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.