When Bulletstorm was first unveiled last year, it was pitched to the media as a “first-person shooter Burnout“. It was only an outlandish proposition for all of five minutes since all it took was one demo presentation to understand what developers Epic Games and People Can Fly meant. The game is essentially one big and glorious Score Attack mode; how the game gets interesting is by adding depth to the ways you rack up points, measured through Skill Shots. Bulletstorm rewards you on how creatively you kill, whether it’s one opponent or a group of enemies.
At first glance Bulletstorm might look complex and complicated, so it’s a testament to the game’s design that the control scheme is surprisingly simple. The primary moves you need to concern yourself with are kick, leash and fire, that’s it. The leash is a major catalyst in pulling off kills beyond the straightforward headshot or simply riddling an enemy with a dozen bullets. In fact, the game communicates to the gamer quite early the inefficiency of repeated torso shots as you’ll run out of ammo very quickly. You’d be doing yourself a service to forget everything you know about first-person shooters when firing this up.
Back to the leash; if you manage to ensnare and yank an enemy toward you, it’s done with a bullet-time-inspired slow motion effect which gives you enough time to plan a creative kill. With your enemy floating toward you in mid-air, do you A) kick an explosive trash can in his direction B) send a flare round to his face, or C) knock him off that nearby cliff? Choices, choices.
By using your feet, namely through kicking and sliding into enemies, you’re able to subject your foes to countless environmental hazards. Aside from the aforementioned cliff plummet, many successful kicks can result in impalement, electrocution and consumption by meat-eating plants.
In terms of your weapons, Bulletstorm boasts a satisfying selection of firearms that feel very much inspired by those seen in Epic’s Gears of War. The most outlandish weapon fires two chainlinked grenades that wrap around your target. If you can’t already imagine the Skill Shot possibilities, you’re not using you’re imagination enough. Each weapon also has a Charge feature, a sort of powered-up firing method, each one tailored to each specific weapon. For instance, when your Peacemaker Carbine (the game’s initial weapon) is charged, you’re set to fire a hundred bullets in a single shot, vaporizing your target.
Bulletstorm of course uses more familiar FPS weapons but not without adding a bit of a twist. Take for instance the sniper rifle, where you’re not aiming for the headshot through the reticule. Instead, just get the general area of your target and fire. From there you actually guide the bullet to your target. Headshots are great and all but like all the weapons, you’d do yourself a service by being creative. Think you can snipe your enemy in the butt? There’s a Skill Shot score for that. Not to sound spoiled, but it would have been nice to have a bit more flexibility with the guided bullet. One particular Skill Shot–where you ultimately hit an enemy who wasn’t initially targeted–does not work particularly well if you deviate from the initial bullet path.
Factoring these surroundings, the charged setting of your firearms, and the just basic use of your move set, you can see how the designers were able to exponentially come up with all these Skill Shots. As another indicator on the game’s surprisingly low learning curve, I managed to execute 86 of the game’s 131 possible Skill Shots without having to refer to the handy Skill Shot list that the game provides. Yet it is easy to imagine obsessive compulsive gamers constantly pausing and referring to that list just so they’re sure they collect all the possible shots. Not all of the moves are spelled out for you, so extra creativity is needed to get all 131. Moreover, some Skill Shots, like Achievements, are much easier to pull off in certain chapters than others, so don’t wait until the seventh and final chapter to knock out your Skill Shot shopping list.
While all these gameplay elements were enough to make Bulletstorm one of this year’s must-buy games, one big surprise was that Epic and People Can Fly managed to craft an interesting story as well, enough so that many players will be taking cutscene breathers in between chapters. There’s also a liberal amount of in-game dialogue, mostly on the testosterone-driven diatribes and amped reactions of protagonist of Greyson Hunt. While he is a loose cannon, he does have a lot in common with the cast of Gears of War; you can just smell the B.O. a mile away. I won’t spoil the premise, but I can say that Greyson’s reckless behaviour is what gets his team in their current predicament.
The majority of the game is based in the formerly idlylic tourist city of Elysium, now trashed by groups of marauding mutants. The futuristic art-deco design and these gang wars between freaks give the visuals a Final Fantasy-meets-Mad Max vibe. And while the game could have gotten away without explaining how the place went all to hell, Bulletstorm actually delivers a satisfying level of exposition, mostly through the in-game dialogue with the kind of delivery that made the Half-Life games so engaging.
Even Greyson’s penchant for heavy drinking has relevance in scoring as pulling off kills while drunk gets you even more points. It also helps that each liquor bottle is strategically placed in areas where large groups of mutants are nearby. So before you take a swig, make sure all three of your equipped weapons are reloaded. By the way, there’s also an Achievement to not drink and just shoot the bottles.
It should also be added that Bulletstorm’s many deviations on the usual on-foot shooting are as entertaining and engrossing as the rest of the game. Even revealing some of these deviations are spoilers in themselves. Just be ready from some last minute escapes and opportunities to man chainguns at a moment’s notice.
I suspect that the slow motion effect that results from the leash was one of the reasons why Bulletstorm scrapped any planned versus multiplayer modes. What we have instead is an even deeper score-driven mode called Echoes and a co-op survival mode known as Anarchy. The latter is especially engrossing when maxed out to a four-player team. Qualifying for the next wave of foes requires achieving a specific group score and often it can’t be done unless you work together at combo kills (eg. leash an enemy and have a buddy kick the guy into nearby cacti). Be sure to have your headset mics handy.
It’s a great credit to Bulletstorm’s refined score system that every time I pulled off a series of triple-digit point kills, I was temporarily addicted to keep up the momentum, not unlike the way people played the Burnout games that inspired Bulletstorm. It came to the point where I’d get wholly disappointed if I only got the minimum point kill (10 points). The way that Bulletstorm injects an adrenaline shot of creativity into the FPS genre and also draws out creativity from the player already makes it the frontrunner for the Best New IP of 2011 In Dire Need Of A Sequel.
(This review was based off an advance review session on the PC version (via Xbox 360 controller) involving both the single player and multiplayer modes. An early copy of the PlayStation 3 version was also provided by EA for review purposes.)
Developer: People Can Fly/Epic Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Released: February 22, 2011