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Review: Bulletstorm

Wrapping a guy in an explosive flail and then kicking him into a set of spikes before detonating it. Knocking over a man with a huge cannonball, then exploding it. Shooting a radio-controlled bullet into a man, then steering him into a huge wall of spikes. These are but a few of Bulletstorm's 131 skill shots. In telling you them, we hope to emphasize a singular, focused point: Bulletstorm is not a normal first-person shooter. You won't really be challenged to avoid dying, and enemies mostly serve as cannon fodder for your rather impressive arsenal. Rather, it's a surprisingly smart shooter that is genre savvy in its plot and exceedingly intelligent in its mechanics. While it's a bit short (for single-player enthusiasts, anyway), it's also quite fantastic and merges arcade scoring with oh-so-satisfying murder.

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Bulletstorm follows the descent into anger and revenge of the Dead Echo unit. Used by their commanding officer to murder innocents, Dead Echo goes AWOL in protest and ends up harassing confederate supply lines in the far end of the universe. While doing so, they see an opportunity to extract vengeance upon General Sarrano, and their attempt kills Doc and Rell and almost kills Ishi. Stranded on a mutated backwards tourist planet, hunted by cannibals and murderers, and fighting things like local vegitation, they have to make their way to the General and subsequently offworld.

The trailers and promotional materials for Bulletstorm peg it as a ridiculous machismo testosterone overload of a game, and they aren't entirely accurate. Surprisingly, most of the game is serious. There are a few spots where the character poke fun at the constant swearing and ridiculousness ("I will kill your dicks!", "What does that even mean?!"), and there is a gay joke that is, thankfully, not homophobic at all. The General is particularly swear-happy, with foul words constantly spewing from his grinning mouth. In a way, it feels like a more mature Duke Nukem. Rather than all breasts and guns and muscles, the characters actually develop, there are plot twists, and the writing is very self-aware of how cheesy. It's like a pulp sci-fi novel, with unexplained technology and history galore. You're here to kill enemies, the that's all.

Presentation is one of People Can Fly's strong elements, and Bulletstorm is no slouch in this area. The visuals are top-notch from start to finish, with excellent environments, smart character designs, and wonderful use of color. Despite being a wrecked paradise, Bulletstorm's setting is still paradise, and the vibrant colors reflect this natural beauty extremely well. It is also used to great effect for recognizing different elements around the landscape. For example, cacti are bright green, while any explosive items are bright red. The sound design is just as great, with an epic soundtrack and some truly satisfying noises. The splotch of a head exploding or the grinding of a charged machine-gun may be a little disturbing, but they are also very fitting and add a lot to the experience. Our only complaint is that most of the characters are stereotpical machismo, and it would've been nice to see some other body and character types. The female lead isn't hyper-sexualized, though, which is a surprising change of pace.

Aside from skill shots, Bulletstorm plays like a normal shooter, albeit with some minor variations. Most of the guns have unique normal fire, and all weapons have an alternate ammo (charge shots) that significantly changes how said weapon works. For example, the sniper rifle's main shot allows you to control the bullet in mid flight, while charging it allows you to control (and detonate!) the enemy you hit with your bullet. There's no jumping, and movement is broken into running, sliding, and vaulting (only over certain objects). In fact, the movement almost feels like Gears of War in this respect. You also have two melee attacks - sliding and kicking - and the always excellent leash. Aside from these changes, the game follows the shooter formula to the letter. You use objects, iron sight on guns, reload, crouch, and all the other standards of the genre.

Bulletstorm ventures off the beaten path once you connect to your first dropbox and are subsequently greeted by a list of skill shots. These are the core of Bulletstorm's experience, and they turn it from a shooter into more of an arcade puzzle game. You are given plenty of opportunity - even on the hardest difficulty - to get skill shots on enemies before they kill you. That's not to say that the hardest difficulty is not difficult. Everything costs more, you have far less of a window to perform your shots, and enemies are smarter. Still, the challenge in Bulletstorm does not come from survival, but rather score. You want a high score. Death is more of a retry than an actual failure, with the actual failure being not enough points.

Sample skill shots include:
  • Impaling two enemies on a drill with one shot
  • Wrapping an enemy in an explosive flail, then kicking him into a group of his friends
  • Throwing a guy into the air, then killing his buddy before you kill him
  • Shooting an enemy in the head with a flare that carries him 20 feet into the air
  • Splattering an enemy against the roof with a powerful launching attack
  • Kicking off a boss' armor and shooting him in the ass until he farts fire
  • Disintegrating two men with a gigantic firey blast from a machinegun
  • Wrapping a man in an explosive flail and then feeding him to a carnivorous plant
  • Blasting off the torso of a crazed green berserker

There are 131 single-player skill shots. As skill shots stack, you are often looking for any way to maximize your score. Wrapping a man in a flail and then kick him off a cliff, for example. They are give multipliers for more skillshots at the same time, so scoring high involves doing your shots quickly and with maximum collateral damage. In the end, Bulletstorm revolves entirely around this mechanic from start to finish, and you will only succeed if you master it. Naturally, the only reward for completing all the skill shots is a fancy achievement in GfWL.

Those looking for replayability will find two ways to distract yourself beyond the campaign. The first is Echoes, which takes level sections from the main game and turns them into individual speed-run levels for the player to push through. Those that have played the console Bulletstorm demo will be familiar with this, as Echoes mode was the only mode availalbe. A number of mechanics are completely different in this mode, most notably resupply. Rather than spending points to buy and upgrade ammo and weapons, you always have three thumper uses and three charges for each carried weapon. Resupply at a dropbox instantly refills all ammo and allows you to switch between whatever weapons were available at that point in the game. It keeps the pace fast and furious while accentuating the arcade feel. Skill shots are also far more important, as each echo play through resets your performed skill shots. In order to maximize your score, you must do as many unique skill shots as possible. Overall, it's a mode that we wouldn't mind seeing in an actual arcade.

Aside from Echoes, Bulletstorm attempts a variation on the classic survival mode that games like Gears of War 2 and Halo Reach have used recently. Pit against waves of enemies, you must survive while scoring a certain amount of points. While it seems innocuous, this mode (Anarchy) quickly evolves into fast and frenetic teamwork. In order to maximize points and thus progress, players must work together to kill enemies in increasingly creative ways. There's also a complete new set of multiplayer skill shots to use and unlock. It's not that fun with random players thanks to the teamwork involved, but getting together with friends in a Skype call or at a LAN party is a quick way to have a lot of fun. The combination of coordination with the already satisfying core gameplay makes it out favorite of any survival mode we've ever played. After all, can you tear an enemy apart with energy leashes in Halo Reach?

Bulletstorm is not without flaws, but they are mostly minor. Those looking for a competitive multiplayer mode will be disappointed to know that Anarchy is the only multiplayer mode. It's slightly competitive (people are ranked at the end of each round according to performance) but ultimately cooperative. This did not bother us that much, as the uniqueness of the weapons would make deathmatch a difficult mode to balance. Other flaws include a short campaign that ends on a cliffhanger (short being 6-7 hours), some texture popping, and the occasional glitch. The only glitch we consistently encountered was in a very specific area and involved the AI getting confused to the point of not progressing. As the AI was necessary to open the path, we had to reload the checkpoint a few times in order to progress. This is the only serious bug we encountered in two campaign completions, however.

Overall, Bulletstorm is a masterpiece. It is one of the must-play first-person shooters of any year, thanks in part to its surprising intelligence and satisfying mechanics. People Can Fly's sophomore effort turned out to be just as fantastic as Painkiller, and as this appears to be the first in a franchise of games, we can't wait for new titles. For those that don't have the money to spare, however, we recommend waiting until Bulletstorm goes on sale for $40 or less. While it's a game all should play, it's not a game that one must play immediately to get the impact of. It's timeless, in a sense, and visiting (or revisiting!) it months later will not dull how fantastic it is.

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