22nd Feb 2011 | 17:00
Bulletstorm review: Remember when first-person shooters were all about having fun?
You know, back before developers cracked open an Ivan Pavlov text book and mass-produced passively satisfying number grinds. When a kill meant maniacally hopping over rockets long enough to grab Quad Damage power-up, then delivering sweet explosive justice. When FPS epics weren't about snapping to a target, holding the fire button down and then receiving a profane message pertaining to your mother and/or sexual orientation for your troubles.
Sure, perhaps some of us have become a wee bit cynical by that which once enthralled us. We've grown tired of the super serious FPS, and begun to really miss the over-the-top, risqué first-person shooters of yesteryear - when stories could be succinctly summed up by saying something like "those alien bastards are gonna pay for shooting up my ride!".
Fortunately for us, People Can Fly and Epic Games' Bulletstorm knows how to party like it's 1996 all over again. Just without Babylon Zoo and Robson and bloody Jerome on the radio.
DRUNK AND DISORDERLY
Bulletstorm lays its vulgar cards on the table early on. Set in the 26th Century, the game opens by giving the player control of space pirate Grayson Hunt - very much a character from the Gears of War 'burly man with angry face' school of design.
He looks like the end product of a Marcus x Dom fanfic - except with delicate feathered hair. Only Grayson's no by-the-book marine. We learn that he was once kicked out of a secret black-ops army called Dead Echo, and that within a few minutes of Bulletstorm's beginning, he's not only heavily inebriated, but has caught himself an assassin.
This would-be killer is tied to a chair in the cargo bay of Grayson's ship, and is being raucously interrogated. After learning that his traitorous former boss General Serano commissioned the hit, Grayson rewards his captor's compliance with a boot to the face, sending him into the vacant depths of outer space.
Then, at that very moment, Serano's ship shows up - spurring the brash, impulsive Grayson to order a suicidal frontal assault on his foe's well-equipped fortress. Now, we know what you're thinking. That phrase,: "Then, at that very moment". Sounds a little like the rampant stream of consciousness of a breathless teenage sci-fi writer, yes?
Well hush your inner literary snob. To get the most out of Bulletstorm's nine-hour campaign, you're going to have to suspend plenty of disbelief in the coincidental. In fact, that goes for the wholly unbelievable. This isn't a game that's going to win any high brow awards for a complicated narrative arc. But trust us - that's part of what makes it so much fun.
Following their impromptu invasion, Grayson and second in command Ishi crash land on alien planet Stygia - which is stuffed to the gills with meat-eating plants, bone-chomping monsters and ravenous mutants. They're not alone: Serano is also deposited elsewhere on Stygia in the melee, and you spend the rest of the game trying to find Grayson's nemesis and exit your temporary hell.
Bulletstorm's lead characters have a lot more to offer than the game's shallow plot and head-turningly crass marketing campaign might have you believe. While they all fit fairly neatly into ancient archetypes, each one has an unexpected wrinkle to their personality that makes them likeable if your glass is half-full, or bearable if you're a bit more of a gaming grouch.
With the exception of General Serano, who remains a twisted, racist, chauvinist throughout, the characters - Grayson, Ishi and foul-mouthed female Trishka - all emotionally develop as the game wears on. Sure, it can feel forced and little melodramatic at times, but it's a welcome change from the single note "hooah" tone of most other shooters.
Bulletstorm boasts a trio of core gameplay differentiators: a leash and kick mechanic, Skillshots and creative weaponry. Each is symbiotically linked, and they form a simple but unique combat experience that encourages experimentation. Just don't expect your mum to be too keen.
The environments double up as elaborate combat arenas, constructed by People Can Fly's top sadists. Useful props range from the common explosive barrel and wall spikes to more unorthodox murder tools such as electrical storms, giant fans, elevators and hungry sentient plant life - and if utilised correctly, they're almost universally satisfying.
Skillshots reward your combination of Grayson's abilities, environments and weapons to kill with creativity, and are all given hopelessly immature names. Bash someone into a cactus and they get 'Pricked'. Kill someone while drunk and you'll be rewarded for being 'Intoxicated'. A bullet to the throat is called a 'Gag Shot' while hitting multiple enemies with a flail shot explosion is a 'Gangbang'.
Okay, so the gross-out gags come thick and fast, and unless you're actually Stifler, we can't attest that the mirth they cause is sustained. They are non-stop and will test your patience, but we found that once the giggles run dry, you soon come to accept them as mere monikers, and they don't grate or interrupt the action perhaps as much as you'd expect.
Combined with a range of OTT weaponry and mini-bosses of all shapes, sizes and weaknesses, Skillshots makes it difficult for you to get bored of Bulletstorm's combat. Your arsenal eventually includes a faithful Carbine that can liquefy enemies, a Boneduster with four shotgun barrels and the Flailgun, which fires two explosives grenades connected by a chain that wraps around enemy limbs to gory effect.
Even the genre staples within your armoury are given a twist, through a neat 'charged shot' meter, which adds to the deceptive amount of tactical thinking you'll have to do. A clever, dumb game, this one.
Though the Skillshots do bring much grisly joy, their potential is not fully realised in the driving single-player campaign, where there is often little pause for breath as you are ushered forward versus a constant barrage of enemies.
Luckily, the game's multiplayer suite picks up the slack, offering a pleasing amount of variety which, once again, harks back to time when racking up kills was a frantic, rather than calculated pursuit.
Our favourite modes include 'Echo', which isolates key moments of the single-player campaign, strips them of their narrative and lets the player compete for the highest score on each level, and 'Anarchy'. This is Bulletstorm's equivalent of Horde, but instead of surviving waves of foes, up to four players must use Skillshots and environmental kills to cooperatively reach a point goal.
Although both of these modes provide potentially unlimited hours of gameplay, we admit that we found ourselves yearning for the boring old straight up Deathmatch modes, where we would have loved to dish out some of the game's more heinous Skillshots on friends online. For shame.
Happily, Bulletstorm's fondness for absurdity stretches to some ridiculous campaign set-pieces, steeped in its typically immature humour. While the usual modern day gaming set-pieces such as the Hekaton - a mammoth city destroying alien creature that could go toe-to-toe with Resistance 2's Leviathan or God of War 3's Titans - certainly don't fail to inspire awe, it's the comparably less epic but bizarre situations that are Bulletstorm's most memorable.
Giant rampaging aliens might but be cool, but they can't compare to the pure fun of controlling a robot Godzilla that fires laser beams of destruction from his eyes and stomps on enemies hiding in a miniature city.
Humour is a big part of the game's charm, and those fearful of a relentlessly juvenile assault can relax - beyond the lewd profanity, Bulletstorm does a good job of poking fun at itself. Even uber-geeky games industry in-jokes (such as a certain Red Ring) are sent-up, offering some light relief from all the puerile puns and comic gore porn. But the easily offended should be warned: there is a truckful of both contained within Bulletstorm's walls.
As you'd expect, the game uses Epic's ubiquitous Unreal Engine 3, and dresses the old dog up nicely. Although the game looks strikingly familiar, the art direction has produced environments that are a departure from the greys and browns that UE3 has become synonymous with - with a noticeable presence of greens, yellows and red.
Bulletstorm's locales span the visual gamut, including the darkness of a metropolis where building are traced by the gleam of twilight; a mutant botanical garden where deadly plant life glows vibrantly as it menacingly squirms to life; and dark underground caves where makeshift mutant settlements are eerily lit to cover ambushes and everything in between. There's even a few odd locations such as a nightclub and a city mall that serve as welcome palette cleansers.
The game isn't entirely without its faults in the visual department, though. Unfortunately it also suffers from the 'texture fade-in' problem that plagues a number of other Unreal Engine and Epic Games titles. But these occurrences aren't frequent enough to be anything more than a trifling annoyance.
A STORM BREWING
Bulletstorm is an FPS that offers the kind of personality and tone which propelled genre icons such as Duke Nukem and Serious Sam into stardom - and one which carries this with an originality and freshness that will bring much cheer to those who have become tired of stale, earnest military shooters.
It's a bright, good-looking game with a very smart combat mechanic, one which sadly only fully thrives in multiplayer. Sometimes it seems as though PCF and Epic have ignored modern genre conventions where they would have been welcomed, but in nearly all cases, their striving for innovation (or, at least, a reckless nod to the past) pays dividends.
Yes, its vulgar and obscene nature might rub some people the wrong way, but for many Bulletstorm will be a humorous, tongue-in-cheek romp that distinguishes itself from the samey sci-fi and military shooters clogging up the genre. The game brings simple design concepts used in the infancy of the FPS to the modern day and garnishes them with all the current-generation trimmings.
If you're looking for an exciting FPS which is packed to the rafters with identity - and, of course, doesn't mind getting a little bit silly - this one comes seriously recommended.
Make sure you check out CVG's attempt to answer specific questions you asked us to consider before our Bulletstorm review through here.