Bulletstorm isn’t actually out until this Friday, but EA recently demanded we send one of our number along to play, complete, and review the finished game. I returned to RPS having finished the single-player game and invested some six hours into the multiplayer, making me perfectly equipped to tell you Wot I Think.
I want to start by dispelling an assumption that I think a few people have been dragged towards by the gale of gore, guts and innuendo surrounding this game. If you’ve been following Bulletstorm's noisesome marketing, you’ll know this game has a quadruple-barreled shotgun, and that if you blow an enemy’s torso clean off with it you get 100 points and the ‘TOPLESS’ Skillshot bonus. You’ll know that if you shoot a man in the testicles, you’re encouraged to kick his head clean off as he lies screaming on the floor for the ‘MERCY’ bonus. And you’ll know the game’s story centres around a murderous romp across a dusty planet where killer freaks and mutants swarm about like ants on a lollipop.
A natural assumption when you learn all this is to think that Bulletstorm is a dumb FPS, albeit an over the top one, and that maybe you’ll pick it up somewhere down the line and have a bit of fun with it. But the problem with labelling Bulletstorm as dumb is that dumb implies thoughtless, and Bulletstorm is as far from thoughtless as any FPS I’ve ever played. Bulletstorm is the whip-smart kid at the back of the class in the vintage replica rock & roll t-shirt who’s not paying attention because he’s so torturously bored. He's bored because he is so smart, and has the potential to be awesome.
I’m not talking about the Skillshot system here, although that is part of it. I’m talking about stuff as basic as Bulletstorm’s plot and its sense of humour. Writer Rick Remender has done an extremely good job here. The voice acting is flawless, and the designers have provided a lavish stage for the entire thing - beautiful backdrops of a fantastical holiday planet turned mutant playground, moments where the action falls away to let the dialogue or vistas speak for themselves, even instances where the level design and set-pieces accompany the jokes with impressive comic timing. This is how great games are made.
With the exception of Sumotori Dreams, a game hasn’t (deliberately) made me laugh this much since I was eleven years old. And yeah, a lot of that’s down to Remender’s bottomless creativity when it comes to swearing (he pokes fun at himself early on in the game when the character you’re hunting declares that if you come any closer she will “kill all your dicks,” only for your exhausted protagonist to scream back that he doesn’t understand), but I was also laughing at the most absurd setpieces the FPS has ever seen, as well as moments of perfectly inoffensive wit and irony.
And it’s not all jokes, either. Despite Bulletstorm’s story amounting to two foulmouthed men - who look and sound like they’ve been injecting ground-beef since birth - trying to get off a pulp sci-fi terror planet, the characters work well within the game’s idiot universe. The reason you’re on the planet is because you attacked a space cruiser belonging to General Serano, your ex-employer and betrayer, causing both of your ships to crash land, and now the only way you’ll get off the planet is by hitching a ride in a rescue vessel sent to save him. Kill him, and you’ll doom yourself. There are lots of little sparks like this. The story’s pulp trash, but I'd happily argue that it's great pulp trash.
The same could be said for the shooting. It’s rather difficult to fault. The guns all pop and crackle pleasingly, each with a reload animation an alt-fire that whispers of hundreds of man-hours of work. The enemies are charismatic in their mad, cannibal dodging and attacking, and they’re plenty obliging when their time comes to fall over, howl in agony, or burst into meaty chunks, as enemies must.
They’re also far less of a danger than you might be expecting. The skillshot system rules all in Bulletstorm, and for it to work enemies can’t be something you’re concerned about. Instead, they’re more like your playthings, and the real spectre that dogs you is your score. Every time an enemy runs out and you fail to glean a solid wad of points from the kill, you feel impoverished, partially because points earned from skillshots are what let you upgrade weapons and buy ammo. Dying and going back to the last checkpoint feels less like the ultimate failure and more like being given a chance to do better.
So it’s interesting, and succeeds in constructing excitement in its own rude way. Quite early on in the game I ran out of ammo and was forced to go wading past enemies like some tiny giant, defeating them by running up and kicking them against walls over and over again for paltry handfuls of points. That this is even possible illustrates just how much the game leans on Skillshots instead of danger to provide tension, and to its credit you do feel a tremendous awkwardness when collecting the smaller point denominations, like sobering up while singing a karaoke song that you had no idea was this long. Likewise, the strings of awesome tricks and techniques you’re encouraged to pull off bring with them a feeling of incredible achievement.
At its simplest, if you use an explosive barrel not to simply kill an enemy, but to knock back the piece of cover they’re hiding behind to flatten them against the wall for an enormous ‘PANCAKE’ bonus, you feel amazing. But that’s just one skillshot. Good fights in Bulletstorm see you unthinkingly stringing a half-dozen of these moves together, and perhaps accidentally discovering one you didn’t know about (earning yourself double the points).
As much as I want to cheer on People Can Fly for piecing together an FPS that’s quite this different to its cousins, I did have a couple of problems with this system, the lesser of which was that it started crumpling in on itself about 7 hours into the 9 hour single player campaign. Perhaps it was because of me using a mouse in the face of the game being designed for multi-platforms, but I’d amassed such a mammoth reservoir of points that I stopped playing with quite so much mind for doing well, bought enormous reserves of my guns’ nightmare alt-fires and started casually ripping my way through enemies at top speed, like some strange, 400lb tourist snapping last-minute photos while running for a plane. This considered, I’d cautiously recommend playing on a higher difficulty setting when you get in there.
The second, bigger problem was to do with the skillshots feeling too regimented. To do well you have to play this game according to Bulletstorm’s whiskey-soaked rulebook. All too often I’d pull off something I felt was impressive, perhaps fishing for some of the yet-to-be-revealed entries in my list of skillshots, and be handed the greatest insult - the 25pts you get for a perfectly ordinary kill. Of the game’s 135 skillshots, most are divided between your eight guns, and what counts as a skillshot for one weapon (say, killing an airborne enemy or killing an enemy the split-second your draw your gun) will often not count for another weapon. Getting a really high score involves memorising what’s worth a lot of points and doing your best to club enemies around with Bulletstorm’s thick, steely rules, which is fine, and it works, but it makes getting a really high score more of a science and less organic than I think many people would prefer.
But like I say, the system does work, and that was made most apparent when I was carving my way across the multiplayer scoreboards. For all its rubbery bravado, Bulletstorm doesn’t actually have anything resembling Deathmatch or combative multiplayer modes. You have the choice between Echoes and Anarchy mode, the former being a straight score attack on a segment of the single player game, played alone or with friends, and the latter being a co-op arena battle against increasingly vicious waves of enemies, with the twist that you can only progress to the next wave if you score enough points.
Echoes was excellently moreish, but Anarchy was the more interesting mode, elevating the importance of the skill shot system to the point where all four of you display total comprehension of it. The heart of it is that if two of you work together to pull off a skillshot, you both get the bonus for it, which is the only way you’ll hit the totals demanded of you in later rounds. Not even Left 4 Dead demanded co-operation to this degree- in Anarchy mode, killing anybody by yourself can be a mistake, and the synchronised kills the game encourages are a joy to take part in. Especially all the unique team kills. Imagine the last enemy of a wave coming hurtling into the arena with a little tag above his head saying you’ll get extra points if you kill him with the Das Boot technique. Obligingly, one of your teammates weaken him with a spray of fire, another kicks him towards you like a footballer making a pass, and you unleash a punt that arcs the confused enemy across the arena to burst against a wall, showering the lot of you in points. It’s a recipe for high-fives. Technology might have made LAN parties a thing of the past, but this is the kind of giddy action to make you want to have one anyway.
So, to get back to my original point, you’re perhaps with me now in thinking that this isn’t just a dumb FPS. This is People Can Fly doing everything within their power to make entertainment- to make something fun, and they’re doing it by being creative, but also by being irreverent, over the top and, yes! Unbelievably crass. And if you think that’s a failure of imagination as to how games can be entertainment, I’d agree with you. But this isn’t games. It’s the FPS. It’s already the most tasteless thing in the world. And Bulletstorm is the most fantastically entertaining, tasteless creation I’ve played in ages.