Bulletstorm became available for purchase on Feb. 22, 2011, and it can only be described as obnoxious and completely offensive. Fortunately, these traits actually help the game. Developed partially by Epic Games, a team known for the Gears of War series and the Unreal Engine, the game rewards you for shooting enemies in the privates or dispatching foes while drunk. Furthermore, every exchange of dialog is punctuated with at least three profanities. On the flip side, it is also a lot of fun and much smarter than its advertising or demo would lead you to believe.
You are stepping into the boots of disgraced soldier-turned-space-pirate Grayson Hunt, who crash-lands on the doomed “resort planet,” Stygia, after a botched suicide run against his nemesis, General Sarrano. Grayson’s straight man is Ishi Sato, a crewmember and friend who has been transformed into a cyborg after sustaining horrible injuries in the crash. Trishka, a tough soldier chick in Sarrano’s employ who is looking to escape Stygia, later joins the duo.
The story is ridiculous, self-consciously crass and tremendously refreshing, especially when weighed against the over-wrought wreck of Call of Duty and Gears of War. There are some clever wrinkles, like Ishi struggling to maintain control of his mind as the logical processors of his cyborg half try to take over. The game even begins with a Melville reference.
“Kill with Skill” is the game’s tagline, and its main game play hook is a point system that awards players for completing skill-shots: obscenely sadistic recipes for killing foes in novel ways. The Wii game Madworld featured a similar mechanic, but Bulletstorm is best thought of as Tony Hawk with guns instead of skateboards.
Each firefight is a rail to grind off of, an opportunity to pull off crazy tricks with your gun, the telekinetic ‘leash’ attached to your hand and your over-sized action hero boots. More elaborate kills award players with more points, which can then be spent to purchase upgrades and ammunition, and each level of the game introduces more skill-shots or new firearms.
The leash and the boot are more versatile tools than you might expect, allowing you to yank enemies close, kick them away and slow them down in the process. The game’s arsenal is suitably bombastic, featuring quadruple barreled shotguns and a gun that fires exploding flails. Every gun has a genuinely novel alternate fire mode.
Unfortunately, the arsenal is not quite large or innovative enough to make the scoring system feel as robust as it should. The game’s opening ramps up a little more slowly than it should, offering too few weapons and scoring options at the outset. For the inevitable sequel, it would be great to see a full spread of BioShock-like super-powers.
All the same, the campaign is a memorable experience filled with creative situations like fights in fallen skyscrapers and exploding dams, a sequence where you guide a robotic tyrannosaurus-like-monster through a rampage and a lengthy Zelda-esque boss-fight with a carnivorous plant. This kind of heavy scripting would normally be stifling, but the point system invites enough improvisation to keep the experience feeling fluid and fresh. Stygia is an absolutely beautiful dystopia with clever architecture and polished landscapes.
Next time, however, Epic and People Can Fly, the other developer, should spend a little more time fine-tuning the engine. For the most part, the game is quite stable, though I did encounter a few collision bugs that forced me to reload from checkpoints.
The multiplayer is heartbreaking. The lack of any kind of local multiplayer is a criminal omission because Bulletstorm would have made an outstanding party game. Another, less-keenly felt absence is the lack of a PvP mode. The only kind of head-to-head game play is “Echoes” mode, which is essentially a score attack mode with leader boards.
The real meat of the online experience is essentially a Horde Mode clone, where a team of four players take out waves of enemies while trying to score as many points as possible. Setting up or assisting your team with an elaborate team skill-shot is exhilarating, but the experience is best enjoyed with friends. Not being able to invite a friend over for a round or two is a tremendous missed opportunity.
Bulletstorm is not quite as great a game as it could be, and its crassness may turn a few people off, but it is an enjoyable over-the-top romp with a meaty campaign and several good ideas. If you are looking for something new in first-person-shooting that is available to all the gaming systems from Playstation 3 to XBox 360 to Windows, give this screwball comedy a try.