Sci-fi first-person shooter Bulletstorm is a celebration of adolescent crassness. It is neither artful nor sophisticated, proudly wearing strings of obscenities as a badge of dishonor. Subtle it isn't; entertaining, it is. Where the meatheaded characters and forced, childish dialogue fail, the gameplay mostly succeeds, pushing you through a variety of attractive environments and encouraging you to "kill with skill." In Bulletstorm, you earn points by kicking your enemies into cacti, shooting them in the rear end, and flinging them into the air with your electric leash, among many other variations and combinations of bullets, boots, and exploding barrels. You spend these points on ammo, weapon upgrades, and more, giving you reason to perform these moves beyond the initial gratification they provide. Bulletstorm is sometimes ludicrous and often ludicrously fun--an enjoyable and occasionally embarrassing journey to the profane future it predicts.
The Confederation of Planets' General Sarrano is a product of this future. This potty-mouthed, wholly abhorrent man is part of a secret army called Dead Echo--as was Grayson Hunt, a grunt who discovered that the targets that Sarrano ordered his team to execute were innocent of wrongdoing. Years later, a drunken Grayson, thirsty for revenge, leads his crew of mercenaries into a battle they're ill-prepared to win. Grayson and Sarrano both crash-land on the planet Stygia, where Grayson's quest for vengeance is coupled with his plan to escape. As Grayson, you are accompanied by Ishi, a colleague constantly fighting to control the robotic AI used to patch his brain after he's injured during Grayson's alcohol-fueled rampage.
Ishi is Bulletstorm's best character: conflicted, temperamental, and unpredictable. Nevertheless, praising any of this game's characters is somewhat of a backhanded compliment, given their shallow penchant for describing events, emotions, and each other using four-letter words combined in various nonsensical ways. A few of these bizarre outbreaks of sexual innuendo might be absurd enough to put a momentary grin on your face, but the cringe-worthy dialogue isn't coupled with, say, Duke Nukem 3D's hysterical hypersexual excess, Serious Sam's vibrant surreality, or Vanquish's tongue-in-cheek skewering of modern video game machismo. In fact, Bulletstorm's finest narrative moments are those that leave the trashy talk behind and touch ever-so-briefly on Grayson's guilty conscience, and his attempts to help Ishi conquer the AI infesting his mind. Unfortunately, the verbal sleaze gets tiring quickly and undermines any attempt at serious storytelling. Perhaps developer People Can Fly meant for this dialogue to be so over the top as to be side-splittingly funny. Instead, it comes across as a forced attempt to appeal to our basest instincts.
And so Bulletstorm lacks wit, but it has no shortage of entertaining, in-your-face action. The six-hour campaign is packed with fun shooting made even more enjoyable by the way you earn rewards for being awesome. Your awesomeness begins with the energy leash, which lets you grab foes from afar and yank them toward you. Doing so causes them to helplessly hover in the air for a few seconds as if the laws of time and gravity were temporarily suspended just for that particular enemy. This moment of stasis is your chance to kick screaming masked mercenaries into electric fields, fill their heads with lead, and drop exploding crates onto them. You can slide into them at great speed and knock them off cliffs, use airlocks to send them into the vacuum of space, and feed them to flesh-eating plants. These clever kills are called skillshots and are accompanied by a pop-up proudly proclaiming the name of your move and how many points you earned from it.
Skillshots have such names as "Rear Entry" (a kill involving shooting an enemy in the hindquarters) and "Mercy" (shooting an enemy in the groin and then killing him with a headshot). The immature innuendo thematically ties the gameplay to the narrative, but the fun doesn't come from the titles of the skillshots; it comes from the discovery of new ones and the successful performance of ones you already know. Various environments give you different ways of exterminating Sarrano's cronies, letting you use poisonous pods, swarms of killer flies, and electrified billboards to your advantage. It also gives you a number of excellent and enjoyable weapons to wield, which have specific skillshots attached to them as well. The assault rifle and shotgun are much as you would expect, but a few of these deadly instruments give you intriguing ways of dealing with your screaming foes. The most interesting of these is the flailgun, which fires two grenades linked together by a chain. The chain wraps around your target and immobilizes him, and then you detonate the grenades, annihilating your enemy--and possibly many other enemies in the blast radius. These weapons also have exciting secondary modes. For instance, with the revolver known as the screamer, you can fire a flare into enemies that launches them into the air before exploding and setting fire to nearby grunts.
These elements come together in enjoyable and interesting ways, and when you are surrounded by enemies, the tempo is quick and satisfying. You can slide along the ground and into a foe, which recalls the rocket sliding mechanic in 2010's Vanquish. While that game progressed at a breakneck pace that Bulletstorm never approaches, the similar mechanic here still produces moments of slick energy that culminate in spurts of blood and piercing shrieks. You can exercise crowd control with the leash's Thumper upgrade by slamming your whip down and launching enemies into the air, where they hang for several moments while you fire at them with abandon. There's a lot happening much of the time, with explosions filling the screen, mutants covered with bulbous growths charging at you, and lumbering minibosses demanding your attention. Even so, Bulletstorm makes you feel skillful, for two main reasons. Firstly, a smooth difficulty curve and frequent weapon upgrades allow you to keep up with your increasingly challenging enemies. Secondly, the skillshot notifications serve as a constant reminder of how talented you are. You even earn points for certain mundane actions, such as holding down a shoulder button to view a scripted event.
Other aspects of Bulletstorm are more run-of-the-mill. Debris always falls in such a way as to force you down a very linear path, as it so often does in first-person shooters. This linearity is emphasized by the game's wholly contextual jumping. (You can leap over objects only when the game gives you the button prompt.) It can also lead to overcrowded battles in which your companion (or later in the game, two companions) has a tendency to get in your way when you want to perform a particular skillshot, or just stay in control of the action. Bulletstorm's most disappointing moments come near the end, in the form of an easy not-quite-a-boss-fight, followed by a passable shooting sequence that never reaches a proper climax. Then there's the post-credits epilogue, which is so cliched and predictable, it's almost indistinguishable from Killzone 3's own sequel tease.
Fortunately, other missions do a better job of ramping up the excitement. In an early on-rails sequence, you fire a minigun at gyrocopters and speeding carriers--par for the course for many modern shooters, but made thrilling by the gargantuan, menacing wheel of death barreling across your view. Another entertaining mission has you remotely controlling a giant monster in a fun park, just after a shoot-out in a miniature replica city that serves as Bulletstorm's most clever locale. Other attempts to increase the stakes are pleasingly cinematic in their visual excess, but are mostly bark without bite. For example, a battle versus a Venus flytrap with an attitude is nice to watch, but requires almost no skill. After all, a boss has little impact when you don't fear its power. The game's minibosses are standard for sci-fi shooters: shoot the glowing object on the hulk's back, and attack him when he's down. (You might have already fought carbon copies of these bosses in numerous other games.) Your great arsenal gives you enough ways to destroy these muscular freaks to make it fun to take them on. Nevertheless, Bulletstorm is at its best when it sticks to its basic premise, letting you fling your whip around and fire the weapon of your choice, all while you charge through its outstanding environments.
Those inviting environments provide much of Bulletstorm's appeal. Skulking through the dark interior of a space vessel or an industrial warehouse doesn't reveal many visual delights, but the majority of the game takes place on the Stygian surface, which is gorgeous to look at. Under a beautiful blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds, ivy grows across arching overhangs and domed gazebos. In a later level, a dazzling lightning storm makes an intense battle all the more fearful. Most outdoor environments are saturated with greens and blues, which contrasts with some of the grotesque enemy designs, giving this planet the look of a paradise lost. The soundtrack isn't as noteworthy as the art design, though the subtle, satisfying musical cue that ends each battle is an effective pat on the back for another well-fought battle. More notable are the bloodcurdling wails emitted by the savages you exterminate--another way Bulletstorm makes you feel like an unstoppable murder machine.
Finishing the campaign doesn't mean the Bulletstorm experience must come to a close. You can also take part in its lone multiplayer mode, which is fun for a while, but limited in scope. The mode is called Anarchy, and it has you fending off waves of enemies with up to three other players. This is a common cooperative setup (think Horde mode in Gears of War 2, or Halo 3: ODST's Firefight), but the cool weapons and energy leash give Anarchy a dash of flavor. More important to the online experience are the team skillshots, in which players must cooperate to earn the most points. The game often indicates that killing a particular enemy with a specific team skillshot will shower you with extra points, but this requires cooperation. Each round requires the team to earn enough points to pass, and in between rounds, you spend points on new weapons and on upgrades to stats like speed and defense. This reliance on teamwork can be both rewarding and frustrating. On one hand, pulling off a last-minute rally by completing a team skillshot on your final remaining grunt is exciting. On the other, a lone wolf can ruin everything with a single errant shot. If you want the best Anarchy experience, it's best to play with friends rather than strangers, lest you get stuck taking on the same wave time and time again.
Anarchy is fun, but the joy is relatively short-lived. It's enjoyable to kick an enemy into an energy cyclone or over a ledge, but after you do it several dozen times on the disappointingly small maps, it loses its newness, and you will long for more variety. (The repetitive, obscene goading of the announcer doesn't help matters.) You may also encounter some technical troubles. Even on a lightning-fast connection, lag can
sometimes be a problem, and on occasion you might be unable to progress to the next round because the game insists that there are more enemies left to kill, though none can be found. Bulletstorm's lasting value comes instead from Echoes mode, in which you repeat short sections of the single-player campaign. This is where you can see how skilled you truly are. Each Echoes map comes with a par time, and you earn points not just for pulling off incredible skillshots, but for doing it as fast as you can. These bite-size levels are addictive, encouraging you to shave off precious seconds and best your previous score, all while chasing friends and strangers on the online leaderboards.
Bulletstorm is a fun, breezy, and puerile romp. If you play games for the fun of it all, this shooter delivers, giving you some neat weapons and mechanics, and rewarding you for your topflight technique. Unspectacular online play, an abundance of shooter cliches, and forced vulgarity keep it from joining the shooter elite. But the creativity of the skillshot system paired with the engrossing nature of moving up the Echoes leaderboards gives Bulletstorm some muscle and will inspire a dedicated following of talented players eager to show off their incredible mastery of its gratifying mechanics.