Review: Bulletstorm (X360)

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Bulletstorm has a story, but you won’t be paying much attention to it or its testosterone-washed dialogue as you kick, slide, and shoot the naughty bits of your enemies – all in a drive to score points that can be used to upgrade your arsenal of destruction. It’s a wonderland of smashing, bashing, and lashing that doesn’t quite make it so much an FPS as a carnival sideshow gallery of kicking bags for adults.

The setup for this “Mature” labeled game is simple – you play as a can of Old Spice on two legs named Grayson Hunt in the distant future. He and his friends used to be part of a covert, planet hopping death squad called Dead Echo until they discover that everyone they’ve been assassinating were actually innocent people. Their boss, a seedy scumbag named General Serrano, had been using them to hide his own illegal tracks – such as sending them to rub out nosy reporters.

So after they found out they’ve been used, they take their starship and start raiding Confederate freighters in revenge. Some time later, they happen to find General Serrano’s warship and instead of running away, Grayson orders them to attack and, predictably, things don’t go so well. Both end up crashing on the planet below, a former paradise resort turned hellhole. The only way out that Grayson, and his friend-turned-cyborg, Ishi, have left is a rescue ship that they expect to pick up General Serrano who is conveniently far away.

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Grayson and his friends trade the kind of colorful metaphors that pirates would blush at and which I can’t print here. There’s not a whole lot of characterization – Grayson and everyone else exist as cartoon caricatures of every over-the-top hardass that you might imagine rolled into one game. Often, though, it tries too hard. As amazing as some of the word combos can be, I found myself rolling my eyes at their lines just as often.

The main campaign is a relatively decent length clocking in around seven or eight hours of dismembering mayhem, though it’s not all that important to keep track of who is doing what – only that you’re expected to blow away anything that moves. There are also small bonuses scattered throughout the game for achievement points, such as bottles that Grayson can get sloshed over or newsbots that  are convenient targets for gun testing. All in all, though, this is one story that you won’t find yourself pondering days later.

Grayson won’t be alone, but he might as well be since the AI does little to actually help outside of a few scripted scenes. Honestly, after experiencing how useful friendly AI can actually be in other titles such as Bad Company 2, Bulletstorm’s buddies fall behind the curve when they’re not getting your way or spouting one-liners. At least they can’t die.

Eventually, Grayson finds a lash whip that he can use to grab and pull enemies towards him to do with as he pleases with bullets or boots. It also integrates him into a “skill assessment” system that scores creativity. Shooting enemies garners some points, but not as much as killing them in a number of clever ways such as kicking them into spikes or spinning fans. This is what Bulletstorm is all about. Fans of Shiny’s Wild 9 might be getting flashbacks at this point.

Killshots or “kills with skills” is the main drive for playing and for scoring, though you’ll have to also do without jumping and deal with the occasional invisible wall. The good news is that the controls and level layouts make it so that you won’t miss this most basic of FPS moves too much.

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The rest of the controls are fluid enough to make chasing after those points feel frenetic enough to keep the adrenaline going – for the most part. It certainly isn’t the shooting which comes off as secondary to Grayson’s soles or the addictive sliding that makes running feel obsolete. Gunning my way through without getting up close and personal with Grayson’s big boots actually made the gameplay boring. Really boring. Enemies are tuned to be abused and can soak up a lot of punishment pushing the player to use the system unless you had a mini-gun handy.

Instead of learning fighting combos centered on the character as in Platinum Games’ Bayonetta, Bulletstorm shifts the learning experience in how to use the environment instead. When enemies grab air thanks to Grayson’s energy lash, a solid kick, or a sliding hit, they hover there for a moment giving the player time to decide just what they want to do.

Bulletstorm’s world, aside from looking good, comes off as a titanic grinder loaded with opportunities with which to stick, drop, crush, or explode enemies through. The scoring system changes the flow of combat from wondering if you have enough ammo to whether you can slide across the floor fast enough to launch the other guy into the electrical cables behind him.

I was skeptical at first but by the end of the game, I wanted to introduce enemies more to Grayson’s boot than to his arsenal. Killshots, such as “Voodoo Doll” which occurs when a baddie lands on anything spiky like a mutated cactus, will wallpaper the screen with enough practice. Enemies also get tougher the further into the game you go forcing you to think of new tactics though they don’t necessarily become smart enough to dodge Grayson’s almighty slide.

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Combos of “skillshots” can also rack up even more points and all of them plaster the screen with the kind of bloody, adult entertainment that any number of action films have graced screens with. These can then be used to unlock new weapons or upgrade them, though the points start feeling useless outside of buying ammo after completing your arsenal of death. Not all of the upgrades felt particularly useful, either, often feeling like gimmicky alternates for anything other than skillshots.

Once I had gotten all of the points I needed, the main reason for even doing skillshots suddenly evaporated killing some of the drive to keep going. Since the campaign doesn’t have its own leaderboard, that only killed my enthusiasm for being creative even further.

The points matter a lot more online, especially in the only mode available for multiplayer: Anarchy. If you’re hoping to kill other players will skill online, you’re out of luck. For many players, that might make all of the difference in making this a rental or a purchase.

Anarchy is Bulletstorm’s “horde” mode that pits anywhere from one to four players against waves of enemies in a race to score the most and live through the experience. Leaderboard support allows everyone to compare how well they’ve done against friends, or the world, and a leveling system unlocks additional costume pieces to customize your avatar with. Points earned in Anarchy can unlock weapons and even improve stats like health and how strong your kick is, though if you leave the current game you lose everything.

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There’s also solo-only Echo mode which throws players into bite sized versions of the campaign levels in a race to score as many points as they can along with getting a “star” rating. Collecting stars unlocks additional levels for this mode, but unlike Anarchy, it does restrict you on the kind of weapons that you can carry into battle depending on the map. Either mode isn’t quite the face-to-face contest that other games bring to the table, yet there’s still something to be said in competing for the highest score.

Bulletstorm’s parody of violence doesn’t quite hit every target and the last chapter feels as if it drags on especially when the gameplay cops out to QTEs and points mean a lot less. It still has its fun moments squeezed within its gameplay that twists things enough to keep it from feeling like another FPS powered by the Unreal Engine. Yet the thin multiplayer, relatively short single-player, and juvenile jokes make it hard to justify spending the cash on this bullet ridden frat party over simply shooting in and then back out for a one-night stand.

Bulletstorm
EA / Epic Games / People Can Fly
Xbox 360 / PS3 / Microsoft Windows (reviewed on Xbox 360)
Rated: M for Mature