Bulletstorm has just about single-handedly rescued single player first person shooters from the clutches of tedium. High praise indeed but without featuring a single po-faced terrorist, Russian accent or asinine propaganda riddled story upping American military might and the importance of protecting Burger King from the communists, People Can Fly has crafted a work of art that harks back to the old school, merging the best of before with the best of now. The result? A single player first person shooter worth getting excited about.
From the outside looking in though, Bulletstorm doesn’t come across quite like that; it’s riddled with dick jokes, profanities and puerile humour and a marketing campaign that pushed those features to the forefront only masked its deeply rooted brilliance. It is a wildly intelligent game marauding as a fatuous one and an hour under the spell of its brilliant skillshots system is all you’ll need to be convinced.
The campaign gains momentum gradually, the prologue minimising your ability to “kill with skill” perhaps to ram home how great the concept is later on. Husky protagonist Grayson Hunt is a reprobate member of Dead Echo, a highly skilled outfit of 26th century soldiers. Him and his merry band of outlaw space pirates like nothing more than beer and debauchery but that all changes when they accidentally spot their old much-despised boss hanging out in on his gigantic spaceship. Turns out Grayson wants him dead at all costs.
After a cut-scene heavy opening half hour, a suicidal crash landing on a paradise-gun-wrong holiday planet and a liberal dose of traditional shooting that will probably have you questioning the hype, you’re finally handed the leash. Mounted on Hunt’s left arm the leash – combined with the kick and sliding kick – is the master key to opening the vast skillshots system.
The skillshots system is the lifeblood of the experience. With 131 unique ways to kill in Bulletstorm (132 if you count the good old fashioned shot to the chest) there’s no shortage of creativity and you’d be hard pressed to conjure up a method of dispatch that People Can Fly hadn’t come up with first.
Kick a mutant savage into one of the many conveniently placed cacti and he’s been “Pricked”. Splatter another against a wall with a desk for “Pancake”. Charge the aptly named Penetrator weapon and slide through a horde of rampaging mutants: “Drilldo”.
Leashing an enemy initiates a slow down period on the foe in question, gifting you a few seconds to line up a high-score smashing skillshot. It’s a sly inclusion and one that’s genius is impossible to exaggerate. Without it, the system just wouldn’t work.
The skillpoints garnered through stylish murdering are used to purchase more ammo, weapons and charges (secondary fire modes). The better the kill, the more skillpoints.
The joy of Bulletstorm is nested firmly in discovering these skillshots – often by mistake – and its smartest move is not letting you have them all from the go. The bulk of them are tied to individual weapons anyway, which are drip fed over the course of the campaign. A quick tap of the back button brings up a neatly categorised list of kills and instructions but holding back on the supply ensures the campaign fails to tire, once you’ve mastered one weapon and set of skillshots, along comes another. The pacing is perfect, with new weapons (and upgrades) arriving just as you’re perfecting the last.
It also helps that Bulletstorm has that blissful Gears of War meatiness underlying the combat. Hunt lumbers about the battlefields like he’s hauling the carcass of a dinosaur on his bank and every shot to the face (“Headshot”, obviously), kick to the nuts and multi-kill drill-shot (“Shishkebab”) feels like it has been infused with a thousand pounds of steel. The thumping slide was surely designed to be used in tandem with the quad-barrel shotgun – the resulting “Torpedo” and probably the self-explanatory “Legless” never grows old and pays tribute to Vanquish in the process. And on the rare occasion where defense is needed, it’s pretty deft at getting you out of tight spots in a flash.
The world Grayson Hunt crash lands on with his half-robot buddy Ishi is a pretty little thing flaunting a Borderlands/Enslaved style post-apocalyptic vibe. With decadent cityscapes swamped in foliage, desert plains, yawning caverns or a Godzilla-themed amusement park, the levels are beautiful, diverse and perfectly matched to Bulletstorm’s glorious take on the genre. There’s little in the way of exploring to be done (except when looking for a few collectibles – ding achievement) but vast expanses would be wasted here, the focal point is the skillshots and the scarce moments of quiet only heighten the urge to find a new way of maiming.
But Bulletstorm boasts more than just standard linear shootouts. On rail vehicle sections are a riot whether you’re escaping city-shattering behemoths or a gigantic runaway wheel and there are some wonderful surprises along the way best kept secret. These sections always appear just as the killing is starting to get too familiar and act as perfectly timed diversions.
Ultimately the mechanics are wrapped up in fireworks and visual chemistry and between the skillshots system, consistent humour, wonderful setting and full-blooded combat the campaign stands tall alone. It’s short but as a result never outstays its welcome and there’s plenty of replay value in retreading the campaign to amass the full library of kills.
But then there’s the echo mode too.
It would be harsh to write the campaign off as a mere training lap for the echoes mode but playing the former first will give you a head start in the more competitive echo arena.
Echoes is the throbbing pulse of Bulletstorm, where killing with skill is rewarded with bragging rights and friend vs. friend competition is the name of the game. Missions from the main game are sliced into small 4-5 minute chunks and the goal is to race through these mini-levels as quickly as possible, scoring as highly as possible with scores uploaded for friends to ponder over as they’re choosing a level. Leaderboards aren’t as slick as Need for Speed’s Autolog but they work for all intents and purposes.
Skillpoints are no longer spent on ammunition but used solely as a high score gauge, so it’s integral to utilise the kill bank efficiently as each new skillshot achieved arrives with a hefty bonus while recycling kills significantly reduces the bounty. The dropboxes used in the campaign to resupply become smart opportunities to switch weapons and open up a new chain of skillshots.
Each echo is a mad dash but success is dependent on calculating routes and planning kills; fitting in as many unique kills in the shortest amount of time is the key to victory. Death isn’t much of an issue as you have plenty of health and the focus, instead, is on switching weapons (via the dropboxes), knowing the routes and scoring the most outlandish kills. Maps have been handpicked from moments in the campaign most rampant with mutants, thus the areas best suited to chain killing. Unlike The Club – which Bulletstorm obviously borrows its fair share of ideas from – the timer only dictates your end bonus, rather than keeping your string of slaying together, making the whole ordeal less exasperating. Far from vexing though, the echo levels boast a holy level of addictiveness and will no doubt be supported further down the line with downloadable content.
On the flip side there are several minor bugs and the load times are excessive – a bugbear more harshly felt on the harder difficulties where death is a little more frequent.
But to hold such trivial complaints against what is the antidote to years of mind-numbingly ordinary first person shooters would be thoroughly unjust. Bulletstorm has made shooting computer controlled opponents fun again.
Don’t let the tirade of dick jokes and crass humour fool you then; Bulletstorm is just about the most profound, rewarding and downright brilliant single player first person shooter since Bioshock.