Throwback Review: Bulletstorm

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With the recent news of an upcoming remaster for the 2011 shooter Bulletstorm, I thought I’d post my previously unpublished review for the original game.  Enjoy:

Bulletstorm isn’t for everyone.  Some will call it juvenile, offensive, even vulgar.  But such accusations completely miss the point.

Like so many FPSs of late, Bulletstorm takes place in the distant future.  It centers on Grayson Hunt, an ex-Black Ops soldier for the remorseless General Sarrano.  Hunt and his old unit now make ends meet as space pirates, constantly on the run.  When Grayson recklessly attacks Sarrano’s warship, the ensuing crash maroons him and his crew on the “resort” planet Stygia.  From that point on their goal is a simple one: get off the planet alive.

Doing so, however, proves to be easier said than done.  Stygia is crawling with former vacationers who have since devolved into homicidal, war-like tribes.  To get off Stygia, Grayson and Co. must shoot their way through these suntanned psychos to reach their only way out – the escape vessel aboard Sarrano’s crashed ship.

At this point, you’re thinking this all seems like pretty standard fare.  But even though Bulletstorm’s plot offers little that’s new, it continually impresses with its deft execution.  Bulletstorm tweaks the FPS formula by adding fresh features to the combat system, the primary one being the “leash,” an energy whip that allows players to grab onto enemies, pull them in close, and kick them into the distance.  It’s a simple-yet-novel mechanic that never becomes stale.  Many of the standard FPS weapons undergo the same reinvigorating treatment – a sniper rifle, for example, that allows the player to “steer” bullets.

All these weapons and mechanics exist in service of the “skillshot” system, which rewards the player points for the goriest and most elaborate kills.  These consist of everything from kicking enemies into the plentiful environmental hazards (like overgrown Venus flytraps) to literally blasting them in half with the shotgun.  Skillshot points can be spent at stations to upgrade existing weapons and buy new ones.  The system works so well because it doesn’t get in the way of the natural gameplay.  Playing through Bulletstorm, you’ll constantly find yourself trying to rack up a high score, not just for the points, but because it’s fun.

This is not to say that Bulletstorm is just six hours of shooting.  The game never takes players’ entertainment for granted; every time things threaten to get too familiar, there’s a big set piece to spice things up.  These provided some of my favorite parts of the game, one being an inspired sequence in which Grayson controls a mechanical Godzilla-like monster and sends it rampaging through hordes of enemies.

There are those who will take issue with the game’s story, but I thoroughly enjoyed it for what it was.  Sure, it’s simple and derivative, but there were enough twists and turns to maintain my interest.  The characters are engaging, and in some cases surprisingly well written.  The standout here is General Sarrano, whose gleeful profanity and unabashed sadism make him one of the most foul, detestable, and fun-to-watch video game villains in recent memory.  The game even has a handful of emotional moments, which it pulls off with unexpected success.

Bulletstorm boasts excellent presentation, which we’ve come to expect from Epic.  Stygia may be a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but it’s visually dazzling.  After so many recent shooters featuring a dull brown-gray color scheme, Bulletstorm’s lush palette of blues, greens, and oranges is pure eye-candy.  Equally appealing is the pounding, bombastic score, a perfect fit for the game’s more spectacular sequences.

Bulletstorm is not without flaws, which exist entirely outside of the main campaign.  Sadly, the game’s online capabilities squander their potential, giving us only “Anarchy Mode,” in which players compete to get the most Skillshot points fighting against common enemies.  It’s fine, but it gets old fast.  What’s really puzzling is the lack of a straightforward player vs. player mode.  In a game with such inventive weapons and mechanics, this is a real missed opportunity.

One more thing I need to mention here: the game’s profanity.  Bulletstorm is unapologetically foul-mouthed, a feature that surely will be off-putting for some.  But if you ask me, the game pulls it off.  Is the language over the top?  Absolutely, but over the top is what Bulletstorm does best.  Besides, this isn’t just mindless swearing; more often than not the dialogue is colorfully hilarious, with just the right amount of self-awareness.

In the end, the reason I love Bulletstorm so much is this: it’s pure, unadulterated fun.  I wasn’t bored for a single moment of its campaign.  It has all the grindhouse appeal and uncut entertainment value of a perfectly executed B-movie.  And while its tone may be light and pulpy, when it comes to keeping players engrossed, Bulletstorm is deadly serious.


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