I can admit when I’m wrong. Before the Bulletstorm demo released on Xbox Live and the Playstation Network, I was pretty harsh in my criticisms. I assumed that the over-the-top language was a thin veneer designed to disguise subpar gameplay. I predicted that the leash mechanic would get old quickly, leaving only a generic shooter behind. I expected that I would hate every minute of it, even while chuckling at the hilariously creative invectives that pepper the dialog.
OK. I was wrong… mostly (those insults are hilarious).
Bulletstorm opens smartly. After a friendly exchange with a bounty hunter dumb enough to get captured by Grayson Hunt and the rest of Dead Echo (the 26th century version of the A-Team), the action ramps up quickly. Players are introduced to the rest of the four-man team and the primary antagonist: General Sarrano: Dead Echo’s former commander and a first-class jerk. I won’t give away the plot, but rest assured that Gray has a damn good reason for wanting his former boss staring at six feet of dirt from the wrong side.
During the prologue, you don’t need to worry about ammo or health. This, brilliantly, gives the player a chance to get used to the weight of the movement, experiment with the kicking mechanic, and discover ways to use the environment to do some of the dirty work. In fact, the absence of the HUD serves to accelerate player immersion in the beautiful world of Stygia. Unfortunately, the Skillshots (Bulletstorm’s reward system for “killing with skill”) don’t start pouring in until after you find the leash and activate the first dropkit (about 30 minutes in).
Much has been made of the leash, but I assure you that it is only a means to an end: enabling wild Skillshots that give players a reason to think strategically. The leash allows you to grab enemies, fling them around the map and, later on, throw groups of them into the air, all in slow motion. This gives players the chance to line up the perfect shot for big points. Admittedly, strategy was not something I expected when booting up the game for the first time. The points earned by being creative translate into upgrades and new weapons as dropkits are found throughout the game. Standard and charge ammunition can also be acquired at these checkpoints. I found it an odd choice that this is the only way to replenish your supply of charged shots. They are the gateway to so many Skillshots such that a greater supply throughout the world would have been welcome.
As if the currency system weren’t enough proof, Epic’s decision to allow the player to experience the leash without Skillshots drives the point home: without the rewards for creative killing, the leash is a gimmick that becomes boring quickly. In many ways, points awarded throughout Bulletstorm evoke memories of Bizarre Creations’ The Club. Where Epic’s splatterfest differs, though, is in the utility of the points. Purpose matters.
Even further emphasis is added by the inclusion of the Skillshot Database. Easily accessible by pressing Back/Select, this handy list is a roadmap to mayhem. The best part is that, for Skillshots that haven’t been executed, only the conditions for success are listed. In this way, Epic has managed to tell the joke without spoiling the punchline. The database clearly marks which you have yet to accomplish and which are currently locked. For completionists (and, yes, there is an achievement for nailing every Skillshot), there couldn’t be a better companion.
Throughout the game, there are plenty of additional non-murder opportunities to earn Skill points. These include pulling the LT to focus on scripted events and properly timing hand-over-hand crossings. One of my absolute favorite things about this game is how cutscenes often contain interactive elements. So many games cheapen the experience by preventing players from engaging in the juiciest plot twists (Fable II, Army of Two, etc). Bulletstorm boldly goes in the opposite direction, favoring player control. These little bits of immersion are a perfect counterpoint to the abundant colorful language and bloodshed.
In addition to the single-player story, two other modes are included to help extend the enjoyment. Echoes mode involves snippets of areas encountered during the story. The primary goal is to rack up the highest score possible in the shortest amount of time. (Remember my comparison to The Club?) This mode provides a great amount of replayability, inspiring new weapon combinations and strategic killing.
Multiplayer is limited to a one- to four-player option: Anarchy mode. This is your standard survival mode. It is a lot of fun when you have a group to communicate and plan with. In between rounds, you are given a limited opportunity to spend your points to unlock new guns; upgrade your speed, kick power, and leash recharge time; and stock up on charged shots. Throughout the rounds, special enemies will appear, giving your team the chance to rack up huge points via combo Skillshots. For instance, you might be asked to have one teammate kick a baddie so that someone else can shoot him down. These incentives are fun and provide a nice variation.
Unfortunately, there is no co-op available during the campaign. This seems like an odd omission, especially since Grayson always has someone by his side.
Visually, Bulletstorm manages to surprise. When trailers were first revealed, it was easy to draw the parallels between Marcus Fenix and the rest of the overly-muscled Gears and Dead Echo. Even the Peacemaker Carbine, the starting weapon in Bulletstorm, looks like a lancer without the chainsaw. Take one look around, though, and you’ll see that Epic and People Can Fly have created a more plausible ecosystem with the Unreal Engine than anyone before them. Bulletstorm is a macabre kind of gorgeous, full of vibrant colors that many developers using the Unreal Engine have simply forsaken.
Sound design is executed extremely well. Of course, there is the standard assortment of sounds associated with the countless giblets produced throughout the game. Guns feel appropriately meaty, with extra oomph given to the charged shots. During some of the more intense vehicle scenes, the sound roars, adding to the tension and matching the scale of the on-screen action. I particularly liked that, before being swarmed by a horde of psychos and mutants, the game alerts you with a roaring sound. While this isn’t an innovation, it fits the arcade nature of the title.
Overall, Bulletstorm manages to make itself relevant by spending the right amount of time on character development while balancing the adult nature of the content with gameplay and presentation that are likely to have staying power. In many ways, it delivers on the promises Epic made with the Gears of War franchise.
Bulletstorm isn’t just about vulgarity and gore; it’s about creativity.
Review copy provided by publisher.