Updated Wed, Mar 30, 2011 by Sardu
Let’s face it; PC shooters in this day and age are a dime a dozen. At best, most offer a lackluster single player campaign that serves as a tutorial to prop up the main attraction, aka multiplayer modes. At worst, they rely heavily on some basic gimmick or oddball weaponry that’s a thinly veiled attempt to reinvent Half Life 2’s gravity gun.
And then there’s Bulletstorm.
Developed by People Can Fly (of Painkiller fame) and Epic Games using the Unreal Engine 3.5, Bulletstorm seems hell bent on becoming the next great first-person shooter (FPS) franchise, offering a worthwhile single player campaign and, even more importantly, a highly unique spin on what you think you know about FPS combat.
But if you’re expecting a deep, meaningful story to unfold as you traverse the torn cityscapes of Stygia, you’ll be in for a pretty major disappointment. Bulletstorm’s plot is so laughably shallow that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was originally scrawled down on a whisky-soaked napkin after a night of binge drinking while watching low-budget movies on SyFy.
Thankfully, the engaging combat and exceptional level and environmental design more than make up for the storyline’s many blatant shortcomings. But are these elements enough to allow Bulletstorm to ascend to the rank of a must-have shooter experience? Or is the game simply a vehicle to tide over impatient Gears of War fans until the third installment of that series is released later this year? Read on and find out.
Bulletstorm has been rated M (Mature 17+) by the ESRB for the following:
From the above list, the main cautions to be aware of are Bulletstorm’s gratuitous violence and prolific, often vulgar use of profanity. Exploding heads, shotgun blasts that literally rip enemies in half, and language foul enough to make even a pirate blush are all par for the course.
Sexual Themes relates to the above mentioned overuse of profanity throughout the game, and Partial Nudity mostly made the list due to one of the game’s numerous Skillshots which involves stunning bosses, kicking them in the ass to remove the armor plating, and sending a charged weapon blast where the sun doesn’t shine. For the most part the ESRB is simply covering its own collective ass by slapping the partial nudity label on Bulletstorm.
It’s almost a shame that Bulletstorm is so readily lumped into the FPS genre since the gameplay becomes infinitely more enjoyable the less directly you rely on your arsenal of weaponry. That’s also the game’s fatal flaw; the thing that keeps it from fully rising above the endless waves of shooters-with-a-gimmick. For all of Bulletstorm’s unique features, it’s almost as if developer People Can Fly wasn’t sure quite how to turn them into a more complete game experience.
In Bulletstorm, players assume the role of space pirate Grayson Hunt, who leads the remaining member of his former Dead Echo squad, Ishi Sato, on a suicide revenge mission against their former commanding officer, General Sarrano. While one might think that years of alcohol abuse and the mercenary lifestyle would have taken their toll on Hunt, he’s pretty much exactly the kind of impossibly muscular tough guy that’s more of a caricature than character found in just about every major game released under the Epic brand over the past decade.
After Hunt crashes his ship directly into Sarrano’s in one of the opening sequences, both ships crash land on the former resort planet of Stygia. A botched medical procedure leaves Ishi looking like a cyborg enthusiast’s take on Frankenstein, and the pair immediately set off in hopes of finding a way to escape the mutant-infested planet.
Your companions for most of the game, Ishi and Trishka offer little in terms of combat support, but make up for it with plenty of witty, if not vulgar, chatter to keep you entertained."
Rounding out your team is Trishka, a commando still serving under General Seranno who initially only joins you out of necessity and a greater chance of survival. Even though Ishi and Trishka will be part of your team for the bulk of the game, they’re largely used as a plot device rather than offering any meaningful combat support.
The early levels do a decent job of introducing you to Bulletstorm’s main attraction – the Skillshot system – and basic weaponry. You’ll also quickly gain access to a device called the Energy Leash which works a bit like an electric whip that can trigger traps or latch onto enemies to pull them towards you, and is also used to access the dropships found in every level where you can change your weapon load out, or purchase upgrades and resupply ammo.
Skillshots are essentially a long list of creative ways to kill your enemy which may or may not even involve using your weapons. Some of the more basic Skillshots include things like kicking enemies into environmental hazards, or over the edge of a cliff. On the opposite end of the spectrum there are Skillshots that require you to do things like shoot your target in the nuts, and then again in the head while they’re writhing on the ground in pain, or literally shooting someone’s ass off while they’re flying through the air.
Using the energy leash on dropships allows you to access a full list of possible skillshots for each weapon or even environmental factors.
The more creatively you use the environment as a weapon and chain together combos, the more points you’ll be rewarded for every Skillshot you unlock. These points can then be spent by accessing one of the plentiful dropships in the game. While weapon upgrades are pretty cheap and unlock fairly quickly, you’ll typically only need to spend your points to resupply ammo or charged attack modes for your weapons. Charged attacks add yet another layer of depth to Skillshots, and often result in some absurdly graphic kills.
Bulletstorm also includes some random collectable elements peppered throughout each level, such as beer bottles that you can either opt to drink or destroy. Performing Skillshots while too drunk to see straight can certainly be a blast, but drinking or destroying all 20 bottles has no impact on the game whatsoever outside of an achievement unlock.
The downside to all the over-the-top mayhem is that it’s extremely short-lived. A first play through the campaign took me under 6 hours to complete, and the game’s sole multiplayer mode never quite capitalizes on the game’s combat potential.
Still, Bulletstorm is a much needed breath of fresh air in a progressively stale genre. The combat is highly unique and rewarding, and doesn’t rely on shoehorning in pointless boss fights just to ramp up the difficulty. There are, however, a few too many quick time events for my liking, and the constant stream vulgarities spewing out of the main characters gets old quickly.
The Unreal Engine 3.5 may be showing signs of its age at this point, but Bulletstorm certainly capitalizes on its full potential when it comes to the game’s environments. You’ll spend the bulk of the game on the planet Stygia, and while the cityscapes are mostly in ruins, the impressive backdrops and use of a more vibrant color palette help keep things visually interesting throughout. Some of the interior spaces are also exceptionally well done, and offer enough variety to keep the game’s pacing from ever feeling too sluggish.
One of my favorite levels, Worst Family Fun Vacation Ever, combines a good mix of clever interior spaces and chaotic exteriors to nice effect.
The graphics seem to scale respectably well overall, and even running the game at max settings I never dropped below 60 fps even during some of the more intense single player chapters or multiplayer waves. Bear in mind that I was running the game using 2x Nvidia 570s in SLi, but Bulletstorm supports older GPUs though if you run the game on a system closer to the required specs you’ll likely need to scale the graphics settings down a fair amount.
The only negative tick in the graphics department would be for Bulletstorm’s use of pre-rendered, horrendously compressed in-engine cutscenes. The drop in visual quality here is incredibly jarring, and unfortunately keeps the game from receiving an overall high score for graphics.
The biggest standout element in the sound department is Bulletstorm’s voice acting, the overly cliché cyborg audio processing and inflection of Ishi Sato notwithstanding. While the overall storyline and shallow motivations of Grayson Hunt may be largely forgettable, Steve Blum (aka Rytlock Brimstone to the GW2 fans out there) still manages to help turn Grayson into a likable and, more importantly, believable enough character for you to at least feel it might be worth plodding through the game to see if he’ll ever complete his quest for revenge.
Jennifer Hale also lends her considerable talents to the mix, assuming the role of Trishka. While there are definitely points when you can close your eyes and assume you’re listening to the foul-mouthed older sister of Mass Effect’s female Commander Shepard rather than a wholly believable, unique character, that’s not necessarily a bad thing considering how poorly developed the characters are.
Beyond that, the audio in Bulletstorm didn’t really leave much of an impact on me, either good or bad. And once you tire of the nonstop profanity (and you no doubt quickly will) the game could just as easily be played with the sound muted and your favorite record playing on your iPod.