From all of the pre-release hype you would think that Bulletstorm is the next triple-A franchise from Epic. Hyped to hell and back by one Mr. Cliff Bleszinski and developed by People Can Fly, the team behind Painkiller, Bulletstorm definitely feels like it should be the “next big thing.” It is certainly unique, rewarding players for smartly performing creative kills in a cartoonishly violent world. It’s childish and immature, and there is a sense of pride in that. Downright fun, gleeful and self-aware, yet some serious flaws keep Buletstorm from reaching its full potential.
For all of the trailers showing off the creative and violent ways to kill, very little has been shown of what the game is actually about. Killing neon-colored enemies would get old otherwise. Thankfully, a story is there, and while it doesn’t break any boundaries, the adventure of Grayson Hunt and his pals is entertaining enough. Hunt is a drunken and immature space pirate, talented in killing dudes and generally screwing stuff up.
In a fit of drunken revenge against his former general, he ends up stuck on the planet of Stygia in the city of Elysium with his robotic buddy Ishi, a pissed-off and foul-mouthed commander named Trishka, and the bad guy himself, General Serano. Things have gone poorly on Stygia, and all of its citizens are crazed cannibalistic freaks, dangerous mutants, or worse, turning the formerly gorgeous resort city into a “Life After People” ruin.
The game never takes itself seriously, and Hunt and co. will journey through ruined amusement parks, beachside dams, underground prisons and the downtown metropolis. The game is visually varied and colorful, an onslaught of bright oranges, blues, purples, greens and lots and lots of red. Bulletstorm wallows in the pure, unadulterated fun of shooting bad guys. It’s the peak of primal pew-pew-pew, from the story, scenery and gameplay.
Oddly, there is one serious sense of irony riding over everything. Hunt feels guilty for the lives taken by his hand, and many of the end-game diatribes deal with his desire for redemption. The lives of innocent soldiers and civilians suddenly become important. It’s an odd progression and I do question why the writers at People Can Fly felt the need to abruptly moralize the characters. I mean, Hunt kills hundreds of freaks, mutants and soldiers, so why make the game discuss the nature of redemption and life and death when you are being rewarded for the horrible ways you can kill guys. Maybe there’s a bit of meta-commentary on itself here, but it just comes across as hypocritical.
That said, Bulletstorm is filthy, raunchy and crass. Characters can’t go a minute without spouting dialog that would fit well in an all-boys middle school. Hunt and his crew are at their best when they are letting loose with vulgar obscenities. However, there is a line that the characters do not cross (those no-no words are entirely missing), and many of the jokes revolve around the different words you can attach to “dick.” You’ll need the maturity (and vocabulary) of a 14-year-old boy to best appreciate Bulletstorm’s humor, but if you let yourself be charmed by the game, you’re going to have a much better time.
A particularly unique option in the game is to turn off the gore and to tone down the language. Basically tossed in to make the game palatable to Germany and Japan’s legal standards, Bulletstorm with these settings on is an entirely different experience. Levels are missing smeared blood and piles of skulls, and enemies just fall over instead of losing their heads in a bloody explosion, or gush blood from their neck, or grab their balls in pain. Having played through the game with the normal amount of gore and all of the language, then switching on the gore and language filters, I can confirm something is most definitely missing when Bulletstorm loses the viscera and expletives. Sure, the skillshot system is still in place, and the plot continues just fine, but Bulletstorm loses a lot of the piss and vinegar that makes it unique. Obviously this is a title that is carried far on its charms, perhaps more so than the gameplay.
Thankfully, what Bulletstorm does right, it does very well. The score-based skillshot system keeps rewarding players by allowing better upgrades to Hunt’s weapons. From the default carbine to the shotgun, flare gun, flail gun and more, each weapon can be upgraded for even more ways to kill. The leash, a blue whip that can be used to fling enemies around like toys, is probably the best addition to the game, resulting in some of the best skillshots in the game, while also sending enemies into a slowed-down state. Unfortunately, I have issue with the final weapon you receive in the game, as not only is it more powerful than anything else, it renders previously brutal enemies push-overs. The last portion of the game isn’t terribly difficult, and if a player has been smart with the skillshots, they’ll have maxed everything out by the second to last chapter.
Multiplayer is a whole different ball of wax. Instead of offering a plethora of multiplayer modes like Deathmatch and Capture the Flag, Bulletstorm offers one mode, and one mode alone: Anarchy. A variation of the Horde mode popularized by Gears of War, Anarchy dumps up to four players into a smallish arena as a customizable character attempting to join the General Serano’s Zero Echo squad. Players fight wave after wave of enemies as they attempt to reach a par score to move onto the next level. While early rounds require the team to earn a paltry two or three thousand points, later waves require 18,000 to win. A lot of points indeed, and completing a game in Anarchy can take two hours. There really needs to be a way to make for shorter games, or at least offer more substantial modifications to the mode besides a level select.
Unlike other horde-esque modes, Anarchy doesn’t really challenge the player with dying (although that does happen, but other players can easily revive them almost instantly). Instead, Anarchy is challenging because points can be so difficult to earn. When there are only thirty or forty enemies to kill, a paltry ten points from a body shot isn’t going to cut it. Near the end, every enemy becomes a resource for potential points, so players need to make sure they are performing all the best skillshots, as well as utilizing the team and arena-based skillshots.
Team skillshots range from players using their leashes to draw and quarter enemies, to thumping an enemy in the air while another enemy slams them down. The arena-based skillshots vary from venue to venue, and can be anything from flinging a dude into a giant fan to crushing them in the skeletal remains of a giant beast. Communication is an absolute must in Anarchy, and something about this game mode does a really good job of getting people to start talking. This is something I haven’t even seen in Left 4 Dead, much less any other shooter.
As someone who usually detests Horde modes, Anarchy takes all the crappy parts--like the constant fear of death and the increasingly dangerous rounds--and makes them fun. Between each wave players can connect to a drop point and spend their points on weapons and upgrades, offering another incentive to kill smartly. Anarchy is fast and chaotic, and while Bulletstorm doesn’t offer a very great versus experience, this co-op mode is a blast. It’s a shame that this is the only multiplayer mode, but it does work very well. It’s not perfect, but there is a lot of promise.
Now, if Anarchy isn’t your cup of tea, Echo mode might better suit you. A mash-up of the single player levels and a score-based speed-run, Echo Mode will be loved by fans of high scores and leaderboards. As anyone can attest by the Bulletstorm demo, running through a level to perform the best score possible can be addictive. Those who want a competitive game mode will find that right here.
Unfortunately, the game is buggy. Really buggy. Almost-completely-ruining-the-game buggy. Collision detection is a common problem, as enemy characters, particularly when skewered onto a cactus or wall of spikes, will often stretch out to odd and weird-looking proportions. Enemies will sometimes bug out and writhe about on the floor when shot. These aren’t exactly game-breaking problems, but more serious bugs do occur.
For example, on one Xbox 360, the game crashed multiple times, and twice the game wouldn’t let me progress due to my AI teammates not moving forward during one of the very few time challenges. Three times I had to play through this segment before I could continue. In Anarchy mode, it’s relatively easy to get stuck on geometry in the game, and graphical errors are common, such as a bullet trail sticking around for much too long.
These bugs are seriously detrimental to an otherwise solid experience. Bulletstorm isn’t a particularly difficult game, but the bugs add a frustrating hurdle all on their own. While a patch might fix many of these problems, these glitches go a long way to keeping Bulletstorm from being the triple-A game it wants to be. Someone should have told People Can Fly they're not in PC Land anymore.
Ultimately, the biggest problem is that EA, Epic, People Can Fly--they are all touting Bulletstorm as the next big thing. At the end of the day, it’s just not as amazing as they would like it to seem. Sure, the game is hilarious and “laugh out loud” funny, but not everyone is going to find the dick and fart jokes worth their $60. If the developers can ensure the future of the franchise is free of bugs, and work in a competitive multiplayer mode, we might be onto something outstanding. As it is now, Bulletstorm is a very good start to a series on the cusp of greatness, yet hindered by some seriously problematic technical issues.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]