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Bulletstorm is not what you think it is. Whatever you thought of the demo and wherever you sit on the expectation scale, whether you currently perceive it as a potty-mouthed piece of juvenilia or a glorious hark-back to the balls-out fun of Duke Nukem 3D and Quake, you’re wrong. It’s far, far more than that, and it’s far, far better than that.
Bulletstorm you see, is a very intelligent, highly intricate, and sumptuously nuanced design masquerading as a big dumb action game. In fact it’s such an evolution of the FPS experience that it’s very probably destined for that pantheon of rare games to be deemed worthy of the word “important” in a couple of years time. Yeah, the i-word. I went there.
Above: Bulletstorm's Polish box art revealed. We like it
Bulletstorm is not just a shooter. In fact, once you’ve taken the time to really explore its depths, you’ll realise that being a shooter is just one small part of what it’s about. It’s just as much a 3D puzzle game, high-speed strategy game, and even, if you really get into it, a bit of a maths challenge too. Also, shit dun blows up real purdy like. But I’ll come to all of that. First, the basics.
In Bulletstorm’s main campaign, you play Grayson Hunt, a former government spec ops agent turned hard drinking space pirate. He has a well-reasoned vendetta against his former employers, which leads to a large-scale space battle near the start of the game, which in turn leads to Grayson and his crew crash-landing on the wrecked resort planet of Stygia. From hereon in, it’s all about finding a way off-world, while ideally getting hold of the chief bad guys along the way. And that’s where things get very, very exciting.
Early on, you’ll gain access to an electric tether. It’s essentially a grappling hook with which you can grab hold of almost any enemy and a vast array of objects, whip them towards you, and then hold them in front of you for a few seconds, suspended in slo-mo. From there, your options are limitless. Being also equipped with a powerful kick, your most obvious follow-up is to boot your flailing target back up into the air before pumping it full of lead.
But that’s just the most basic training-wheels principle underpinning a complexity and depth you have not yet experienced in first-person combat. The leash/kick/shoot string is simply the equivalent of learning your first special move in Street Fighter, or initially getting your head around the basic mechanics of Aperture Science portals. Small acorn, full-blown Amazonian rainforest to come.
You’re constantly judged on the complexity and inventiveness of your kills, and scores decrease with repetition. The points you score for clever killing are the currency you use to buy new weapons, as well as functionality upgrades for your existing ones. Every gun and additional perk is meticulously designed to integrate with and balance against the others, opening up a pantheon of new options with each one that’s added to the mix.
These options make up Bulletstorm’s comprehensive list of Skill Shots, a line-up of circumstantial kills and stacked combos detailed in the pause menu, which comprise every possible violent interaction you’ll concoct and plenty you won’t. We’re talking well over a hundred individual “moves” here, with an accessible freedom of blendability that evokes the glory days of Tony Hawk’s combo system.
Examples? The flail gun launches an explosive-charged snare which attaches to enemy and environment alike, ready to be detonated at will or after a countdown. Cool, but what happens if you tie it to a mook, tether him in, kick him at a group of friends, and then detonate? Big points, that’s what. Or how about if you quickly switch to another gun and kill him just before the charge wipes out his mates? Now you’re rolling a real combo. And then how about if you achieve that early kill with a specific head-shot, throat-shot or ass-shot? Now you’re thinking.
Or you could use a specially charged tether whiplash to launch every enemy in the vicinity straight up, before gunning them down back to earth for a Trap Shoot bonus. Or you could instead flail-shot one of the launched goons and instantly detonate, wiping out the whole suspended group before they even start to fall. Fertiliser bonus. Or you could immediately re-tether one of them and whip him back down into the ground with fatal speed. Slam Dunk bonus. And I’m still just scratching the surface here.
With a carbine, a quadruple-barrel shotgun, an explosive flail gun, a flare-firing Magnum (kill one dude instantly, shoot down his flaming buddies for After Burner points), a remotely-triggered, bouncing, multi-blast grenade (tether it toward you, then kick it around the battlefield like an incendiary basketball), a rocket-propelled drill (You can power it up to redirect on a second flightpath after its first kill. Or embed it in a bad guy before kicking him into another, impaling them both. Or instakill a boss by sticking it into his armour and then getting close enough to boot it through his chest), a sniper rifle with steerable bullets, dozens of environmental kills, and a stack more bonuses for things like hitting specific body parts or killing within a tight time-limit, careful thought and experimentation reveals a pseudo-goofy game which in truth has as much depth and nuance as some of the most lauded titles in the business.
And none of this creative killing is any mere gimmick. It all serves serious purpose. Truly great FPS, whatever the likes of CoD would have you believe, is not just about shooting from a first-person perspective. It’s about allowing you to use a toolset to creatively stamp your own individual mark on the game world through meaningful, inventive interactions with it. Bulletstorm achieves that better than any game in recent memory.
The kind of interactions most games save for their most inventive Achievements or Trophies, Bulletstorm builds its core game around. And when you really start plumbing its depths you’ll discover a sense of personal involvement and purpose within its world that genuinely is groundbreaking.
In fact it feels like the first real evolutionary landmark in the genre for a good long time. We’ve had Quake 3’s speed and bendable physics. We’ve had Half-Life 2’s gravity gun. We’ve had Portal’s portals. And now, the startlingly powerful, multi-layered freedom of Bulletstorm feels like a totally legitimate next step in that path.
Read back through the various actions I’ve already listed in this review. Even in isolation, they provide amazing freedom and scope for player imagination. But when built into tight, strategic combos and combined with clever level layout and enemy placement, they turn every skirmish into a mini-sandbox puzzle. Bulletstorm’s enemies – ranging from feral, Mad Max-style gangs to carnivorous plants to highly trained SWAT troops – are an eclectically challenging bunch. Some are immune to the tether. Others can’t be caught with the flail. Some are heavily armoured and require careful spatial positioning to find their weak points, which can then be exploited with the right combinations of Skill Shots.
And if when you start looking around your immediate environment, you’ll open things up even further. You can treat that carnivorous plant as a friend or a foe. You can shoot that explosive barrel where it is or throw it around to a more tactically advantageous position. You can avoid that deadly plasma storm or stay close and drawn enemies towards it. You can dodge enemy flares, or deliberately walk into them to land a valuable Blind Fire bonus for scoring a kill with impaired vision. With environmental awareness and creative thinking, a Bulletstorm skirmish can take minutes or seconds to clear up, and can boost your currency stash by 50 points or 3000. And the power to make those differences is entirely yours.
And that’s not to mention the ways that Bulletstorm excels in more conventional areas. The main campaign is a tightly-constructed rollercoaster of a thing, relentless and with not a second of filler despite its fairly generous (for a modern shooter) length. It’s also pleasingly stuffed with a fair amount of Gears of War 2’s vast sense of scale. Example: Every FPS is required by law to have an on-rails shooting bit, but Bulletstorm’s standout example, set during a hectic train-ride out of a mountain industrial facility, goes a bit like this:
Particularly during the first half of the game, environments and pacing switch up with razor-sharp timing, smartly using set-pieces and level layout to introduce the advantages of each different weapon and play style without letting any outstay its welcome, all the while setting you up nicely for the more tactical play demanded by the game’s brutal latter stages.
As for the story, drop all preconceptions you may have of it being an annoying fratboy swearfest. They’re totally unfounded. Yes, this is a pulp sci-fi universe that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it’s certainly not unintelligent. For starters, it’s less sweary than a lot of ‘serious’ games out there, instead using surreally creative cursing to make genuinely funny impact and build vividly individual comic book characters. And it’s never afraid to lampoon its own linguistic logic when it goes too far.
And underpinning all of that is some genuine emotional heft. A couple of smartly written scenes near the start subtly set up some real emotional hooks and serious values amongst the main cast, ensuring that what could have been a clownish group of cartoon characters instead becomes a genuinely likeable bunch of real personalities who you genuinely will care about. Let’s face it, a sense of humour in the face of adversity is a far more human trait than constant glowering and grit. Sorry, Marcus.
But Bulletstorm is more than just its campaign. It’s a set of three distinct and substantial game modes. And although the two secondary options at first seem tacked on, in truth Bulletstorm is a very clever set-up. It’s a lot like the structure of Geometry Wars 2, in that it uses deconstructed modes to teach a greater understanding of the game as a whole by filtering it through different lenses.
The first of these is Echoes mode. If interacting with Bulletstorm is like learning a new gaming language, then Echoes teaches the finer points of grammar and punctuation. A set of 20 mini-levels reworked from sections of the main campaign, it’s pure score-attack. Thus, every individual kill, every group encounter, every piece of scenery, every weapon property and every environmental hazard has to be meticulously considered and its use carefully planned in order to maximise the score potential of your run. It’s Bulletstorm broken down to its purest form, as you race to wring every last point out of finite resources while minimising repetition for the sake of preserving reward.
In a remarkably short amount of time, Echoes becomes a science, as you mathematically work out your perfect run and polish your execution to nail it in record time. When you go back to the main campaign after an Echoes session, you’ll see a brand new game; a sharper, tighter, more detailed one that you’ll play in a brand new way.
And then there’s Anarchy, Bulletstorm’s multiplayer component. Wisely realising that competitive MP would be a scrappy clusterfook given Bulletstorm’s extravagant combat mechanics, People Can Fly and Epic have created a four-player Horde-style mode instead. Rather than charging your team with simply surviving waves, Anarchy instead requires you to pass each stage by hitting a specified team score quota before you run out of enemies to kill. This time though, normal combos just won’t cut it, however convoluted you make them.
Instead, you’ll have to score bigger points by pulling off team Skill Shots, splitting the components of each combo between several men using a combination of seat-of-the-pants creativity and razor-sharp choreography. Set in compact arenas packed out with useful environmental hazards, they give you plenty of options – including some brand new, team-specific Skill Shots, like tearing a man apart using multiple tethers – but only by operating as organised parts of a greater machine will you have any hope of succeeding.
Despite the mode’s name and the inevitable initial confusion of your first few attempts, once it clicks Anarchy becomes a deliciously gratifying and tactically rewarding slice of camaraderie pie, very much in the Left 4 Dead or Bad Company 2 mould. As such, it’s the kind of multiplayer that really will require you to play with friends rather than randoms – one clueless loner can instantly mess things up in the later waves – but also as such, it’s the kind of multiplayer that will provide some of your most satisfying moments of online bromance and epic tales of last minute victory.
Call of Duty: Black Ops? Yes. Blops is a slick rendition of the Call of Duty formula, but by that very note it's formulaic. CoD's cinematic hand-holding can't hold a candle to Bulletstorm's progressive, densely interactive invention in terms of game design or laughs per minute. By comparison, its core combay feels like playing an RTS with only one unit. Blops does, however, have much more expansive multiplayer options.
Gears of War 2? Not better in every respect, no. But if you're serious about your shooters, you really do need both. They're great companion pieces in a way, in that both games are completely successful in fully exploring an individual approach to the shooter genre. Gears is the more superficially serious game, but Bulletstorm can match it in terms of scale and engaging narrative. Gears's tightly designed co-op campaign gets it extra points, but Bulletstorm's sheer depth and scope levels the playing field.
Killzone 3? Yes. Killzone 3 does a great job of fixing its predecessor's problems, and is a deliriously-paced visual standout for FPS, but while it certainly progresses its series, it doesn't progress its genre. Bulletstorm does. It's a genuine creative evolution, pulled off with intelligence, depth and flair, and as such is a more special game.
Forget your preconceptions of Bulletstorm as a foul-mouthed big dumb action game. It’s an intelligent, nuanced design with fathoms of depth, which marks a return to the importance of player creativity in shooters and simultaneously evolves the concept of interactivity in an FPS world. And with two cleverly complimentary secondary modes, it will have serious legs for a good long while to come.
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