Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Bulletstorm - Putting the game back into the first person shooter.

Title: Bulletstorm (Xbox360)
Rating: 18
Release Date: 24th February, 2011
Developers: People Can Fly
Publishers: Epic Games
Genre: First person shooter

Ever since, we put down that first armed zombie with a pump action shotgun on a remote Martian base overrun by the demonic forces of Hell, it was proven that the act of virtual redemptive violence was a wholly gratifying experience as well as a lucrative new genre. Now, nearly fifteen years after the release of Doom, where Halo and Call of Duty have popularized the first person shooter upon the consoles, 2011 is shaping up to be the year of the shooter with no less than 10 major titles being released across the various platforms. Among the list we have a lot of sequels, returning heroes like, Crysis 2, Killzone 3 and Duke Nukem Forever (we’ll believe it when we see it…). We also have the inevitable monoliths to be released in Q4, a rumoured remake of the first Halo and of course Modern Warfare 3 which is probably destined to snatch its billion dollar share of the market with little competition. It is a crowded market to say the least, and although we may stand back and appreciate the history of the FPS genre from its humble beginnings on the PC through to its dominance upon the consoles there has always been the nagging feeling that no matter how many titles we have played, no matter what their setting or style they all essentially boil down to the same concept. Have gun, will travel through the valley of the shadow of death and stuff. Bulletstorm is one of the first new shooters of the year, and whilst the concept is essentially the same, it is implemented with a unique and clever new twist. A literal boot in the ass of the shooter genre, that is as refreshing to play as it is enjoyable.

Bulletstorm takes place in the far flung space faring future, where humanity is in the grips of a civil war, kind of like Firefly. There are the evil confederates, rusty juddering space crafts and a fair few one liners. The game places you within the boots of Grayson Hunt, an exiled space pirate with a penchant for booze and an inventive use of bad language (usually involving the word ‘dick’ and any other common noun you want). After a jump into hyperspace, Grayson’s ship miraculously comes across the Ulysees, a large space ship belonging to the story’s villain General Sarrano, who effectively serves as Grayson’s white whale, somebody he and his squad have a certain bone to pick. In typical drunken pirate fashion, Grayson has at the massive spacecraft, unleashing an insane kamikaze attack which leads to both ships crash landing upon the nearby planet of Stygia. Unfortunately, the planet is inhabited by warring gangs of psychopaths, man eating plants and Godzilla sized monsters and so begins an epic revenge/redemption quest chock full of grand vistas of civilization in ruin and magnificent set pieces, as Grayson and his motley squad of space pirates attempt to get off world ASAP.

The 'epic' trailer... don't worry the game doesn't take itself this seriously...

The story is merely a vessel of course. The main meat of Bulletstorm is its inventive approach to combat. Early on in the game you are given an energy leash that effectively serves as a grading system for your combat, awarding you with points via a vast array of skill shots. Not content with lining up headshots via red dot sights as you ruthlessly and efficiently gun your way through the enemies of the Western world, Bulletstorm wants you to be creative in your murder. Sure you can shoot a guys head off, but you’re so used to shooting people in the head, why not shoot him in the throat for a ‘gag-reflex’ skill shot? Or how about a couple of bullets to the balls? And as he drops to the floor screaming whilst clutching his severed manhood, why not kick him in the head for a ‘mercy’ skill shot, or alternatively, why not discharge an entire clip into his posterior for the ‘rear-entry’ skillshot for a sweet +100 points? When faced with a sizable wave of oncoming enemies, you could utilize that strategically placed gun turret over yonder to grind them all into mincemeat. Or alternatively you could set them on fire with secondary revolver shot, and then utilize your energy whip to launch them all into the air, and then use your flail gun to wrap two grenades upon an unlucky soul and then detonate it, exploding him and his surrounding friends and making it rain crimson mush and glorious pointage.

Yes, Bulletstorm is that kind of game, the kind of game that relishes gleefully in the old ultra violence, but I’m happy to report it’s the good kind of ultra violence, that highly unreal sense of cartoon slaughter rather than the unsettling masochistic treatment of violence as seen in any of the torture sequences in Black Ops. The sheer inventive creativity and sheer speed of the game’s combat maintains the entertainment throughout the entire course of the game. As a result, although the levels will come across as familiar, you rarely feel that sense of grind throughout the campaign. You reach the point in which merely putting your targets down for a measly +10pts just feels inherently wrong. You feel obliged to give each one of these goons a proper send off before they go to virtual Hell. Points will of course allow you to buy ammunition and further upgrades for your weapons and leash, opening up new more complex skill shots to perform. There are over one hundred skill shots to perform and on my first play through I managed to complete 75% of them. Rest assured some will take a certain amount of dedication and concentration to pull off. 

As well as the leash and the mighty boot, Bulletstorm has a modest arsenal comprising of seven weapons. Each has a different strategy to effective use and each has a charged secondary fire. You have your standard issue assault rifle of course, that spits out bullets with trustworthy accuracy and a devastating secondary fire that fires all bullets at once to vaporize your foes. You get a quadruple barrel shotgun, which literally throws enemies backward or blows them in half. There are two types of grenade launcher, the flail gun serving as a remote mine launcher whilst the cannonball allows you to bounce off shots and explode them at will. The only weapon which perhaps doesn’t work as well is the obligatory sniper rifle. Every time the weapon is fired you take control of the bullet and glide it on home. You can press ‘B’ to skip this and fire the shot normally but it just feels at odds with the in your face combat that defines the rest of the game. There are sections of course which call specifically for the sniper rifle and in my opinion it breaks the flow of the game. It is far more fun kicking hapless goons into razor sharp cacti or turning them into smart bombs.          

You can do better than that...
Bulletstorm contains elements of many different shooters, a mongrelish monster composed from the genetics of the well known thorough breds of the genre. The excessive point scoring and colourful wasteland artistry feels similar to Gearbox’s Borderlands, whilst the boot melee kick is quintessential Duke Nukem. Developed by People Can Fly, it feels very similar in tone to their previous over the top shooter, Painkiller (a title that once lived in obscurity until a particularly favourable review from Yahtzee Croshaw led to an explosion of interest on Steam). The game has also been produced under the watchful gaze of Cliff Bleszinski and the people at Epic Games, the stable that reared Unreal Tournament and Gears of War.

Bulletstorm feels very much like a first person version of Gears of War. Built with the unreal engine, the combat is schlocky and satisfying, the vistas are grand and beautiful. The game knows how to do monsters and there is a similar kind of bromance between Grayson and Ishi as there is between Marcus and Dom. Though there are no chainsaw bayonets there is a gun that fires drills, which when used properly will grant you the all important ‘drilldo’ skillshot.The aesthetics of both game worlds and the character designs feel largely one and the same. Delta squad came first, whilst Grayson’s Dead Echo squad come next. Foxtrot Squad will come in the next Cliffy-B game.  Thankfully, Bulletstorm is a lot more colourful than the greys and browns of Gears of War. The planet of Stygia and the city of Elysium is basically Tatooine crossed with Las Vegas, a ruined monument to tourist extravagance baking under the rays of twin suns. 

The premise is simple, slide kick goon into cactus.
Unfortunately, it also shares many of the game’s faults, namely in the story department. The game has a perfectly functional story, it can be very funny in places, especially in the earlier parts of the game which includes several sly digs at the genre’s conventions. Part of the additional enjoyment of the game came through this aspect, even though the game is knowingly linear in the traditional ways of the shooter. Forcing you through areas, to flick a switch that will open up a new area where a team mate will clear some debris and so on and so forth. It is a similar dynamic to Wes Craven’s Scream, knowledgeable of all the clich├ęs of the genre whilst still pursuing them regardless to great effect. Having said that, the story begins to fall apart towards the end, where the characters begin to have serious conversations about the extent of their revenge and their moral well being. Y’know the old morality question about killing many for the greater good of the millions, how can I sleep at night, what about the sanctity of my soul? Etc... You really neglect all these warrior questions once you’ve kicked a heavy in the backside and shot hot led down his exposed ass crack laughing as he dies in a cloud of his own fiery flatulence. Y’know? Just saying. Whilst I do think games should take story and narrative more seriously, probably not in the case with this game. 

Having said that, I did like the characters in general, particularly Grayson, even if the game is unsure of how to depict him, either as a crude drunk or a noble hero in exile. His accompanying friend Ishi, who is haphazardly turned into a cyborg to avert his own demise is quite well done, as the character struggles to keep a grip on his humanity against an overpowering computer logic AI with hilarious consequences. But essentially he is the voice in your ear reminding you of where you are going and what you should be doing. There is also the addition of a female character, Trishka, a spunky warrior heroine who would literally rip your head off if you implied she was full of spunk. She’s basically a fiery tempered man hating stereotype, the kind we have seen in many other games and movies. Luckily, she doesn’t fall for any of the protagonists but is basically just another gun. She also has the worst line in the game that basically defines her character, you’ll know it when you hear it. Incidentally, if Epic Games really wanted to appeal to all the lady gamers out there (they do exist apparently) then surely they would have made her a playable character, thereby giving women the ability to shoot men in the nuts! I mean, do they not realise how cathartic that would be for female gamers? It may even soften the problems between man and woman? Just a revolutionary thought, y'know? Regardless, whether or not you’ll give a damn about Bulletstorm’s story will probably depend on whether the death of Maria in Gears of War 2 affected you on any deep emotional level (apart from laughter). 

The 'guys' (from left Ishi, Trishka and Grayson)
Aside from the main campaign, Bulletstorm has echoes mode, a score based collection of the game’s best levels in which you are tasked with getting as high a score as you can. It is in this mode that Bulletstorm is at its best and provides the game with prolonged replayabity. The secret to success is moving through the level as fast as you can whilst gaining as many skill shots as you can. You have to keep your shots varied should you want to maximize your score. If you are so way inclined, you will begin learning every aspect of the levels, thinking mathematically on how you can best boost your score. This is what makes Bulletstorm brilliant, of course, the game may masquerade in the guise of a story about a drunken space pirate but behind all the gore and obscenely named skill shots is a depth that other shooters just can’t compete against.

The only real problem with Echoes mode is that your score is rated by three stars which is actually very easy to attain. Conceivably it is not unheard of to double the three star score or perhaps go even further. For the more skillful and dedicated players who reach well over 20,000 points, the game doesn’t has much in the way of reward save for a lucrative position upon those all important leader boards. The weapon set for each level is also limited to the weapons you had in the campaign. The first level for example only allows you to use the assault rifle, denying you access to all the other weapons which you are hungry to use. Nothing that can’t be fixed by a patch of course… Just sayin’.  

The game also offers multiplayer in the form of ‘Anarchy’ mode, though instead of being competitive the focus is on four player co-op. Confined to small to medium sized arenas, your team must together accumulate a predetermined amount of points to go on through to the next level. You will get bonus points for working together and will be called to dispatch enemies in a particular way to gain a bonus. These instances can often see the difference between success or failure, so it helps if all four of you are well co-ordinated. The game does offer matchmaking, but it is best played with friends or at least a company that communicates together. If just one of your player’s goes rogue, the entire team will be stuck on the same level for rounds and rounds. On the whole however, as far as co-op modes go it compensates the main game really well, adding an extra dimension to difficulty in the way Spec Ops did for Modern Warfare 2. Time will tell whether Anarchy mode it is as successful as Gears of War’s Horde mode or Halo’s firefight. 

Bulletstorm has been marketed as a colourful alternative to all the realistic modern warfare clones that are in vogue at the moment and for the most part it does feel like a breath of fresh air when compared to its competitors. With that said, Bulletstorm only goes and sets itself within that other popular style of FPS, the sci-fi shooter starring a cast of manly space marines as they fight their way off an alien planet. In this regard, Bulletstorm is nothing you’ve never seen before, but the open ended fast paced combat is immensely entertaining and gratifying to pull off and will almost certainly have you coming back for more. There is a lot of room for improvement, which will no doubt be handled in the inevitable sequel. As it stands, Bulletstorm puts the game back into the shooter genre. Suffice it to say, as you cower for cover, dodging grenades in Call of Duty you will miss the errant thrill of slide kicking into your enemies whilst sending them flying into a fan via a single shotgun blast. 

The game devs talk about gun porn... Its not sick honest...

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