Following the recent wash of ingenious marketing and controversy it’s a little tricky to remember that Bulletstorm is simply an FPS from the Painkiller developers, coming out in less than 2 weeks. Will it be any good? At EA’s invitation I sat down for a lengthy hands-on. That’s the perfect set-up for a dick joke, by the way. My restraint knows no bounds.
“Sending ‘em up!” cries my real-life teammate from the other side of the room. On cue I send my character sliding into a corner, and watch as my friend uses his Lash to whip the ground with teeth-chattering force, sending all of our enemies tumbling into the air to freeze high above us, trapped in temporary slow-motion.
Everyone on our team takes aim and opens fire. For no good reason I pick an enemy directly between me and the sun, and try to draw a bead on his vague silhouette. It’s tricky. Eventually I take the shot, flinging two grenades attached to one another by a length of chain up towards him. It's a hit, and the projectiles wrap neatly around his head. But something happens as I’m about to detonate them. Instead of falling down, out of the sun, he gets catapulted upwards. Someone else has hit him with the flare gun. Up and up he goes, before detonating in a shower of sparks.
(TEAM) SADIST 100PTS flashes up on the screen. That’s the skillshot for wrapping somebody up with the flail gun, then killing them before the grenades explode. I know somebody else got the FIREWORKS bonus for that flare, too. I'm elated, and I want nothing more than to high-five my teammates into space, but there’s no time. We’ve got 21 enemies (and 21 more creative kills) left.
The four of us were playing Bulletstorm’s Anarchy multiplayer mode, which is both ferociously ill-named and a functional antidote for anyone who claims Bulletstorm’s skillshots don’t change the game. In Anarchy mode you defeat 20 successive waves of enemies, but each subsequent wave only shows up if you got enough points on the round before. As much as you’re playing to survive, the real goal is to rack up points, and that’s a task that got considerably more interesting the moment my team figured out the secret. You can’t kill anybody by yourself.
You see, Skill Shot rewards get multiplied if they were the work of more than one person. It’s a science we didn’t quite figure out in our time with the game, but basically if you slide into an enemy, knock them off their feat, then lash them into a massive cactus or something then you’ll get a inadequate handful of points. But if your teammate knocks an enemy off their feet, then you bat them into a cactus, you’ll both get the bonus, meaning your score is doubled. If two of you neatly shred an enemy by pulling him with the lash from two different directions, that’s great. That’s good work. But it’s only half of what you’ll get if all four of you quarter the sucker by lashing him simultaneously.
So, that’s Bulletstorm. The FPS re-imagined as speed-carving a roast dinner. Simply killing an enemy is the last thing you want to do- that's a disaster. What you need to do is dispatch enemies using any of the game's 130+ predefined methods, yet these are still traditional enemies and you're still at risk of death. As such, the Skill Shot system doesn’t ask the somewhat laborious question of “How can you earn the most points?”, but rather “How can you get the most points from this situation you’re in, right now? THINK, BABY, THINK!” And you think, and you say, “Uh, what if I kicked this explosive barrel over to him and then shot the barrel?” and the game says, “Well done, baby! Here are some points that I will shower upon you like gentle summer rain! Now, what are you gonna do in THIS situation?”
The genius of the Skill Shot system is that it inflates every single enemy with the possibility to either reward or demean you, depending on how many points you get. Because the points do matter. In singleplayer they’re what allows you to buy new ammo, unlocks and alternate fire modes, and in multiplayer the points are the point, so to speak. They’re all you’re playing for.
It’s a clever system. Whether it’ll have enough depth to carry the entire single player story is a question worth asking, but for now I’ll just step in here and say that I don’t think it has to. After playing the first four hours of the game, I’m pleased to report that this is some of the most bombastic and entertaining level design that I’ve ever encountered.
For starters the game does not open with your space pirate “Crashing his ship because he’s drunk”, as I’d heard from some people. It starts with you making a kamikaze attack on a ship a hundred times your size in an attempt to fulfil a grudge against the excellently hateable captain, with this grudge expliained via a flashback to an entirely different mission that takes place on the side of a skyscraper. Back in the present you fail at this kamikaze attack in a particularly imaginative way, crash land on the game’s mysterious planet and immediately go sprinting off to find a power cell to fuel your ship’s robot medic bed thing in order to save one of your crew. While you’re outside introducing yourself to the planet’s populace via the universal language of murder, that enormous ship you attacked comes ripping down through the atmosphere to crash land a few hundred miles away, meaning you’ve got a chance to kill that captain after all.
Did I mention that most of this scripted sequence is playable, rather than a cutscene? It’s playable, rather than a cutscene. In Bulletstorm’s opening ten minutes it smoothly provides this sequence that would serve as most games’ finale, and it's only then that the game starts to get mad. In the first four hours that I played you can look forward to everything from unlikely weapons, to the cramming of two people into a tiny one-man helicopter, to learning about the ludicrous multiplier your skillshots get if your character’s drunk.
But there’s more going on here than Captain Swearword’s Big Fuckin’ Adventure. Bulletstorm’s planet is the single most beautiful location a game’s taken me to since Bioshock dragged me down to Rapture, and the game's corridor-shooter design is careful not to make it any less believable as the holiday resort you quickly discover that it used to be.
What’s really interesting is that there are times where this concept of vacationing is also pursued in the level design. Without wanting to give too much away, those first four hours feature not just a train ride, but a water slide and a disco, and it’s all every bit as entertaining as it sounds.
I guess I should stop here, as this is all stuff I’d rather cover in more detail in a Wot I Think. I’ll just close by saying that prior to my hands-on, I had Bulletstorm down as either a dumb smart game, or a smart dumb game. Since then, I’ve changed my mind. A game which takes its irreverence this seriously, expecting you to co-ordinate your Double Entries and Gang Bangs with military precision? Do you know, I think Bulletstorm might be the smartest most dumbest game the world has ever seen.