Reviewed: February 27, 2011
Released: February 22, 2011
While gamers are anxiously awaiting the upcoming release of Gears of War 3, those insane multi-tasking developers over at Epic Games managed to sneak in a whole new AAA title. Admittedly, they had some help from People Can Fly, the studio behind those amazing Painkiller games from a few years ago. Bulletstorm is a bit of an enigma. It looks a bit like a Gears of War game, at least in character design, body armor, and that overall visual aesthetic, but it plays more like an arcade game at times. I was often reminded of Sega’s 2008 release, The Club, where you ran around shooting people trying to rack up point combos by killing them in stylish ways trying to achieve the highest scores. The tagline, “Kill With Skill”, only hints at the hundreds of ways available to kill and combo your way to victory in Bulletstorm.|
Bulletstorm is without a doubt, the guiltiest pleasure I’ve experienced in a long time (Splatterhouse notwithstanding), and I cherished every moment I spent with the game, both in the engaging story mode and the extremely addictive high-score based Echo mode and even Anarchy mode. The action is insane, intense, and way over the top in violence; the story mode is peppered with more salty language than a Quentin Tarantino movie, so much in fact that the characters even start making self-referential comments about it; and even the names of the kills and combos are ripped straight from the internal dictionary of a 15 year old brain.
To be fair, lurking beneath the juvenile script is a fairly involved story dealing with a band of highly trained government assassins known as Dead Echo, who, after learning they have been betrayed by their leader, escape to the far reaches of space to become notorious mercenaries. The game kicks off with a brief interactive opening that also serves as a tutorial for the limited commands required to play. You can kick, aim, and shoot, and occasionally interact with objects or crawl, hand over hand with alternating squeezes of the triggers.
The opening level ends with you, Grayson Hunt, ramming your ship into the Confederate flagship sending both ships crashing to the surface of the nearby vacation resort planet of Stygia. Due to previous events that will be revealed to you later in the story, the planet has succumbed to radiation spawning all sorts of mutants and turning this once glorious civilization into a pile of majestic ruin. The crash causes you to blackout, allowing you to relive a brief moment from your past – a particularly significant “hit” that not only changes your life, but also that of a little girl. It all comes around in full circle by the end so wait for it.
Back on Stygia you must race to help your injured friend, Ishi Sato, who is nearly dead. A quick excursion outside gets you the resources to help heal Ishi by merging him with parts of the ship’s computer, but this also changes his loyalties to Grayson, creating a bit of angst in what would otherwise be a traditional buddy-adventure. You’ll also come into possession of an energy Leash, the focal point of combat as well as a brilliant piece of narrative storytelling that actually explains the scoring and experience system used for upgrading weapons within the game. Apparently, these Leashes were used as training tools to observe and log the skill of their users and thusly reward them with skill points.
The Leash can be used to grab and yank around enemies and even key bits of the environment. Its use will warp time, slowing things down so you can execute precision shots or a well-placed kick to the groin, allowing you to craft and execute hundreds of gratifying kills and combos. You can also latch onto various supply pods scattered about Stygia, allowing you to level-up your weapons and replenish ammo and such.
Bulletstorm is a non-stop rollercoaster ride of combat. There is no cover system and no real strategy other than dodging incoming attacks and prioritizing your kills while trying to execute the highest scoring kill possible. The better the kill the higher your skill points which all factors into upgrades at your next supply pod. Enemy AI isn’t particularly witty, but what they lack in smarts they make up for in numbers and sheer brutality.
Bulletstorm becomes more of an instinctual killing spree than anything having to do with strategy, which is a refreshing change from most of the FPS games today. The only time I really had to step back and think was when I was going through the lengthy checklist of skill shots. About half of the list can be completed without thinking, but some of the more complex kills take a bit of preparation.
The weapons in Bulletstorm are totally gratifying, my favorite of course being the sniper rifle with the steerable bullet. Just get a lock-on with the scope then follow the bullet to its target. As it nears things go into slow-motion and you have to steer the bullet into the enemy who will try to make a last-second dodge. It never gets old. The other weapons range in fun factor and devastation, and new guns are added to the story as you progress and all are upgradeable.
Stygia is a great showcase for the new Unreal 3 engine and you will be dazzled with scenic landscape, ruined civilizations, and some truly inspired creature design. People Can Fly are responsible for some pretty epic boss battles in their Painkiller games and Bulletstorm manages to work in a few city-sized creatures that will certainly impress. Level design is fairly linear while giving you the illusion of this huge open world that looks like you could go anywhere. The story seems to keep you focused on the mission so you never really push the boundaries of where you might want to explore otherwise. A few levels actually let you take to the skies for some exciting combat and breathtaking views. Each new level offers something new and exciting to see and experience. One of my favorites is an amusement park where you get to unleash a giant monster on a miniature city, and the mission that takes place on the giant dam was an epic set piece I won't soon forget.
The music is fantastic and the voice acting, while intentionally over-the-top, especially the throaty Wolverine-gruffness of Grayson, is spot-on for the campy nature of the game. Ishi assumes the appropriate level of automaton and the addition of a foul-mouthed female third-wheel is a refreshing bit of comic relief, adding immensely to the immediate story and the overall story arc. Music and voice acting all pale in comparison to the insane amount of sound effects blasting at you from all sides in this stellar Dolby Digital mix. Even when things quiet down, which isn’t often, you are still treated to amazing environmental sounds.
Collectors can hunt for News Bots, bottles of booze, and swarms of fireflies to pad their Achievements and own personal quest for glory. There is a lengthy list of skills and combos to check off; probably more than can be achieved in a single pass of the game, and then you have increasing difficulty modes to keep you coming back. I was upset that there was no leaderboards for the story mode. The game is keeping score so why not track it. The lack of any co-op story was also a major disappointment since you are almost always with at least one, if not two other people throughout the entire game.
Echo Mode is a pretty cool feature that takes sections from the story levels and turns them into time trials, challenging you to race from start to finish while racking up the highest kill scores possible. These are extremely addictive and will have you coming back often to compete with your friends or the global leaderboards. Anarchy Mode is a mix of co-op and competition, putting two four-player teams at odds to not only get high scores, but also work through tiered levels of challenges that require each team to work together to meet those requirements. Some of the cooperative team kills and combos are extremely fun to pull off and reward you with large scores.
Bulletstorm was a perfect 10 while I was playing it, but when the ride was over and I had to sit back and honestly compare it to the past, present, and future of FPS games, the limitations of the repetitive gameplay worked their way to the surface. Sure, you’ll be dazzled by some of the best graphics the Xbox 360 has seen to date, and you’ll laugh like a pre-teen at the excessive use of foul language and dick references, and you’ll cheer with every headshot and kick to the groin, but the real question is – will you be cheering after doing all that for 6-8 hours?
Personally, for me the answer is a resounding YES, but I’m easily amused and love cheap thrills, sniper de-caps, and dick jokes. Bulletstorm lacks the multiplayer modes required to make this a long-term investment, but for a fast and furious story mode, some cool leaderboard competition, and the chance to play in the Gears of War 3 beta (Epic Edition only), you can’t ask for a better FPS. Now bring on the sequel…