Bulletstorm (XBox 360 version) – Review

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Bulletstorm is joyous. It’s the kind of game that embodies a lot of qualities that seem to have been ignored by developers in search of something important, something that proves games can be art. It’s almost a shame that as gamers, we got this and Duke Nukem Forever in the same year, because I really feel that this would’ve given the doubters enough proof that the Duke still has a home (throne?) in modern games had his own devs not so horrifically dropped the ball. Yes, both are über-violent sci-fi shooters that aren’t afraid to make fun of themselves or the genre, but importantly, Bulletstorm takes a major mantra from its spiritual predecessor and wears it on its ragged sleeve: this should be a total riot to play. And it is.

Bulletstorm, like Duke Nukem before it, is tailored towards a very specific group, in more subtle ways than maybe be immediately apparent. For younger players (the game is rated 18, or ‘Mature’… but sorry Daily Mail readers, teenagers play these games! RUN BEFORE THEY START MASSACRING EVERYONE!) Bulletstorm provides a great shooting experience with some disgustingly inventive kills, really fun level design, “hey!-awesome-bro!” macho characters and swear-tastic dialogue; for perhaps a slightly older generation of gamers however, it gives a much-needed shot in the arm for FPS’, with a deep catalogue of combinable kill mechanics (or ‘skillshots’), a knowingly OTT sense of humour and, most importantly, a real sense of what has been missing from the genre since the old days of the Duke.

It’s fun.

If, like me, you’ve grown increasingly bored of super-serious military shooters and an interchangeable roster of gritty space marines then holy hell, this game is for you. What’s remarkable is that it manages to be exhilarating in both style and execution, as it brings the good times whilst also putting its own unique stamp on first person combat.

You take control of space pirate Grayson Hunt (who, given his characteristics, has a fitting name in terms of rhyming slang), a smart-mouthed drunkard and former military assassin now operating outside the law. The flashed-back discovery that his ‘Dead Echo’ squad had been duped into killing civilians has sent the group AWOL, and they as the game begins we learn that they now scrape a living by hijacking consulate ships for their cargo. Following on from a very cool, interactive introductory sequence which teaches the basic controls while establishing plenty of character and back-story, the disgraced squad has a chance encounter with their former commander that sees them seeking revenge… which really, really doesn’t go very well. Hunt is left stranded on Elysium, an abandoned tourist-attraction of a planet now overrun with cannibals and mutants, and following their attack, his sole surviving companion is now a malfunctioning cyborg whose mind is constantly struggling against a CPU for control of his body and choice of actions. Their only hope of escape is to locate the crashed ship of their old boss, so they can hijack his rescue from Elysium for themselves – but of course, that means battling their way across the devastated landscape and laying plenty of waste to its inhabitants. And then…

…OK, so far, so blah. That’s the basic set-up, and it’s clear that there’s not much which is truly original going on in it. But kids, it ain’t in the tale, it’s in the telling, and this is where Bulletstorm really shines. The first (and arguably most important) flourish is the access to an electric military-grade whip being weaved early on into the story. Once activated, it creates not only a HUD onscreen as it calibrates your weapons, ammunition and the status of your health, but also begins to grade your performance and how you dispatch your enemies, crediting you for inventive kills and giving you access to increasingly spectacular weapons (and therefore, mayhem) as the game progresses. This one element alone – while cleverly explained – is well executed enough to make this game worthy of recommendation if you have so much as a passing interest in shooters. It’s a truly unique arrangement which allows you to combine your weapons, creativity, and the environments around you, resulting in an incredibly satisfyingly and inventive system for you to utilise and decimate your foes. You can beat the game by just blasting through all the bad guys, sure – but you’ll be missing out on what really is kind of a step forward in combat system design and integration. The electric leash, or ‘Thumper’, is a superb tool to help you realise the concept; you can use it to whip an enemy towards you for example, choosing then to headshot him on his way in, or put your boot in his face and then finish him off, or kick him into an environmental hazard, or load him with a mine to detonate amongst his buddies, or whip him into the air to ‘trap-shoot’… and this is just scratching the surface. By the time you’re throwing multiple adversaries skywards, squashing some against ceilings (‘Fly-Swatter’), blowing up others with an airborne explosive device (‘Fertilizer’) and shooting anyone left with a flare gun for the hilarious ‘Fireworks’ skillshot, you know you’ve got something special in your hands. It’s a brilliant, intuitive set up that’s done so well, you’ll marvel at exactly what you’re capable of and as well as the fact it hasn’t been done before.

As I may have hinted, the other huge and undeniable selling point of Bulletstorm is its sense of humour. While the story is very much ‘space shooter of the week’, the game establishes very early on that hey, it doesn’t take this whole thing too seriously, and neither should you. Developers People Can Fly were guided through production by Gears of War masterminds Epic Games (specifically their lead designer/motormouth Cliff Blezinski), with a clear emphasis on making this game stand apart from its melodramatic contemporaries, and the expletive-laden comedy that courses through the game’s filthy veins is a testament to that. Grayson Hunt might well be a flawed character, but I can’t undersell how constantly amusing his insults, both given and received, are to listen to, and it wouldn’t surprise me if phrases like ‘dicktits’, ‘butterdick’ or (my favourite) ‘fungal rimjob’ soon become mainstays in Xbox live chatter at least, if not the common gaming lexicon altogether. Yes, it’s as childish as farting in your friends’ face. It’s also as just as hilarious.

The character acting across the board is superb – Hunt’s dialogue is delivered through a voice that really sounds like he’s been sinking a bottle of scotch and endless space-ciggies every day, and the supporting cast is just as well realised. The visuals, too, are by and large stunning. Stepping away from the gray/brown palette that plagues both war shooters in general and specifically Gears of War’s take on them, it’s really refreshing to see Elysium’s vistas presented in gorgeous sunlit settings, the crumbling environments gloriously exposed rather than masked by darkness. My only graphical nit-pick would be that while the gameplay brings plenty of sexy for the eye, some of Bulletstorm’s cut scenes lack the spit and polish of Epic’s mega Gears franchise, occasionally jarring the player’s attention away from the smutty conversations of its characters.

While not going the whole hog in terms of the multiplayer experience, it does at least give players something besides the campaign to chew on. Although it doesn’t provide any mano-a-mano deathmatch-style options (quite sorely missed, I might add), Bulletstorm does have a couple of online modes which prove surprisingly compelling. The first, ‘Echoes’, takes sections of the single player experience and strips them of context; the levels become a leaderboard-based point scoring contest, whereby the player must beat a section of the game and awards scores by both total skill-kill points earned as well as the completion time. It’s a reasonably outdated system, sure, but the addition of the skillshot mechanic makes it both fresh and addictive (among your own friends list at least; you might want to stay away from the world rankings dominated by clear Rainman-types and blatant high-score hackers, if that sort of thing stops you sleeping at night). There’s also the ‘Anarchy’ mode, which allows you to get online with friends and clearly taking the lead, as many others have, from Epic’s own ‘Horde Mode’, this 4 player co-op throws waves of increasingly difficult bad guys at you to defeat in order to progress. The twist here though – staying true to Bulletstorm’s contribution to the genre – is that in order to progress, you have to rack up enough skillshots and points to beat each wave’s score-barrier, while not being taken out by the computer-controlled dicktits you’re up against (I told you it was catching). It starts out simple enough, but when you realise you’re starting to struggle against the fourteenth or fifteenth and it foes up to sixty-five, it puts into perspective how much not only the team-work (points are doubled for team-kills), but the knowledge of skillshots comes into play. Don’t think you know enough? That’s where Bulletstorm’s cycle of re-playability begins. And repeats. And repeats…

It’s not a flawless experience, but for me, it’s damn close. The single-player mode might be limited to anywhere between six and ten hours depending on experience and difficulty, but as I mentioned above, the desire to both take down your friends’ scores on the ‘Echoes’ leaderboards and be recognised as a skillkill badass in ‘Anarchy’ is sure to keep players coming back. It gives a genius implementation to the FPS genre, it looks and sounds great, and it makes you laugh until you haemorrhage while it does it.

What the fuck more do you want, butterdick?

This review was originally published on rustyshark.com

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