At face value I shouldn't like Bulletstorm. It comes off as obnoxious and crass, full of toilet humor, emphasizing a sort of dickish boldness and attitude that's been driven into the ground by countless shooters over the last few years. The "kill with skill" tagline and profanity laced combo names seemed so hollow when free of any context. To coin a phrase, it seems like Bulletstorm is compensating for something.
So it's a surprise then that Bulletstorm is actually something kind of special. Sure, it's still brash, and it's still full of toilet humor, but with context, Bulletstorm is a violently charming popcorn shooter that plays well with some great design.
Bulletstorm's premise is original enough. Set in a space-faring future full of pirates and American Civil War cliches, Bulletstorm tells the story of Grayson Hunt, a former Confederate operative turned outlaw. Grayson has spent his post-Confederacy time harassing his former commander and keeping company with his also-outlawed squad, Dead Echo. When a random opportunity arises to strike directly against the heart of the Confederacy, Grayson sets his ship on a suicide run and maroons himself and his crew on the planet Stygia. It's up to him to get the survivors off the planet, and maybe find some of the revenge and redemption he so desperately wants in the process.
Soon enough, Grayson acquires a Leash, a Confederate energy weapon with an invasive artificial intelligence. The Leash allows Grayson to snag enemies and fling them into the air in slow motion, and its AI has been designed to evaluate combat performance – it rewards balls-out combat bravado in the form of points that can be redeemed at Confederate resupply pods scattered around the planet. By combining shots to specific appendages and/or bathing suit areas with standing and sliding kicks, the Leash, and various environmental hazards, you'll discover a variety of named kill combos that reward more points than standard shots.
The idea of upgradeable weapons and skills isn't all that new or different, but Bulletstorm provides a welcome dose of functionality and suspension of disbelief to its combo system. The Leash AI takes all of Bulletstorm's unique and genre-defying mechanical elements and makes sense of them within its own particular reality. It's... smart. Who'd have thought, particularly given the throwback nature of Bulletstorm's first person shooting? There's no cover, enemies aren't especially smart, and levels are a straight shot from A to B, but Bullestorm still impresses. In tandem with shooting that feels responsive and meaty, with powerful, interesting weapons, the combo system makes Bulletstorm's combat a success.
Bulletstorm is also full of fantastic moments of spectacle in its well-paced story, from the collapse of entire sections of a city to more than one giant monster moment. Bulletstorm handles size and scale particularly effectively. There's never a sense of disconnect between "the things what are big" and human-sized characters. Ironically, People Can Fly makes everything feel grounded.
Some of that grounding is provided by the moment-to-moment beauty of Stygia. Stygia is full of colorful, vicious life that's taken over the remains of the pleasure capital of the Confederacy. Whether human gangs of cannibals, mutant tribes, or more horrifying wildlife, everything's a hazard. People Can Fly deftly dole out bits of backstory here and there through character conversation in-game and random environmental details, establishing Stygia as a place that existed before Grayson marooned himself and his crewmates there. It has history, and that makes tourist'ing there interesting.
And really, a sense of history and place holds Bulletstorm up when the gameplay itself treads too close to repetitive. Bulletstorm runs out of tricks and new combat situations about two-thirds of the way through -- there are points where Bulletstorm devolves into "kick these guys off that ledge" or "kick that guy into a heavy metal cactus" nonstop, pushes its gimmicks and set-piece design elements out there too many times and losing momentum and my interest. But seeing more of Stygia kept me engaged.
The characters and story help to seal the deal in this respect. Grayson's desperate need for revenge is frequently weighed against the sense of obligation he feels to the friends he has left. It's actually nice to see a character acknowledge his failings and fight to restore some sort of karmic balance, and other characters see their own arcs developed. Sure, there are some telegraphed twists and story beats, but things build well toward Bulletstorm's climax.
Until the very end, that is. Bulletstorm builds so well to a cathartic ending section that it's frustrating to see the story pull up short in a transparent attempt to set up an easy sequel. I don't mind sequels, but I do mind a lack of any closure at all. "Then this thing happened" is not an ending, and Bulletstorm's final half hour or so left a rotten taste in my mouth.
Does the crass cop-out of an ending in the interest of franchising a new property ruin the game? Well, no. But it does hurt an otherwise fantastic trip. There are also a few strange omissions. The time-and-score-attack Echo mode is a nice enough inclusion with its online-enabled leaderboards, but why isn't there leaderboard-enabled campaign scoring in the main game? Campaign co-op also seems like a missed opportunity; you have at least one AI partner at all times in Bulletstorm, which makes the solo-only nature of the main game that much more jarring. Campaign leaderboards would help give replay value to a main game that I finished in less than six hours, and Echo just didn't hold my attention.
Behind the Scenes
How did we review Bulletstorm? Head over to Arthur Gies' blog for a rundown of the review event and more.
Bulletstorm isn't a completely solitary party. Rather than the usual deathmatch and team-based competitive modes, Bulletstorm offers a cooperative affair called Anarchy Mode. Anarchy is a mix of cooperation and competition -- four player teams compete against each other for the most points via the slickest kills, but a combined score threshhold has to be met to advance. The rub here is that certain waves of enemies will have obscenely high score requirements that can only be met by completing specific team kills designated by the game.
It sounds exciting, but Anarchy mode loses its luster quickly. Sure, the basics of Bulletstorm are there. The leash, the guns, the skillshots, and the idea of working with friends as a team to creatively rack up kills is interesting. As with the campaign though, the gunplay blurs together and grows tedious after a while, and there are no set pieces, no story, and no character to break up the monotony. Also, Anarchy sometimes left my teammates and I feeling robbed -- Bulletstorm often failed to recognize elaborate team kills, leaving us in a time warp repeating the same wave again and again.