There’s a parody trailer for Bulletstorm that was put on Youtube in the runup to the game’s release. In it, the developers (People Can Fly) mercilessly savage the staid, sterile, formulaic tropes present in the Call of Duty series and its imitators: linear levels, identikit enemies, identikit weapons, being told to go here and do this, people who are on your side dying tragically, slow motion sequences in which you take out a particularly heinous enemy, the whole works. At the time People Can Fly were trying to promote Bulletstorm as a “Fun” Person Shooter, where the priority was given to making a bright, colourful game for the player to enjoy rather than another dull military shooter set in brownland. Bulletstorm was supposed to be more in keeping with the Serious Sam/(old) Duke Nukem games; an over-the-top shooter experience where you’re given a bunch of ludicrously overpowered weapons and told to go to town on the enemy. Which is why, having finally played it now, I’m a little surprised to discover that Bulletstorm falls into many of the stock FPS cliches it so consciously mocked in the marketing.
That’s not to say Bulletstorm is in any way a bad game. It isn’t. It took me about five and a half hours to complete the single player, and I can’t honestly say I didn’t enjoy the majority of it. It was only towards the very end of the game that I started to get fatigued, where my reaction to seeing another group of enemies was “Christ, not another firefight,” instead of “Ooooh, points!”, and in achieving this Bulletstorm manages to stave off that feeling for about three hours longer than the typical FPS. It’s a game with many strengths that mark it out from the milling crowd – the guns, the baddies, the bit where I got to play with a remote-control T-Rex with laser eyes – and which make it a somewhat fresher experience than it might be otherwise. At the same time I ran into all the familiar annoyances of the modern FPS: linear levels, being told to go places to do things by other people, waiting for these other people to open doors for you, being forced to watch a cutscene where your character is outwitted by an extremely stupid enemy; it all made me think that People Can Fly couldn’t quite bring themselves to deviate from the mainstream quite as wholly as they’d originally intended. As a result. Bulletstorm is merely a different spin on the concept of the modern FPS rather than something truly different, and that’s my major problem with it. It is a huge missed opportunity, and a game which would have been much better with some more of that stubborn FPS flab trimmed away.
Bulletstorm is the story of Gray — the man with the galaxy’s stupidest haircut – as he and his friends try to fight their way off of a mutant-infested paradise planet gone bad. Gray is actually interesting in that he’s an obvious take on the Manly Masculine Man Man archetype that usually populates these games, except this time around the game world acknowledges that Gray is a massive prick. He’s a drunken lowlife who gets his entire crew killed through his command incompetence and his immature glee at the gory massacres he carries out and refusal to deal with the consequences of his actions is something that the other characters (including Trishka, the token female character voiced by the always excellent Jennifer Hale) call him out on on a regular basis. Gray is a genuine asshole, and I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand it’s excellent that his behaviour is recognised for what it is, and in a different game his attempts to come to terms with what he has done might have been a decent attempt at nuanced storytelling. On the other hand this is Bulletstorm, a game where you get bonus points for shooting somebody in the dick and then kicking their head off, and that kind of soul-searching character introspection is really at odds with what you spend the majority of your time doing: killing baddies in increasingly convoluted and bloody ways for massive points.
The centrepiece of Bulletstorm is the Skillshot system. Kill a dude by shooting him, and a little “+10” will pop up in the corner of the screen; this is the tiny amount you have scored for such a mundane kill. However, if you drag him towards you with your energy leash and then kick him onto one of the numerous spike racks/giant cacti that litter the landscape you score a mighty 100 points. There’s about a hundred and fifty different kill types in the game – kick the baddies off ledges, electrocute them, crush them with a physics object, boot an explosive canister in their face, and that’s not even getting on to what you can do with some of the weapons – and the points you get for them can be spent at supply boxes to purchase more ammo and upgrade your guns. Bulletstorm is a game that carries on the fine asshole physics tradition of such past luminaries as Dark Messiah, but I feel the way the game goes about encouraging the player to kill in different ways is a little bit counterproductive. Because ammo and special Charge attacks is so expensive I found myself staying way from certain weapons that weren’t cost-effective; for example, a clip of five sniper bullets costs 500 points. Getting a headshot with a sniper round gets you 125 points back, so if you get headshots with four of the five bullets (easier than it sounds) you can just about break even. At 500 points a charge the Thumper never got used. The Flail Mine never got used. The cannonball gun never got used. Also, the game adheres to current FPS convention and only allows you to carry the basic rifle and two other guns at once, which cuts down on the possible killing variety even further. For a game that’s supposed to put player enjoyment front and centre it’s a strange set of design restrictions.
At least the guns are a lot of fun when you do get to use them. Well, most of them. The starting rifle is awful, with no heft or impact to it whatsoever, and as you’re stuck with it for the first forty-five minutes or so you start to wonder what the fuss is all about. Eventually, though, you’ll get to the good stuff: a sniper rifle with bullets that you can guide to the target in slow-motion; a drill gun that can pierce multiple targets and stick them to walls; a quad-barrel shotgun that is very useful for throwing your enemies back onto spikes or off of cliffs. Every gun has a secondary charge attack which usually leads to even more hilarity, like the revolver that fires explosive incendiary flares. It took me a little while to forget my ingrained FPS behaviour of going for the headshot all the time, but once I started holding my fire upon setting sight on a bunch of baddies and instead taking some time to set up a few comedy kills I began to enjoy myself immensely. The basic combat in Bulletstorm is almost uniformly excellent, with only one frustrating area where I died repeatedly and had to reload. As far as that’s concerned People Can Fly achieved their goal of making the game fun.
Unfortunately the rest of the game is less than perfect. After the incredibly bad scene-setting tutorial (complete with on-rails turret section) and the opening desert section, the game transitions to a decaying tourist city that, quite frankly, features some absolutely stunning visual design. It looks gorgeous, and the level designers play around with the crumbling, deteriorating aspect in a fairly imaginative way. While the look of the thing is great, however, there’s no disguising the fact that Bulletstorm is just as linear and on-rails as the typical FPSes it lampooned in its trailer. During what should have been the most exciting parts of the game this becomes literal. That giant wheel in the trailer? That’s fought in an on-rails turret section. The enormous, skyscraper-dwarfing monster? An on-rails turret section. The game is packed full-to-bursting with even more scripted and quicktime events than the usual fare, too; I found myself looking at the words “Push [button] to do a thing!” far too often. The overall structure of Bulletstorm is as generic as they come, albeit dressed up in a very pretty package.
And then, of course, there’s the whole thing about the names they came up with for the skillshots. Many of them involve shooting dudes in the crotch or in the bum, and about half of them have names which have unpleasant pornographic connotations — names like “Gag reflex”, “Gang bang” and “Money shot” – which honestly make me wonder about the psychology of the people who came up with them. The game is filled with bad language but you quickly become used to it (kind of like watching an episode of Deadwood); this, however, made me distinctly uncomfortable to the point where I actively tried to avoid those particular kills. Pornography isn’t a good thing, guys! Not that I’d expect an industry that’s even more immature than Hollywood to realise this but it’s a level of humour on par with drawing a penis on the bathroom stall door.
The thing that gets me about Bulletstorm is that it’s an incredibly schizophrenic game. It loudly rails against FPS traditionalism, mocks it, dismisses it; and yet even with the altered gunplay it’s one of the most traditional FPSes I’ve played. Linear levels, turret sections, scripted events where somebody goes behind a door or an unbreakable glass window so that something can happen that you can’t do anything about – that Duty Calls trailer was actually far more accurate than the developers probably intended. It’s not a bad game, as such; if you gave me the choice between playing Modern Warfare and playing Bulletstorm I’d pick Bulletstorm every time. That’s not setting the bar particularly high, though, since if you gave me the choice between playing Modern Warfare and repeatedly smashing myself in the bollocks with Tom Clancy’s latest doorstop I’d have to sit there and think about it for a while. It’s pleasant to look at, and it does some neat things, but Bulletstorm’s outcome definitely did not match its intent and it firmly remains part of the genre it was trying to break free from. Still, it only cost me £4 and I got five and a half hours of enjoyment out of it. That’s more than most FPSes manage these days, so I’ll give Bulletstorm a very cautious recommendation if it ever goes on sale again. Otherwise you’re probably best off saving your money.