I don’t think there are any doubts that first-person shooters are the biggest games these days. Sadly, when a genre is so widespread and popular you start to see the same things over and over. What sort of things are repeated in today’s shooters? Usually there’s some sort of military theme and it’s beaten into you through the use of now-cliché terms like “stay frosty” and “oscar mike.” Usually the games revolve around terrorism, communists, nukes or some combination of the three. The games are predominately brown or gray. You use the same weapons you’ve used for years: the M4, the AK, and various attachments. I’ve pretty much described all of the last four Call of Duty games, the recent Medal of Honor, and bits of Killzone 3 and Bad Company 2.
I’m not saying these are bad games. Killzone 3 and Bad Company 2 especially are absolute blasts to play. But do you remember when shooters didn’t take themselves so seriously? All of the games I’ve listed take their stories and tones pretty seriously (and you can add Halo into the mix for this, as well). Ever since Resident Evil 4, I’ve felt that there should be more self-aware games. Games that are totally ridiculous and know that they’re ridiculous are the perfect cure to today’s slew of gray modern military games.
So that’s where Bulletstorm comes in. Let’s dismiss the awful marketing campaign right now. The game tried way too hard to advertise on its “this is mature!” angle and it ended up being some of the worst marketing I’ve ever seen a game get. That out of the way, Bulletstorm is exactly the ridiculous shooter that the industry needed. It manages to be an outstanding experience without a need for progression-based multiplayer, heavy-handed stories that try too hard.
Bulletstorm follows the exploits of Grayson Hunt, the leader of a government assassin squad-turned space pirates. We learn early on that the General who gave Grayson’s team their orders was actually having them kill innocent people and so the team bails out to become space pirates. One day, Grayson is drunk and decides to crash his ship into the General’s and everyone ends up wrecked and stranded on the planet below (which is full of crazy mutants).
It’s a fun story, and it never once feels like it’s trying to be topical or tug at your heart strings. It’s merely a great setup for Bulletstorm’s setting and characters. The General is a cliché villain but he needs to be in a game like this. There was no need to make the villain morally gray in an over-the-top revenge story. The crazy thing about this game is that, other than the villain, the characters are really good.
Grayson is a total jerk and a drunk, and it’s pretty much his fault that they’re stuck in the situation they’re in. His buddy, Ishi, is being kept alive by robot parts which is also Grayson’s fault. Ishi is constantly battling the robot AI for control of his own body. Then there’s the girl, Trishka, who has her own little plot line going on that I’d rather not go into in the interest of spoilers. The point is, everyone in the game is a very clearly defined character and because you understand them right off the bat, it allows the entire game for them to develop and change. Games rarely have actual character development, but strangely enough Bulletstorm nails it.
Of course, no game story is worth a damn without the gameplay to back it up and this is where Bulletstorm truly delivers. The combat mechanics in the game are just as ridiculous as the swearing (of which there is plenty, and it is both ridiculous and hilarious). You have the ability to kick as your melee attack and for some reason when you kick a guy into the air, he goes into slow motion. Just the guy, not the whole world. How your boot does this isn’t explained, but it shouldn’t be. There are environmental hazards everywhere so that you can use the boot to kick dudes into spikes or cacti or pits or whatever else you want.
You also have the leash. It’s pretty much an electric whip that has the same effect as the boot only instead of pushing enemies away from you, it pulls them toward you. The whole idea is to use the environment, the kick, the leash and your guns to create the craziest kills possible. What’s more: you get points for doing so, which are, in turn, used to buy ammo and upgrade your weapons.
This system is called “Skill Shots” and it’s easily the most unique and just plain fun thing I’ve seen in a game in years. All of the Skill Shots have goofy names and it’s worth trying all of them just to see what they’re called. For example, kicking a guy and then shooting him while he’s still in the air will earn you the “Bullet Kick” Skill Shot. Leashing or kicking a guy into spikes will earn you “Voodoo Doll.”
There are a ridiculous amount of Skill Shots in the game and you’re provided with a handy list of them to go through if you want. I actually prefer to just try out different things and be surprised when I discover new Skill Shots. All of the Skill Shots utilize and are complemented by the game’s weapons, which are just as ridiculous as everything else.
There’s a gun that fires two grenades attached to each other by a chain. There’s a gun that fires bouncing explosive cannonballs. One gun fires out actual spinning drills. The shotgun has four barrels. The weapons are all this crazy and they’re right at home amid the craziness of everything else in Bulletstorm.
The game does have multiplayer, but I don’t really think it’s the draw. It’s only a wave-survival type of mode and there isn’t anything competitive. Once nice thing about the team survival mode is that it features team Skill Shots that require multiple people to complete. There are also single-player time trial type modes called “Echos.” They take you through a small segment of the campaign and rate you based on how varied your Skill Shot usage was. Despite all these features, the real draw is the main story mode. It gives you everything you get from the other modes, plus the humor of the story and characters.
I’m glad Bulletstorm got made. We’ve been wading through the flood of military shooters for years now and this whole experience has just been very refreshing. It almost feels like a throwback to the good old days of first-person shooters, before level progression and kill/death ratio obsession. You fight giant building-sized bosses with your own weapons, rather than some dumb turret or vehicle. You do ridiculous things and the characters in-game comment on how ridiculous they are. I can’t even remember the last time a shooter came out that wasn’t a sequel or reboot. We needed Bulletstorm; here’s hoping it inspires other developers to do new things as well.