Thursday, March 3, 2011

REVIEW - Bulletstorm.


Bulletstorm is a surprising game. It's not what it appears to be. It's beautiful and fun and cheeky and much more clever than we've been led to believe by its constant barrage of toilet-humor promotion.

While it contains everything advertised in those trailers - it's chock-full of gratuitous violence, ridiculous methods of murder, great set piece moments and a cast of the most foul-mouthed space sailors you've ever seen - it's also a well-constructed experience. It's thoughtfully designed, and while most first person shooters are content to spoon-feed players with the standard expectations, Bulletstorm separates itself from every other FPS by virtue of its skillshot system - which seems like a gimmick at first blush, but reveals itself to be an engine of pleasure.

There's very little to complain about, here - but it's no fun if we don't try, so let's talk about where Bulletstorm is lacking. While it's lovely to see an Epic Games-produced Unreal Engine 3 title on the PS3, I must admit I'm not exactly bowled over by the tech. I was expecting more.


Bulletstorm isn't a bad-looking game by any stretch of the imagination, but neither does it often feel particularly impressive. It does offer refreshing breaks from the carnage with the occasional (gorgeous) vista, but these views are fast forgotten in the moment-to-moment gameplay, which undeniably suffers from the "Unreal Engine look."

Fortunately, the game performs very well - never chugging or freezing up. Once in a blue moon (see: three times) I got myself stuck on a piece of geometry, or would find the entire game blurry after a load screen - as if the anti-aliasing went into overdrive on every surface in the game - and be forced to reload a checkpoint. Oh, and once after loading up a checkpoint, every weapon in my inventory had been stripped of its ammo and charged shots.

That one was particularly frustrating, since the only way to get charged shots, Thumper charges or a reasonable amount of ammunition is to buy it using the only currency the game provides - skill points.

The skill shot and - more importantly - skill point system are what elevates Bulletstorm from a cheeky but standard affair to a game that is simply a pleasure to play.


If we were given all the tools of Bulletstorm - cool weapons, a slide ability, a kick ability and a crazy future energy whip called The Leash - and set loose, we'd still have some fun. We would tell our friends about how we slid along the ground and kicked a dude off a cliff or into a big spiky cactus and it was all bloody and awesome.

...but that's not the deal.

The deal is, the game grades you on every single enemy you kill in a special way, so you could just kick a dude into a cactus (and get the Pricked skillshot for 100 points), but you can get more if you propel him into the cactus with a blast from your shotgun (Pricked + Pump-Action for 50 points). It's a simple example, but most of the two-hunded-plus skillshots in the game can be stacked to multiply your points - and you want to maximize your points every time you step into a room and have a crazed mutant rush you, swinging his axes.

You want the screen to look like this:


We want those points, because the only way to get enough regular ammo to proceed - and the only way to obtain special ammo and Thumper charges - is by spending our skill points at pods placed throughout the game. So what you want to do is wrap a grenade-tipped flail around a dude's head (Grenade Gag), but kill him before it explodes (Sadist) by using the Thumper to propel him and his friends into the air along with a bunch of explosive canisters (Enviro-Mental) before detonating them and vaporizing all his buddies with a charged shotgun blast (Acid Rain).

Instead of walking into a room and thinking about how to merely survive these enemies and kill them, you're thinking a bit strategically. You're not necessarily thinking about the coolest-looking way to kill everyone - you're eyeing up the environment, the enemy types and the tools at your disposal and thinking of how, precisely, you need to kill these men to maximize your skill points.

That method, often, ends up being the coolest-looking option you could have chosen.

In short, it's a first person shooter that plays unlike any other first person shooter - and it's fun with a capital F.U.


The story, to be honest, ain't bad. We're not precisely granted our desired cathartic release by the ending (which is one of those disappointing affairs which best serves to set up a sequel), but even though our protagonists are wholly two-dimensional and incredibly foul-mouthed, they're still a helluva lot of fun to be around.

My favorite moment is still when player character Grayson first meets the eminently capable lady space marine Trishka. He requests aide in the form of passage off the terrible dying planet he and his friend have crash-landed on, but she says she cannot offer it, and suggests
"...if you try to follow me, I will kill your dicks!"
To which Grayson responds
"You'll kill our dicks? What does that even... I'll kill your dick, how 'bout that?"
So, yes, everything that's not the gameplay quite intentionally appeals to the guilty, indulgent part of us which enjoys Michael Bay films. It's big and brash colorful and bristling with creative ways to insult people and offend the censors. A dusting of huge, cool set-piece moments are the icing on the cake.


Bulletstorm is an eminently enjoyable title. It's a game whose main goal is simply to entertain, but it ends up being a step above the rest thanks to its inspired skill shot system, which drives the player to not merely kill their enemies, but to rock the joint.

At the same time, it's a game that's merely good-looking without being exceptional, its art direction is capable and sometimes inspired, its voice work is fine-just-fine, and there are a bug or three which could stand to be ironed out - but still...

It's refreshing to play an FPS that's not possessed with attempting to realize an ultra-serious military simulation or challenging the boundaries of video game storytelling. Its flavor is that of a bygone era - of the first generation of first person shooters. Games like Duke Nukem 3D and Rise of the Triad, which concerned themselves first and foremost with rocking your socks.

What can I say? It's fun. Give it a shot.


THE GOOD
-it's good-looking
-some gorgeous vistas and big set pieces
-good pacing and sense of progression
-"I'll kill your dick."
-the skillshot system is brilliant
-the gameplay is fun on a bun
-and unique!
-wacky weapons
-a fun, popcorn-munchin' story
-there's this one thing you think will be a miniboss but it turns out its not a miniboss at all and what it is is way better than a miniboss encounter could ever be

THE BAD
-I was expecting more, graphically, from the company that made the Unreal engine
-some disappointing bugs
-one really nasty bug
-the ending is rather disappointing
-friendly AI loves standing right in the way of your shots and blocking your entry to the nearest cover
-sometimes you'll do something wicked-cool that ends up not being in the skillshot system, and you're like "what? that was awesome, I should get like a jillion points for that."

THE VERDICT
It's fun on a bun.

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