I still feel that, even now, it’s important to work towards dispelling some of the assumptions which continue to buzz around Bulletstorm like bothersome, accusatory flies. Since the outlandish and noisome marketing campaign and the slew of negative coverage surrounding the game’s original release in 2011, many people I know and respect have continued to overlook or dismiss the game as another brainless, controversy-baiting first-person shooter.
I received my original copy of Bulletstorm a few days before its release and played through it in a single, eight-hour sitting. I loved every moment of it. After recently ploughing through the game again, this time in a couple of shorter (though equally entertaining) sessions, I’m even more assured of the fact that this is one of the smartest, most competent FPS video games not just of this generation, but perhaps of all time.
Despite this, it must still be said that Bulletstorm certainly isn’t for everyone. It does seem to revel in its over-the-top violence, concoctions of profanity and ludicrous Skillshot system, and if I was forced to cite examples of how video games can be a mature form of artistic expression, this wouldn’t be one of the titles I selected. Likewise, there is no narrative depth or complexity here. Bulletstorm is content to tell a pulp science-fiction story laced with puns and innuendo, and it really doesn’t care whether you’re into that or not.
Importantly though, writer Rick Remender has done an extremely good job of crafting characters, set-pieces and dialogue which really complement that trashy sci-fi style, while the designers have created a suitably lavish stage on which the whole thing takes place. There is a real sense of cohesion between Remender’s humour and People Can Fly’s environment design, so when the action pulls back and allows the sweeping vistas and tongue-in-cheek dialogue exchanges to speak for themselves, Bulletstorm has enough personality and creativity to stand on its own as not just a great shooter, but simply a great video game.
Grayson Hunt (voiced very competently by Steve Blum) is a space pirate with a drinking problem who’s out for revenge on General Sarrano – the commanding officer of his former black-ops unit, Dead Echo. After attacking the General’s giant battleship in a moment of liquor-induced stupidity, Gray and his team (including soon-to-be cyborg Ishi Sato, who accompanies the player for most of the game) crash land on the planet Stygia, a former holiday resort that’s now overrun with mutants, gangs, carnivorous plants and the rest of Sarrano’s team, who were also forced to land on the planet after the attack. The only way off the world is on the rescue vessel sent to save Sarrano, but to hitch that ride Gray needs to keep him alive.
The story is, as mentioned previously, little more than pulp trash, but it’s entertaining, totally self-aware trash that these characters fit into very well. The inimitable Jennifer Hale makes a welcome appearance as Trishka, a foul-mouthed femme fatale, and Rick Remender continues to poke his head out from backstage every now and again to give a knowing wink to his audience. It’s all great fun.
The planet of Stygia itself is one of the most beautiful game worlds I’ve ever seen. Every area is a wonderfully-designed, visually-stunning playground, crammed with things to see and tools to use as you carve your way through the swathes of bad guys in the most brutal and stylish ways possible. Whether you’re stalking your way through the planet’s cavernous underbelly or exploring the ruined, adult paradise of Elysium, you never run out of eye candy or new toys to play with. And, by the time you’ve more or less got to grips with a particular environment’s quirks, you’re dragged kicking and screaming to another location, usually with something huge and murderous hot on your heels.
Thankfully, the gameplay pinning all this carnage together is virtually flawless. The controls are about as tight and smooth as one would expect from a shooter developed by Epic Games and People Can Fly – their combined body of work including classics such as Unreal, Painkiller and Gears of War – while the much-discussed Skillshot system infuses the combat with the same wit and ingenuity that Remender’s humour lends to the writing.
For those not in the know, this system works thusly: players are rewarded for killing enemies in especially creative, violent ways, and there are 135 different Skillshots to be unlocked, each having its own name (usually a sexual innuendo or a pun) and point value based on how complex it was to earn. There are rather obvious ones, such as “Enviro-Mental”, for killing an enemy using an environmental explosive such as a barrel, and more controversial examples such as “Gangbang” (killing multiple enemies with a Flail Gun explosion) and “Drilldo” (sliding into multiple enemies with a charged Penetrator), the latter of which were, coincidentally, the ones FOX News had problems with.
Skillshots aren’t just a gimmick though – they completely define how you play the game. Your biggest concern in Bulletstorm is your score, and to nurture that figure you must abandon all the habits you have accrued throughout previous FPS experience and instead embrace the stupidity of Stygia and its natives. Enemies bound towards you in droves, leaping in front of your weapons – of which there are several, each with an alternate fire mode – and shrieking in agony as you blow them into meaty chunks. Your goal isn’t simply to dispatch each target, but to do so as violently and creatively as possibly, walking away with a healthy wad of points. Dying and restarting from a checkpoint is no longer a failure state, but rather an opportunity to improve on your previous attempt. Bulletstorm has replay value not just in its outlandish set-pieces, but in each moment-to-moment encounter.
Going out of your way to unlock more Skillshots also has a more practical application though, because the points you earn from your murders are used to buy ammunition and upgrade your weapons. If you’re content with the starting assault rifle then that’s fine, but if you want access to the pneumatic drill weapon or the thing that fires bouncing yellow bombs, then you’re going to have to get more creative with your kills. There’s a tremendous amount of depth in the system that constantly rewards experimentation and risk-taking, and the limited time I spent with the multiplayer was greatly enhanced by discovering Skillshots which could only be performed with two or more people.
The system isn’t without its flaws, however. It occasionally feels a little more regimented than I would like, with most of the combos a result of pure chance or, more frequently, rigidly adhering to the rulebook. Some techniques are perplexingly more rewarding than others, and doing really well is more a matter of memorization and repetition than being truly organic. Still, these are minor flaws within a system that ultimately works extremely well, and it would be unfair to taint the whole thing on the basis of these quibbles alone.
I played on the Hard difficulty setting both times through the game, and I’d tentatively recommend it even for first-time players. I found the enemy threat to be balanced almost perfectly with room for experimentation, and the Skillshot system was a lot more thrilling for me personally when I had a genuine threat to contend with too. Very Hard is available for a greater challenge, and Normal is, of course, a viable option for those who just want to play with the systems on offer.
Bulletstorm is the most fun I’ve had with a FPS in recent memory. While its presentation and style may be off-putting for some, if you take the time to peel back the layers of guts, gore and profanity you’ll find a tight, incredibly well-made shooter with genuinely intelligent design pinning things together. It’s crass and it’s tasteless, but it’s wonderfully entertaining in ways few other video games come close to. Play it.