The biggest and best shooters of the past few years have been Call of Duty and the swarms of titles the series has influenced. Highly scripted singleplayer adventures and fast, trimmed-down multiplayer has become all the rage, and the accessibility of that kind of gameplay has paid off for Activision in spades, as well as for the lucky imitators who squeezed out a decent facsimile. Bulletstorm, in case you’re lucky enough to have avoided the recent media blitz, is selling itself as the antithesis to Call of Duty, even going so far as releasing a tie-in parody called Duty Calls – look it up, it’s pretty funny – that lambastes the oft-copied quick-time-events and military seriousness that those games employ. Bulletstorm talks pretty big, but if it wants to talk smack, it had better deliver something great.
Bulletstorm puts you in the boots of Grayson Hunt, an ex-super soldier on the run from a government called The Confederation. A space pirate of sorts, Grayson’s ship is attacked by his old nemesis, a Lee Armey wannabe General that provides some of the game’s more colorful insults. After using his ship in a suicide attack on the General’s cruiser, they both crash land on a planet populated by bloodthirsty psychopaths. Your mission? Escape. At least, that’s what your mission should be – some rock n’ roll could have been slapped over that premise and everything would be dandy, but unfortunately, there had to be a “story” wedged in there. An early-game flashback tries to elicit sympathy with some tired “they killed civilians!” melodrama, and even brings a little girl into a firefight as some sort of boring attempt to show the player what’s at stake. This isn’t an isolated incident; there are several moments in Bulletstorm that, for whatever reason, use tired mechanics like slow-motion quick-time-events to move the story forward. These are thankfully few and far between, but considering that the game is presented as so-totally-not-Call-of-Duty, they stand out.
Outside of these diversions, the script doesn’t get much better. Bulletstorm can’t decide if it’s a black comedy or a serious action game, and because of this, moments that reflect both sides of that coin fall flat. It’s hard to make a case for the enemies being horrifying psychopaths when the game encourages you to kill them in the most gruesome ways possible. There’s a scene where Grayson and his entourage encounter the aftermath of some kind of psycho-on-psycho bloodbath, and express dismay at how mutilated everyone is. Considering I was just awarded extra points for shooting a man in the balls and then kicking him against a giant cactus, this attempt at solemn introspection just comes across as lame. The humor is equally flat – with some more interesting character design and a better sense of timing, the lines “I am uninterested in quantifying how much punishment your ass was built to withstand” “you scared the dick offa me!” and “dick-tits!” could have been hilarious, but as they are, they’re wedged awkwardly in the middle of a poor man’s First Blood.
Tired setpiece moments and terrible script aside, Bulletstorm‘s actual content is fantastic. Along with his arsenal of big scary future guns, Grayson has the ability to kick enemies with his anti-gravity boots, as well as pull them around with a laser leash, which operates like a lasso, allowing players to set up some creative and often hilarious kills. Skill points are awarded for different kinds of kills, all with amusingly immature names like “gang bang” “topless” and my personal favorite, “man toast”. It’s certainly puerile, but the system is surprisingly deep, especially later in the game. Bulletstorm requires you to purchase ammo, as the magazines that enemies drop simply aren’t enough. Working out the most efficient way to dispose of your foes can be a challenge, and when ammunition is scarce, it turns into some kind of sick puzzle game. Underneath all the terrible penis jokes and the silly story lies an incredibly well thought out shooter that rewards critical thinking. Players looking to earn the best score possible can try Echoes mode, a stripped-down version of the campaign that has no cutscenes or dialog (thank Christ). The multiplayer takes the game’s core concept and multiplies it, depositing four players in a map and requiring a certain amount of points to proceed to the next stage.
It helps that the presentation of all this carnage is gorgeous. The mysterious planet is bathed in sunlight at nearly all times, and the game strings you along through several interesting environments – a huge dam, an amusement park, and a Vegas-esque resort to name a few. Unfortunately, the art direction is less interesting when it comes to character design – cutscenes reveal Grayson to be some kind of hybrid between Marcus Fenix and that one guy from Ancient Aliens – you know who I’m talking about. All of the main characters have that tired chunky armored build that Unreal 3 is so good at delivering. Enemies fare slightly better, covered in detailed tattoos and strange garb. They at least fall apart in satisfying ways, which, at the end of the day, is all that matters.
Bulletstorm, by all rights, shouldn’t be good. It makes several missteps right off the bat that are incredibly irritating; a generic premise, a boring cast, and a stupid script. However, it’s easy to write off a video game for “being stupid” when in reality, that doesn’t really matter. While there are a few standout games with clever writing, they haven’t become the standard, and so writing off Bulletstorm for the superficial things it gets wrong would undermine the core things that it gets right. While I would prefer to do my shooting in a well-written comedy or a dark drama, the opinion that Bulletstorm fails at both doesn’t invalidate the fact that its creative gameplay is new, refreshing, and a total blast to play.