Bulletstorm - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best games will stand up to scrutiny today.
In 2011, a joint venture between People Can Fly and Epic Games saw the release of Bulletstorm, a controversial first-person shooter with a focus on strategy over more traditional elements of the genre. It was an outrageous, over-the-top, bombastic cacophony of explosions and flying limbs, which had somehow passed me by. I’d bought it on the Xbox 360 but it lay on my shelf, still shrink-wrapped. That is, until the time came to start clearing out my back catalogue. If nothing else, I figured it’d be a quick eight-hour trawl through standard FPS tropes.
I was sorely mistaken.
Ten Minutes In
What the hell is this? It’s taken the “oorah!” marine earnestness of Gears of War, and mashed it into a Duke Nukem game. But with Wolverine in the lead. In space. Also, someone has removed both the jump button and the heads-up display. The introduction to both the controls and the crew feels pretty poor, and the flashback to how I arrived in this situation is lacklustre. I am really unsure what I’ve stumbled into. As prefaces go, I’m not impressed at all.
Twenty Minutes In
OK, this is actually crazy. After meeting the entire cast, we’ve now crash-landed on a planet and most of them have gone. Maybe it isn’t an FPS Gears after all. It certainly isn’t taking itself as seriously. I think the plot is going to take a back seat here — rogue General lies to his team then turns on them when discovered, causing them to seek revenge — but it’s pretty obvious that the main focus of Bulletstorm is to show me how many ways I can kill people. The heavy-handed introduction was a load of exposition for a story that really doesn’t need it. Freed from the shackles of storytelling, the game is finally opening up...and I’m liking it. A lot.
The control system is great. It’s incredibly easy to pick up, and the lack of a jump button makes a lot of sense given the nature of the combat. If you added jumping to the mix, it simply wouldn’t flow as well. Weapon-switching is intuitive, as is running, sliding and using special weapons. I have totally bought in, and I fear that after I finish this I’m going to demand the removal of jumping from every future FPS.
Ninety Minutes In
I genuinely believe this is the most fun I’ve had with an FPS in years. There is a linearity to the game that is refreshing, since you are funnelled down a single path with very little room for exploration. Your discoveries are environmental, but not in terms of seeking out collectibles (though a few do exist). No, your goal here is to work out how to kill the bad guys in the most creative ways possible, using the entire world as your practice ground.
In the last half an hour I have kicked people into spikes, leashed them and pulled them into cacti, smashed them into walls, electrocuted them, and booted them off cliffs. When you grab someone with your leash (helpfully located on the left bumper), they’re pulled towards you like a slow motion rag doll, allowing you to choose how you want to deal with them next. Should I shoot them in the face before they reach me? Kick them into an electrical tower? Let them drop and blast them as they lie prone on the ground? Decisions!
Furthermore, the corridor design means I never have to worry about finding the next path, I can concentrate on eviscerating, decapitating and mutilating. The game actively encourages you to find new and ingenious ways to dismember and destroy your foes by presenting a checklist of Skillshots for doing just that, each with hilarious titles. Better still, it ties them directly into the gameplay by granting you Skillpoints for each successful kill which fulfils one or more of these challenges. Accumulated Skillponts are the in-game currency which is used to purchase ammo and upgrades to your weapons, which in turn unlocks more challenges.
It’s a simple idea, but almost perfectly executed. Even better are the hidden ones you achieve accidentally, like when I kicked a guy into a river and was awarded a 250-point “Fish Food” achievement. It made me wonder what else I could do, which other combinations of my flail, boot and gun I could combine to wreak havoc in interesting ways. Merely shooting people becomes dull very quickly when you have a box of tricks available to you which is brimming with possibility.
Four Hours In
I’ve picked up two-thirds of the weapons and I’m accompanied by one of the squad who provides backup and rarely gets in the way, just like I want from my co-op AI. Additionally, each of the weapons can be upgraded with a “charge”, a special ability which lets me unleash even more pain on the planet’s screaming hordes. The pistol gets a flare upgrade, the leash charge can be used to ground pound an enemy and cause a shockwave to lift nearby foes into the air, and the assault rifle can take out multiple bad guys in one sizzling shot.
I think it goes without saying that this is not a game for kids, and if you were unsure, the filthy, mostly dire, yet occasionally hilarious dialogue hammers that point home. Bulletstorm has the subtlety of a flaming chainsaw to the face, but the satisfaction you get when you wrap a time-delayed bomb flail around an enemy’s throat and detonate it when he reaches an exploding canister, which in turn sparks a chain reaction of carnage around him? It’s almost unparalleled. Yes, it is grotesque, twisted and awful. But my word it’s fun.
It’s still gorgeous to look at, too. Aside from the slightly ropey character models, the world is vibrant and bursting with blues, yellows and reds, showcased right off the bat on the sweeping title screen vistas.
Eight Hours In
And I’m done. I managed to complete over 75% of the hundred-plus skillshots, but by the time the credits rolled I felt like I’d got everything I wanted from the game. Bulletstorm didn’t outstay its welcome too much, but the final chapter of the story dragged, and too often sacrificed the core gameplay for QTEs and cutscenes. In truth, the plot was pretty awful, which made its reliance on scenery-chewing snippets of swearing and explosions even more intrusive. Some sections saw me running for a good thirty to sixty seconds, just to get to the next area of carnage. And the finale was so unashamedly set up for a sequel that my satisfaction for completing the game left a faintly bitter aftertaste.
That said, I cannot fault the action. People Can Fly shook up the genre in a way that other developers really need to take note of. FPS games don’t need to be the same rote sequence of shooting that we’ve seen iterations of since Wolfenstein. It seems that the uber-seriousness of the likes of Call of Duty and its ilk have replaced fun with drama, whilst failing to offer anything truly new. Bulletstorm tried to be different and succeeded; bizarrely, the game it most reminded me of at times was Peggle. The focus on getting specific shots meant that timing, skill and a bit of luck could take you further than wildly shooting people in the face. This was crystallised in Echoes, a time attack mode which walked you through various game maps while pitting your score against that of your friends. I found online multiplayer less enjoyable, the only option being a co-op mode which didn’t really offer the same variety or excitement as the campaign.
I wouldn’t revisit it, but then I can think of very few FPS games where that would be the case. Even superior titles such as the new Wolfenstein reboots, fun while they were, have a shelf life once the campaign is done, and Bulletstorm is no different. But I can honestly say that I enjoyed almost every moment of it.
It might not be to everyone’s tastes, and it’s downright puerile for the majority of its playtime. But Bulletstorm hides an innovative and complex series of mechanics beneath its brash frame. That it was a commercial flop is a huge shame, but not unexpected given its deliberately provocative content. If anything, I can only hope that other development houses take note of the things it does right, notably in terms of side-stepping genre expectations. And if the recently remastered Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition does well enough on this generation of consoles, maybe that oft-mooted sequel could be back on the table. I’d be the first to pick it up.