In a video game market that seems oversaturated with first-person shooters, it's remarkable that the folks at People Can Fly could create a new, unique property like Bulletstorm. When the game was announced last year, my initial reaction was that it was going to end up like Platinum Games' Madworld title on the Wii: a great concept that couldn't sustain itself past the five-hour mark. Having enjoyed Bulletstorm, I'm pleasantly surprised and definitely looking forward to the inevitable sequel.
Bulletstorm puts players in the boots of Grayson Hunt, an intergalactic pirate-slash-troublemaker who was once part of a military squad called Dead Echo. All of Hunt's shipmates are from that team, but an assigned hit went wrong, and they became fugitives from the government. Essentially, the team was double-crossed by its commanding officer, and when a chance encounter gives Hunt the ability to get revenge, he jumps at the opportunity.
Oh, and he's also completely drunk at the time.
Things go wrong in very explosive ways, and Hunt crash-lands on a nearby planet with his only surviving crewmember, Ishi Sato, who has recently been transformed into a cyborg. Consequently, Sato is constantly battling against his AI-controlled components to retain some semblance of humanity. The two make an odd pair on a blood-filled adventure through an alien world, but the constant banter between them is really well done and funny. One of the better aspects of the game is the dialogue, which is filled with witty and over-the-top one-liners, especially some of the stuff that is cooked up by the main villain in the latter half of the game.
Hunt and Sato have crashed on a former resort planet, built upon the indentured backs of criminals who were used as slave labor. An ill-timed revolt turned the planet upside-down, and now the resort is a ruined mess that's overrun by a couple of different gangs: the Creeps and the Skulls. There's also some local wildlife to contend with, including man-eating planets and giant "Cloverfield"-esque monsters.
The single-player campaign is divided into seven acts, which accommodate about three chapters apiece. Each chapter is paced extremely well and takes place across a variety of interesting locations on the planet. It's neat to see an FPS title with colorful surroundings instead of various shades of brown. I love seeing bright, outdoor settings instead of bland urban jungles in my video games, and Bulletstorm really nails that aesthetic. It could have easily taken place in a war-torn hellhole à la Gears of War, but this provides a nice contrast to other first-person shooters on the market.
The biggest gameplay element is the skillshot system, which really makes Bulletstorm a unique experience. You're awarded points for flashy kills, so simply ducking behind cover and taking potshots at enemies isn't going to do a lot for you. You're equipped with the ability to kick, leash or slide-kick your enemies. Doing so slows down their body in mid-air, allowing you to line up a headshot and earn some extra points. More adventurous players will make use of the environment to earn more skill points, perhaps by kicking an enemy into a large cactus or a cluster of exposed electrical wires. Each stage has a variety of deathtraps, and the results are always entertainingly messy.
In an additional effort to force you to use skillshots, Bulletstorm limits your ammo. Some enemies drop ammo, but if you're in a level where mutants are the primary enemy, you won't see a gun drop. To counteract this, the game has dropkits in various areas, so you can connect and spend your skill points on more ammo or gun upgrades. All of your weapons also have a charge shot, which is a secondary fire option that you can unlock and stock up with dropkits. It's the only guaranteed way of getting ammo within the game, so it's a good idea to have enough skill points to stock up. I enjoyed the story reason for the dropkits, which are designed to reward great soldiers with more ammo to survive, while the weaker soldiers will eventually be killed when they run out of ammo.
Enemies are introduced at a good pace over the course of the game, and there are notable differences in the enemy design. At the outset, you'll only encounter the Skulls, who are basically human gang members equipped with shotguns and assault rifles. These guys feel like standard FPS cannon fodder, and they're easy enough that you can get a good handle on the skillshot system and create different, flashy kills. After an act or two, you'll be introduced to the Creeps, who are zombie-like humanoids. They tote firepower but are rather quick, so you can't boot or tether them and must use your slide-kick ability. Forcing the player to change his habits every couple of chapters really opens the door for different skillshots. It also challenges you to evolve your play style throughout the experience.
Finally, Bulletstorm introduces tougher characters, like the mutants that are invulnerable except for the glowing spots on their bodies. These guys mindlessly charge in and rush you, so crowd control is a must. They can be tough to hit if you don't slow them down with your leash, but at the same time, you can't sit there and leash a bunch of them, or they'll gang up on you in no time. Instead, you must dash around and use your slide-kick while dodging and weaving between the mutants, and you can take potshots at their weak spots or line them up for environmental kills. They are a tough, but fair, basic enemy, and they feel like an evolution of the enemies that you've already encountered. While the game only throws three different races at you, you won't be bored because depending on the area, you'll constantly be changing your tactics to use what you have on hand.
Beyond the campaign, there are a couple of additional modes to explore. Echoes mode takes a small section of different levels and assigns a timer. The mode lets the player rack up an impressive skillshot score and compare it the worldwide leaderboards. The more stages you complete, the more stages you'll unlock. There is an addictive quality to refining each playthrough, and it is a great way to learn more skillshots that you might not have tried in the campaign.
The other mode is the game's multiplayer function, which is a bit like the popular and often-copied Horde mode from Gears of War 2. (This isn't much of a surprise, since Epic Games owns People Can Fly and developed the Unreal Engine, which both games are using.) In Bulletstorm, you're paired up with three other players, and your team encounters waves of enemies on each map. Whereas most Horde mode imitations are strictly based on surviving each wave, Bulletstorm assigns a point value to each wave that you must top in order to proceed. You can also spend points to upgrade your leash, weapon and basic abilities, so you might retry a few waves before you're properly equipped to earn the designated score and move on.
I really loved Bulletstorm, and I'm excited to see what the sequel holds. It is worth mentioning that the PS3 version has a couple of bugs that cropped up during the review period. One bug involves your ammo disappearing if you're in the dropkit menu and upgrading other weapons. This only happened from Act 5 onward, but sometimes I'd upgrade other weapons, back out of the dropkit menu, and find that my main weapon was completely devoid of ammo. This would force me to waste skillpoints restocking to a full clip, when I had full ammo prior to entering the dropkit. Another issue was with the multiplayer connectivity. Bulletstorm would tell me that my NAT was set to moderate when my network settings via my XMB indicate that I have a NAT 2 connection. This issue caused a lot of trouble when connecting to games, and no amount of fiddling with ports fixed the problem. A little online research indicated that this wasn't an isolated incident, as many other players have reported similar issues.
Despite those two setbacks, I don't have anything particularly negative to say about Bulletstorm. It's a very fresh FPS in a genre that feels more stale every year. It's certainly one of the better new IPs that I've seen this year, and I'm very curious to see what People Can Fly do with the sequel.
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