Bulletstorm begins in a much less exciting fashion than I initially expected it to. Even though the intro involves the protagonist, Grayson Hunt (a space pirate and former soldier who looks and acts like a hybridization of Jack Black and Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, and is voiced to perfection by Steve Blum of Cowboy Bebop and Madworld fame), crashing his spaceship through a much larger one to get revenge on the man who tricked him into killing the innocent, I was surprised at how sparse and straightforward the combat was in the beginning.
Fancy presentation aside, the first half hour or so of Bulletstorm feels largely by-the-numbers for an FPS. That’s not to say this is a bad thing; it results in some lovely sequences, gravelly dialogue filled with some admittedly clever dick jokes (imagine that) and machismo, and violent enemy deaths. It feels competent, but not spectacular. All of that changes, however, once you get the "Leash."
Bulletstorm’s Leash is sort of an electrified whip or lasso that you can use to grab enemies and pull them towards you in a way that would make Mortal Kombat’s Scorpion proud.
Doing so slows enemies down and allows you to get a clean shot with whatever weapon you’re using, or to throw them into the numerous environmental hazards scattered throughout the different areas. However, the Leash is more than just a weapon; it also gives the game its biggest hook: a score.
When Grayson acquires the Leash, he gains access to "Skillshots," which are essentially point rewards for killing enemies in gruesome and spectacular ways. There are a ton of Skillshots in the game, and they vary from traditional stuff like headshots and kicking enemies into environmental hazards to challenging weapon-specific Skillshots like killing two airborne enemies with an exploding sniper-rifle bullet. While all of this may seem a little extreme, skillshots make Bulletstorm much more enjoyable.
Enemies take a lot of bullets to take down if you try to kill them like you would in a traditional shooter, and the Skillshots make eliminating enemies much quicker and more rewarding. Considering the sheer amount of enemies that can come at you at once in this game, discovering Skillshots and properly utilizing them becomes the best way to get through each level.
Each Skillshot is lovingly named (in a generally crude fashion). For instance, you might use the Flailgun to wrap tethered grenades around one enemy’s neck, then kick him into an oncoming rush of his allies and be rewarded with "Grenade Gag," "Homie Missile," and (of course) "Gang Bang." I’m sure some people will take offense at the Skillshot names, but I personally thought that the crude comedy of the Skillshots complemented the manic violence of the game quite well. It seems as though People Can Fly wanted to give the Skillshots names that were just as surprising as the kills themselves, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I laughed at a few of the more off-color ones.
Although I expected that the game would be focused around collecting high scores like the demo was, the main campaign uses points as currency. When you find a Dropkit, you can use your hard earned points to buy more ammo or unlock new weapons.
Expanding Grayson’s arsenal is surprisingly fun and addicting, since each weapon is distinctive, even if it initially appears to belong to a standard FPS arsenal. Whether you’re steering sniper bullets into marked enemies or skewering four mutants against a wall with the drill-launching "Penetrator," every weapon is fun to play with. Acquiring new weapons also rewards the player by unlocking new Skillshots, which in turn provide more points for weapon upgrades.
As you upgrade your weapons, you gain access to charge shots, a secondary fire of sorts that makes every weapon about a hundred times more lethal. For instance, my personal favorite weapon, the Screamer revolver, has a charge shot that turns it into a flare gun. While the revolver fires powerful shots in and of itself, it’s designed for taking down enemies one at a time. It’s charged shot, on the other hand, fires a flare into an enemy that will send them flying, igniting any other foes unfortunate enough to be near him. Even the Leash is given an upgrade! The thumper allows you to bounce a group of enemies into the air and slow them down, perfect for setting up Skillshots.
Any given weapon is limited to carrying nine charge shots at a time when fully upgraded, so it’s a challenge to find the perfect opportunity to use each one. I particularly liked that after you load a charge into a weapon, it remains there until you fire it, allowing you to swap from one weapon into another’s charged shot, it opened up a variety of combinations that I didn’t initially expect, such as wrapping one enemy up with an explosive flail before launching him into a group of enemies with a flare.
As you may have gathered by now, Bulletstorm’s combat is quite good. Kicking mutants into giant cacti, slide-kicking people off of their feet and juggling them with a quadruple-barrel shotgun, and taking heads off of mini-bosses with the Leash will become second nature after a while. Being faced with an assortment of enemies feels more like an opportunity than an imposition. Whenever I was surrounded my enemies, the Skillshot opportunities and environmental hazards made me feel like the clichéd kid in a candy store (albeit a very violent, chaotic and obscene candy store).
However there’s more than just fighting. Bulletstorm breaks up the combat in some creative ways. There is a very distinctly clever moment that I won’t spoil for you beyond quoting "No one expects death at the hands of a children’s’ toy!"
Now that we’re on the subject of dialogue, Bulletstorm has a lot of very crude dialogue, but it actually works. I’m not saying that I want every game to be Bulletstorm, but considering how absurd the violence and gameplay is, it makes sense to have dialogue like this:
Grayson’s shipmate Rell: "Fuck! Is it any old thing you touches crumbles into dogshit?"
(Drunk) Grayson: "Your… mom survived… barely…"
Rell: "Well, I guess I know how the old gal got that limp."
However, amidst all the dick jokes and expletives, there are some clever little bits of writing. On more than one occasion, Bulletstorm is willing to poke fun at traditional shooter tropes, like this exchange Grayson has with his cyborg compatriot, Ishi:
Grayson: "You wanna make out? Just two military-hardened dudes sitting in an elevator snuggling out their woes in a totally hetero way."
Grayson: "Ahh, that’s a nervous chuckle! Either your human side gets the joke, or your
computer side likes the way I look in these pants."
Ishi: "Or, a little of both perhaps."
Grayson: "Hey, I’m not judgin’. I’m just a good-lookin’ man."
Even with the witty dialogue though, I found myself a little disappointed with the story overall. For one thing, out of the three main protagonists, Grayson is the only one who is remotely likeable. Ishi falls into two unfortunate stereotypes: serious and terse Japanese soldier, and angry and serious malfunctioning robot. Considering that he’s supposed to be the sarcastic, drunk, and crude Grayson’s best friend, he spends a lot of time threatening to kill him if he steps out of line. The female soldier, Trishka, is just as grumpy and critical of Grayson as you’d expect a grumpy female soldier character in an FPS would be, and that’s a shame.
Although Grayson seems to be an evolution of the Duke Nukem-style FPS character, one would hope that a shooter that pokes fun at traditional shooter tropes would try to think outside the box in terms of its characters. At least the villainous General Serrano develops a bit of a personality by constantly spewing profanity.
I feel as though Bulletstorm is an intelligent game disguised as an immature one. Interesting combat mechanics hide behind Skillshot names like "Gang Bang" and "Rear Entry," commentary on the traditional shooter tropes is tucked in between the lines of stereotypical supporting characters, and a cleverly-implemented scoring system lies under buckets of blood. It’s deceptively stupid fun, and that’s sort of refreshing.
Food for Thought:
1. Bulletstorm reminds me a lot of MadWorld. Both have you killing people in creative ways for points, a Steve Blum-voiced character with goggles, and a lot of profanity. To me, this is a good thing.
2. I think this may be the only game in which plants bleed.