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Ridin' The Storm Out (Bulletstorm review)

Game: Bulletstorm
Platform: Xbox 360/ Playstation 3/ PC/ Steam
Rating: M
Developer: People Can Fly
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: February 2011

It's been about seven years since "Painkiller," Polish developer People Can Fly's last game debuted to critical acclaim but lackluster sales, and in that time the First-Person Shooter has undergone a considerable shift. 

Gone are the sweeping, open vistas and outlandish weapons of "Serious Sam," or even the colorful character designs of "Team Fortress 2"-- Military shooters have dominated the landscape, and even with the occasional piece of genuine excellence like "Bioshock," "Portal" or even "Modern Warfare 1," the genre's metaphorical landscape is cluttered with gritty, overly serious titles itching for a piece of "Call of Duty's" online-multiplayer supremacy.

But while the now-usual suspects are still rearing their ugly heads this year, the wacky FPS is finally making a comeback.  Most notably, this includes the actual release of the longest running joke in the industry in "Duke Nukem Forever," but the charge is led by PCF's second-ever title, "Bulletstorm."

And while it'd be unprofessional of me to call it my Game of the Year 2011 this early, I have to say I haven't been this utterly in love with everything a game has been in nearly every respect since "Bayonetta."

The face of "Bulletstorm"-- a raucous, mindless shooter full of dick jokes and gratuitous cursing-- is certainly not inaccurate, but to take the entire product at face value is only doing yourself a disservice.  By and large, "Bulletstorm" is a thinking player's FPS wrapped up in a veneer of sophomoric stupidity.  In some ways its closest analogue isn't "Doom" or "Serious Sam" or even "Duke Nukem," but the long-running Comedy Central cartoon "South Park"; toilet humor and fart jokes serving as the outer shell for some of the most genuinely intelligent writing in the medium, and a similar attitude for "Bulletstorm" is more than likely to throw off gamers who consider themselves above such things.

The game introduces its basics fairly quickly-- within the first half-hour or so you become acquainted with your standard carbine, your primary methods of interaction (a kick, Mega Man-esque power slide and a leash that functions like Scorpion's harpoon from "Mortal Kombat"), and the Skillshot system that ultimately ties everything together. 

As much as I'm simplifying things here, there really isn't enough that can be said for the Skillshots as the game's major area of distinction.  While fairly straightforward (do X, get Y-points, with increasing rewards for more complex kills and first-time attempts, more points allow you to purchase upgrades and ammo), the application of what is essentially action-game logic to an FPS dramatically changes the way something as basic as dealing with enemies is viewed.  What have always been annoyances to be dealt with in this genre become potential buckets of points depending on how you play, and it's around the time you collect your second of many guns that the real depth of "Bulletstorm" starts to become clearer-- that simply killing someone is practically the most disappointing thing you can do.

There comes a point at which you stop simply doing 'whatever' (although that's certainly enjoyable) and start actively taking layout and potential traps and enemy types and weapons on hand into account-- almost planning strategies and ways to maximize your score on the fly-- that creates a sense of satisfaction and player empowerment that's rarely captured in games and even less often with this degree of visceral joy.  Aside from a handful of (great) setpiece moments and a Skillshot tutorial near the opening, there's no arbitrary point quota to be found, nor are you ever obligated to use any weapon you don't like (save for a reliable rifle that's always on hand).  This is a game in which every significant gameplay decision is yours to make, and a combination of skill, timing and luck can make the difference between filling the screen with neon point tickers and wasting your last powerful Charge Shot.

Speaking of layouts, those tired of the modern FPS's current trifecta of brown, grey and dark-brown will find much to love in "Bulletstorm's" level design, which is not only tied to the gameplay in a considerable way but is both colorful and gorgeous.  It's easily the best-looking game I've seen in the hands of the Unreal 3 Engine, if not in terms of visual realism than certainly of art direction.  Weapons are also a breath of fresh air-- from four-barrelled shotguns to a high-powered drill launcher, the arsenal isn't exactly massive (seven, not including the odd minigun) but each one feels different, weighty and powerful.  You can't hold more than two besides your rifle at a time, but considering the gameplay is heavily reliant on making fast combinations, it makes more sense in terms of gameflow and strategization. 

And while most agree that "Bulletstorm's" gameplay is fine, but the story is the weaker link, I have to say I'm really not seeing it.  For a game that was strong enough on its merits as a game to not really require it, I was suprised by the end just how involved I'd gotten in the narrative.  The characters on hand are suprisingly well-developed and likeable (for all the 'band of brothers' motifs that dominate war games, Greyson and Ishi's relationship is one of the few times I've actually bought that the people in question really were friends), and props have to go out for making central baddie Serrano the most gloriously hateful and sadistically evil motherfucker on any screen since Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker, or even Hans Landa for that matter.  In fact, I had no idea how much I'd missed a good old fashioned straight-up unapologetically evil bad guy in video games until this clown showed up.  Have we really become so obsessed with some vague notion of depth by trying to turn every potential baddie into a 'not evil just misunderstood' copout instead of just gleefully running with it?  Apparently so.  As to the writing, it's not exactly "Bioshock" or "Portal" but it's definitely enjoyable in a pulpy-grindhouse sort of way, and there are a few moments of genuine wit, like a seemingly daring escape that plays out in a way I can only describe as "Monty Python-esque."

Still, the game isn't perfect and I might as well hit the downsides.  The big one (for me anyway) is that there isn't a New Game Plus, which I suppose is understandable considering how the gameplay aspects are tied into the story but that it doesn't even apply to the score-attack style Echoes mode is a little disappointing.  Then there's the campaign ending, which while it DOES have an ending, there's still an infuriating little teaser after the credits have rolled that really makes you hope enough people are buying it to warrant a sequel. 

The big one (for everyone else) is the lack of competitive multiplayer, which isn't an issue for me but bears mentioning since it's a deal breaker for some I suppose.  What is an issue for me, however, is the lack of splitscreen support for the co-op mode.  I understand that in order to hold off the usual UE3 texture-pop the game is barely running on one screen as is and splitscreen would probably kill it, but since you really only need two well-coordinated people to do well in Anarchy mode, it's still a little frustrating.

Still, for every stumbling block "Bulletstorm" has there's so much more to love about it, and while I can't say it's a game that's to everyone's tastes I do feel it's a title that everyone who's serious about games-- and especially those who feel like there's nothing new in the medium and nothing fun in this particular genre-- owe it to themselves to at least check out.

The Good:  The smartest FPS since "Portal," top-notch visual design, fun story/characters, satisfying gameplay

The Bad:  Standard-issue cliffhanger ending, some erratic weapon physics, no split-screen co-op

The Ugly:  The 'Stomach Pump' Skillshot.  Not for the squeamish... unless you want a lotta points.