FBT blazes his way through Bulletstorm, before Gearbox f'ed it up for no reason.
When Bulletstorm came out in 2011 it disappeared quickly, with both critics and gamers wary - With its throwback box art which recalled the original Doom cover, the trailer aping the Halo 3 diorama and a free download called Duty Calls, Bulletstorm seemed out of place; taking the piss at a time when games took themselves very seriously; it was the prime ‘realism’ era of gaming with COD Black Ops and the Medal of Honor reboot the year before while 2011 also saw Modern Warfare 3 not to mention trifling games like Crysis 2, Deus Ex: HR, Batman AC, Rage, LA Noire and Mass Effect 2 out around the same time – triple A games that strove for realism and here was a linear shooter that rewarded you for sniping someone in the ass.
The only other exception was the mighty Saints Row 3 and no one knew what the hell to make of that, dismissing it as a bit of daftness (It's not). So it’s no wonder Bulletstorm got overlooked. Compounding the gamer nervousness around it, Bulletstorm itself didn’t seem to know its own place – it wasn’t all about kicking baddies into cactus (cacti?), a serious subplot around avenging a death and a sidekick’s descent into madness chafed with the wise-cracking of our hero while the horror of the world you play in and the fate of the hero’s merry band don’t gel with the silliness of the xp system. Was it a giggle-some shooter for after-the-pub or an engrossing survival shooter? Was it the game Duke Nukem Forever should have been, was it actually quite dark beneath it all? It didn’t seem to know itself, it’s like art design, dialogue and story writers all worked in their own vacuum and someone else pulled it together.
Not to mention the rage-inducing cliff-hanger ending; it’s one thing to leave fans wanting more, it’s another somewhat arrogant thing to expect them to want more; It’s just a betrayal/revenge story, hardly Mass Effect epic and a clichéd one at that. It does sometimes feel like the devs were mighty pleased with themselves while pulling BS together, like they had something revolutionary, like they were going to beat DNF to the punch and launch the next generation’s Duke. Being bits of everything and nothing, Bulletstorm seemed to cancel itself out and it quickly faded away. Except that, over time gamers got it and BS developed something of a cult following; it was one of the games no one had but there was always someone who said, when you complained about the latest COD being a reskin, ‘you should try Bulletstorm’ and Gearbox's unexpected relaunch of it shows Bulletstorm was one of the games you lent and never got back.
Bulletstorm opens in the 26th century with ‘Dead Echo’, a Spec-Ops team busily assassinating traitors. Mission accomplished, our hero, Gray, discovers Dead Echo is being used by their CO, Sarrano; they’ve actually been operating as his personal death squad; the list of ‘traitors’ were innocents looking to expose his dodgy side-deals. Barely escaping a trap Sarrano sets as the last link to him, Dead Echo becomes a band of burnt-out mercs with Gray drunkenly obsessed with killing Sarrano, filling his time finding and torturing Sarrano’s men as much for fun as information; a chance encounter with Sarrano’s flagship results in both ships crashing on a nearby planet and in the ensuing fracas, Gray escapes while all but one of Dead Echo is wiped out; only Ishi survives after being cybernetically rebuilt with the ship’s AI to control his bodily functions. And the ship AI has had just about enough of Gray’s shenanigans. Ishi Mk2 attempts to murder Gray, only relenting when they discover Sarrano also survived the crash and is on the planet somewhere. The two remaining Dead Echoes agree to find Sarrano so they can escape and save Ishi before the AI takes over completely. And so begins a solid ten hours of shooting, kicking and brutalising everything between here and Sarrano.
The world Grey lands on is a failed pleasure planet, kind of an amusement park meets all-inclusive holiday resort. But this place was not ‘ATOL protected’; the resort is overrun with dangerous clans of prisoners who were shipped there to build the place then left to rot when the park was abandoned, partly because they discovered too late the planet was filled with carnivorous plants and a huge Godzilla-like species, and because they dumped tons of toxic waste underground that seeped into the water supply and mutated the holiday-makers. It’s this mix Grey and Ishi fight their way through and as a set design, it is brilliantly observed. Beneath the rot and decay you can see an incredibly detailed and believable resort and locations to blast your way through. Much like People Can Fly’s previous effort, Painkiller, the world you inhabit is as beautiful as it is brutal.
As the two make their through the resort, dealing with Ishi slowly being assimilated by the AI they find another survivor from the crash. An amusingly and foul-mouthed female solider, Trishka, who joined Sarrano’s crew for one reason – kill Dead Echo. When Trish isn’t insulting Grey (‘Get any closer and I will kill your dick!’ / ‘Wait, what? You’re gonna kill my dick? What does that even mean?!’) she starts to come around to Grey’s way of thinking on Sarrano, who she blinded followed, not knowing Gray’s the guy she’s trained to kill. Her and Ishi make for interesting companions through this nightmare world.
Fighting through the world is relentless. Not Borderlands relentless, and not the drudge of Painkiller but intense. The different clans you encounter each have different attacks, styles and approaches and they all move fast. In order to counter them, you have something special - Early on Grey finds a strange device which attaches itself to his wrist and has a leash he can use to grab objects and villians with spectacularly gruesome effects.
Trishka explains the planet was being used by Sarrano as a training ground and the leashes were to track star soldiers and provide them with ammo – if they managed kills. Quite a severe but effective way to weed out the weak and one of the few times xp is truly woven into a game; the bigger and better the kills, the more skill the leash awards and the more ammo and upgrades you can afford.
Usually xp has a hackneyed justification for being but in Bulletstorm it not only feels right but has immediate ‘real world’ consequences if you don’t man-up. Yes, scoring xp with outrageous kills is a great deal of fun but it being your only way to get special ammo and power-ups adds another level to the shooting. Pulling someone towards you with the leash causes them to go into a form of bullettime and you glance around, looking for a cliff, wall, metal post, anything to shoot or kick them into with insane and messy results. It adds a level of thrill and awareness to the world rather than mundanely splattering through and even when overwhelmed you’re still looking for any opportunity to kill by cacti.
The weapons also allow for different kills. The standard weapon, a machinegun has an alt fire that unloads an entire clip in one shot leading you to try and line villains up for a blast. The sniper rifle allows the bullet to be directed mid-flight once it’s locked to a target and soon you’re Wanted-style bending them around corners; pulling the trigger is only the first step to killing in Bulletstorm - a grenades-on-a-chain weapon lets you fire then detonate later but trying to chain-up baddies or chaining them to nearby objects creates all manner of mayhem. Hidden in the madness is a thinking game; in the middle of the kind of mayhem reserved for button mashing you’re planning and looking for opportunities.
While the set design stays mostly within the world of the holiday park, there are some variations such as toxic caves and crumbling high-rises but BS also relies on several QuickTimeEvent set pieces to keep things interesting. Being chased by a huge spinning gearwheel, a Godzilla creature and even a model village set of the park are all stand outs. For one sequence Grey even gets to control a mech-zilla to clear the way and it’s so much fun it’s almost sad when it does down.
Eventually Sarrano is tracked down and we’re forced to work alongside him to get off the planet, only to (obviously) be double-crossed. But Bulletstorm is a great ride start to finish, an exhilarating, breathless race with some insane weapons, set-pieces and characters to enjoy a solid ten hours of gaming palate-cleansing. It is a refreshing change from the dour and seriousness of other shooters. Gray is something of a Duke clone but without the misplaced, misjudged misogynies of DNF.
Throughout the levels, you can find beer to drink and like Redneck Rampage eons ago, doing so will make his aim go off (and draw Ishi’s ire - ‘You disgust me’) but it makes the firefights fun and rather than being bombastic, stoic or silent, Grey is often surprised and annoyed at the situations he finds himself in and isn’t above teasing Trishka or Ishi about their predicament – one that he has to take responsibility for, and comes to do so as the game draws to a blood-soaked close.