Bulletstorm is a first-person shooter from People Can Fly and Epic Games released for Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.

Vitals.


Title: Bulletstorm
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: People Can Fly, Epic Games
Genre: First-person shooter
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Release date: 2011/02/22

Overview.


In Bulletstorm you assume the role of Grayson Hunt, the leader of a disgraced black ops team called Dead Echo. Hunt is a drunken mercenary on a quest for revenge against General Sarrano, the man who tricked his team into committing a series of political assassinations against civilians. The game is set in a space opera themed future. The story opens on board Dead Echo's small space ship. After a brief flashback to the assassination mission that broke Dead Echo away from their government handlers and serves as a tutorial, the ship quickly crash-lands on a war-torn resort world. Most of Grayson's team is killed or injured, and he is forced to confront his responsibility for their situation as he looked for a way to save them, escape the planet, and complete his revenge against Sarrano.

The main campaign is single-player only, but Grayson is almost always accompanied by at least one other computer-controlled soldier. In addition to standard shooter mechanics with a variety of different weapon choices, the game incorporates two relatively novel features. The first is Grayson's boot, which through technological enhancements he can use to kick enemies and objects away from him. The second is an energy beam called an "instinct leash." It can be used to pull objects and enemies toward Grayson. These "push" and "pull" mechanics are accompanied by a scoring system (supposedly implemented in software within the leash device) that grade Grayson on the efficiency, style, and imaginative manner of his kills. Points earned through combat function partly as currency for the in-game economy, and partly as experience points for RPG progression through an unlockable set of skills and equipment enhancements.

Grayson frequently uses his environment to fight enemies, for example using the leash to pull an enemy toward him and then kicking that enemy into a hazard such as an electrified fence or a giant cactus. There are periodically breaks from the main FPS action in favor of rail shooter mechanics, and one memorable scene where Grayson assumes control of a robotic Godzilla and uses it in combat against Sarrano's forces.

After completing the main campaign, there are two online options. One, called Echoes, allows the player to play solo missions with a time clock and the game's scoring mechanic used to feed a leaderboard. The other, called Anarchy, is cooperative multi-player in purpose-built maps, using the same general gameplay as the single-player campaign and Echoes modes.

The game is relatively short, the single-player campaign taking a little more than ten hours to complete.

Impressions.

People who liked this game would probably call it "smash-mouthed" and "irreverent." People who disliked this game would probably call it crass, vulgar, and puerile. You're playing a main character who drinks too much, only reluctantly accepts the consequences of his actions, and actively seeks out the violence that has defined his life. Grayson Hunt is an asshole, and the conclusion of the main campaign's storyline only begins to redeem him. But he's an asshole in his element. The world he's on is used as a training ground for Sarrano's elite soldiers, and Hunt clearly relishes the combat experiences the world offers him. The overall feeling, an unapologetic badass having fun as he works his way through a vendetta that has nearly killed him and his entire team, somehow shares more tone with 1980s Saturday morning cartoons than with any more serious discussion about the wearying costs of war and vengeance.

The levels are big, the action is fast-paced and messy, the characters are cartoonish and larger-than-life. Bulletstorm is a romp through a science fiction war zone, and we're not expected to learn much, if anything, along the way. With only limited exploration elements and generally short cut-scenes, the game is very focused on the core gameplay. There's lots of that, and the game rewards you for working through it in creative ways; the "stylish kill" awards owe a lot to games like WET and Stranglehold, but where those games were working to achieve an air of cinematic action, this game uses the same mechanic to achieve cartoon violence and comic mischief.

I had a lot of fun with this one, and I've been intending to go back and finish it on the hardest difficulty for more than six months now. That said, every time I've been at a loose end and looking for a new title to pick up, my hand has hovered over this one and then moved on. The same emotional and intellectual vacuity that made it so easy to buy into to the core conceits of the gameplay while I was playing have dulled my hunger to repeat the experience a second time through. Grayson Hunt isn't a protagonist I'm dying to know more about, and the world he kicks and shoots his way through isn't a place I desire to revisit. The thing I want from the Bulletstorm universe is episodic entertainment, not a long standalone campaign.

Conclusions.

I'm not sure we'll see the push/pull mechanics of the boot and the leash in future titles, but I suspect that the "points for style" thing will continue to see light in the shooter genre. I found myself restarting from earlier checkpoints because I was trying to accomplish a particular sequence of kills: electrocute this guy on the sign, put the toxic spore on that guy's head, boot the next one into the cactus, blow up those two with a single explosion, etc. It reminded me of trying repeatedly to run through some specific string of tricks in Tony Hawk titles--a refreshing alternative to the more pragmatic "any means necessary" approach I find myself taking in other shooters. Gameplay elements that have the player voluntarily going back through parts of the level trying to finish a sequence in style is probably something worth incorporating into future titles.

So, it's fun. Is it rewarding on other levels?

There's something to be said for a good time that isn't trying to be anything more. It's humor without parody, action without reflection, bloodlust without an explanation. There's an artistic thread at the core of many character-driven shooters explaining why the protagonist can be driven to such superhuman levels of violence. The Master Chief's steadfast commitment to duty no matter what the risks; Marcus Fenix's intense sense of brotherhood and family loyalty; Kane and Lynch as condemned, morally compromised anti-heroes, simply trying to survive and mitigate the consequences of their past mistakes; basic questions about the nature of humanity itself from franchises like BioShock, Deus Ex, and Crysis; even open questioning about the morality of violence from Metro 2033.

You'll find no such nuanced emotional texture here. Grayson Hunt spends the entire story freely admitting his mistakes and promising to deal with them after the action has concluded, but spends every moment of that action relishing his predicament and the extremities he can go to in attempting to escape these disasters of his own making. We never get to see the denouement we were given to expect from Grayson's promises to his compatriots; instead, the game concludes with revelations intended to set the game up for a similarly-toned sequel. As the game did not turn any substantial profit for its authors, it's possible that no sequel will ever happen.

In some ways, I can see why Epic decided to make a game like this. Gears of War 3 was in concurrent development with this title, and it's a heavy, melancholy story. The first Gears title was widely criticized for an excess of testosterone in its characters and writing; by the end of the series we see another side to the majority of the lead characters. The title ended on a sad note for the players, so I can imagine that it might have been emotionally exhausting for the developers. Bulletstorm abandons all that in favor of fun, violent, and unapologetic action. In the original Greek sense of the term, this is comedy in a game genre more naturally built for tragedy. It's my biggest complaint about the title, but in a certain light it's also the game's biggest strength.

The farther I have gotten away from the initial experience, the less certain I've become that I'll ever go back to the title itself. In the end it's possible that the game industry will see this product the way they saw Kill Switch, as a title with interesting elements to incorporate into future products, but not viable as a creative source for additional IP in the same setting. This wouldn't really be a bad legacy for Bullet Storm, but I have to admit that I would be a little disappointed if it happened. Epic could make a dozen more of these and I might easily play them all. That's probably not something they need to apologize for.

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