Bulletstorm – the PS3 Attitude review
Bulletstorm is a first-person shooter from the Epic Games studio, People Can Fly. It is set in the future, in the 26th Century, in a time when big burly marine-types stroll around alien planets armed to the teeth, blasting everything in sight. It sounds similar to another Epic Games production, but it is nothing like Gears of War. In fact, Bulletstorm is unlike anything you will play all year.
In Bulletstorm, the gamer must tap into different skill-sets from what they would normally use for other first-person shooters. This isn’t a twitchy corridor shooter, where you duck in and out of crates while trying to get through the level as quickly as possible; it runs on a skill-based system, which has you attacking enemies head-on, encouraging you to savour the moment.
In essence, if Bulletstorm was a meal, it would be the kind of meal in which you would couldn’t help but play with your food; instead of going for the head-shot, as you naturally would in other shooters, you may decide to shoot the crazed humanoid in the man-zone and watch it writhe before showing mercy. It sounds immature and juvenile, and it is, but do not underestimate the power of feedback.
When you perform a skill-shot, the game gives you its seal of approval by flashing an appropriate title on to the screen; for example, when you kick an enemy into a spiked wall, it will say “voodoo doll” in big red writing; and when you kick an enemy into an electric fence, you will receive the “shocker” title. During the hottest moments in the game, your screen will be covered in titles and +25s. The most satisfying moments in Bulletstorm are when you nail a new, wicked skill-shot. There are 135 in total.
The skill-shot system is not a novelty; People Can Fly has threaded it into the fabric of the game. You receive points when you perform skill-shots, and the more complex, sadistic and creative they are, the more points you get. These points are essential; they buy you ammo, weapon unlocks, upgrades and charges. Without these, especially the ammo, you will struggle to complete the game.
You need to sink in a lot of bullets to finish your average mutant and it won’t drop many bullets as a reward, but if you think creatively and skilfully you can kill it quickly and save yourself a lot of bullets in the process. You need to, to some extent, abandon what you already know about first-person shooters. You need to learn to think creatively.
The system works because there are so many ways in which you can finish an enemy. It is not so much the things that you can do with the weapons that impress us so much, even though the options feel limitless thanks to Bulletstorm’s fantastic arsenal; instead, we are impressed by the amount of ways in which you can kill an enemy with using just the environment. You could send an enemy into a giant flesh-eating plant, impale them on a mutated cactus plant or drive an explosive hot dog stand into them. The environments are full of death traps.
To do all of the above, you will find the Echo Leash invaluable. It is an electric leash, which works like a lasso; it is the best tool in the game. You can use it to send an enemy hurling through the sky towards you, leaving them exposed to your attacks. You can also use your leash to drag objects, such as explosives, and to interact with some basic environmental puzzles. Later on you can get an upgrade that allows you to send a powerful beam down your leash, which causes a huge explosion that will send your enemies high up and floating in the sky. It is very satisfying, but just about everything in Bulletstorm is.
This creative way of playing would not mean much if the game was a dull slog, but this is not the case – far from it. Controls are sharp and the animations provide a great sense of weight. The characters may be big, but they run like athletes once you hit the sprint button, and when they slide, they glide along like an Olympic luge star. In one boss battle, you can trigger an endless slide. It is fun to use and is useful for several skill-shots.
There are some other neat effects: for example, when you lasso or kick an enemy, it will activate a localised bullet-time effect. The person you hit will move slowly, suspended in mid-air and waiting to be picked off, but the action around you continues at the same high tempo. It gives you a chance to chain up combos on your target without slowing the game down or making it too easy. It also makes it much easier to get that “rear-entry” skill-shot (Can you guess what that entails?).
Bulletstorm is running on Unreal Engine 3, the award winning –and extensively used – engine from Epic Games. In many ways, it is your typical Unreal game: the characters and objects look large and their features are accentuated. It would look homogeneous if it was not for Bulletstorm having such an individual art style. Nevertheless, it plays well, and more importantly, there are no frame-rate issues. The only downside is a few graphical imperfections; there is the odd shadow and blur problem on the character models.
The art style itself is very appealing though. The planet of Stygia, where much of the game is spent, is very nice. The planet has two orbiting suns, which means the landscapes are always bright, warm and picturesque; you’ll see plenty of beautiful vistas throughout Bulletstorm.
The levels are well designed, often quite open, and they are always varied. You will end up underground, in parks, walking through city centres and fighting in forest areas – you’ll even find yourself on a spaceship. Bulletstorm is broken up into seven acts, each broken into two-three chapters, and each act tends to usher you into a new environment.
Bulletstorm’s story, as you would expect, is completely over-the-top. You play as Grayson Hunt, the leader of Dead Echo, a rag-tag bunch of mercenaries. When we first meet Grayson, he’s questioning a tied-up space pirate, while getting drunk on Nom Juice. After some short teasing with the pirate, who Dead Echo use as a prop for a bottle (their target practise), Grayson kicks him into an airlock and sends him into outer space. It quickly becomes apparent that Grayson is a wild rogue.
If that didn’t give it away, the next will; Grayson, upon seeing a starship, which is more than ten times the size of his ship, orders an attack. Following the ensuing space battle, which has you controlling the ship’s turrets as if you were on the Millennium Falcon, both ships end up crash landing on Stygia. Half of your crew is dead and most of the crew on the military ship are dead as well. You quickly find out the ship was being controlled by General Sarrano, a megalomaniac who Grayson isn’t too fond of. A quick flashback soon follows which explains why this is the case.
The story is surprisingly enjoyable. Sure, it makes little sense, and all the characters appear to act like Neanderthals most of the time, but it is perfectly appropriate for the type of game it is. The characters should be larger than life – they are space pirates after all. Grayson actually becomes quite likeable in time. As for General Sarrano, he is one of the best villains of this generation – some of his “creative” swearing is worth the price of the box alone. We would love to repeat some of his lines, but there are few suitable for public viewing.
Our only complaint about the singleplayer campaign is that it takes a little too long to get going. The prologue has a tedious tutorial that takes you through all the game mechanics, and the opening segments are broken up by cutscenes. At the beginning, you don’t even have Echo Leash or have your skill-shots graded. They come soon enough, but the game feels hollow until they are unlocked. However, once you get that leash and start receiving skill-shots, Bulletstorm kicks off in style. It shows how important the sensory feedback is to Bulletstorm.
The campaign goes from strength to strength. Each area has you fighting new types of enemies and the new environments open up new skill-shot opportunities. You’ll come across mini-bosses (heavily armed guys who carry chain-guns) and plenty of bosses (usually very large monsters – often of the leafy or prehistoric kind). The variety is there, and some of the scenes are truly epic.
As you move through the acts, you acquire more weapons. This is standard fare, sure, but the difference is that Bulletstorm has some of the craziest and coolest weapons of this generation. Take the sniper rifle as an example: it is equipped with remote bullets. You’ll lock on and fire at an enemy as usual, but once the bullet gets close, the game goes into slow motion. You have to direct the bullet at the enemy while they are trying their best to dive out the way. When you connect, they’ll go flying – and you can earn the “Nutcracker” skill-shot if your bullet connects with the enemy’s privates. If you upgrade your bullets with a charge, your bullets then become explosives which you can remotely detonate. With this you can connect with an enemy then continue to navigate the bullet (and the enemy) towards other enemies before detonating.
Other weapons include a bouncing ball grenade launcher, a three-barrel shotgun, a magnum-like pistol that can fire explosive flares. Another favourite is the Flailgun. It fires two grenades connected by a rope; it will wrap round an enemy and you can remotely detonate it. It causes mayhem.
Bulletstorm has the ultimate toy box, and in Echoes Mode, you will have to use every toy at your disposal. Echoes Mode features tons of short and sweet solo sessions. They are usually about five minutes in length, and in that time you are expected to amass as many skill points as you can. In the end, your points will be calculated and you’ll be awarded a star, from one to three. Your stats are shared over the PlayStation Network so you can compare your scores with others.
The other multiplayer mode is equally interesting, possibly more so. It is called Anarchy. Basically you and three others will team up to take on wave after wave of attack. This mode includes more skill-shots, but the shots that matter are the ones that you perform as a team. You get more points if two or more players pull apart an enemy with their leashes than you would for a selfish kill. Anarchy mode also allows for levelling up. With the points you acquire you can purchase new weapons and charges and you will also unlock new outfits.
Anarchy is a mode that is best played with friends. If you have a group playing with you, you can coordinate attacks over your headsets, and you will enjoy the mayhem together. It’s much less enjoyable when playing with strangers, especially when no one has a – the games tend to become scrappy free-for-all affairs. Also, there are fewer maps than we would like to have. So overall, Anarchy is enjoyable, should you have the right friends around, but we worry that it lacks the excitement levels of Echoes and the singleplayer campaign. It’s still a great concept for a multiplayer.
Without having that robust and competitive online aspect, it’s likely that Bulletstorm’s longevity will suffer, even though we suspect many will want to replay the singleplayer campaign (which is a decent length) and put a healthy number of hours into Echoes mode. All the same, this shouldn’t detract from what we have here: a truly superb game, which is a breath of fresh air in a genre not known for innovation. While you may compete online for months with other shooters, we doubt you’ll remember events in those games quite so vividly five years down the line as we think you will with Bulletstorm. Well done People Can Fly!