twist of team based Skillshots. Leashing, kicking, and blasting mooks back and forth between players is the best way to keep the points rolling in and secure a high score. There’s no deathmatch style gameplay to be found, which is unsurprising because trying to balance elements like the whip and slide-boot for PvP gameplay would have been tricky and distracting at best.

Finally “Echo” mode lets you enjoy Bulletstorm in its purest form, replaying five minute sections of the best of the single-player campaign without any story or dialog to get in the way of the carnage. You can chase online leader-board scores if that’s your idea of a good time, but for the most part it’s just a great way to get a quick adrenalin booster shot of action.

It’s impossible not to recommend Bulletstorm to anyone who even remotely enjoys action and shooter games. It’s a welcome break from trudging through dreary realistic settings, shooting people from other countries with the same handful of real world weapons. 

Reasons to Play: Unrelenting onslaught of awesome set pieces. Creative weapons and over the top combat mechanics. Rewarding Skillshot system. Everything on fire, exploding, or both.

Reasons to Pass: Highly linear and scripted. Lack of a traditional multiplayer shooter mode. Some may find the constant swearing excessively and goofy. You possess a strong aversion to fun. 

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.