FBT blazes his way through Bulletstorm, before Gearbox f'ed it up for no reason. Like they did Duke. And aliens. Got Borderlands right though, so silver lining and all that.
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, dimissing 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. Trishka is a solid female sidekick whose gender is a non-issue and has her own agenda while constantly points out what a dick Gray is. Ishi, heavily scripted with his AI-driven tantrums makes for a different kind of sidekick; rather than just blindly following as most companions do, or just there to remind you what you should be doing, he questions and comments on Gray’s choices and is intending to save Sarrano not get revenge (Ishi has always put down the betrayal as part of the business, unlike Gray who took it personally); early on he tells Gray that Sarrano is under his projection in return for rescue, setting up the potential for a nasty falling-out and adding a dynamic that’s frustratingly never really resolved - it was clearly intended given that goddamn cliff-hanger ending making it even more galling. Sarrano on the other hand, is just the worst villain ever committed to gaming. He’s all ‘shitkickers’ this and ‘grab your ladyparts’ that, screaming insults and sneering contempt. I’ve never hated a character so much. And that’s not good storytelling drawing the hate, he’s just so incredibly annoying, a Poundland R.Lee Ermey. I constantly wanted to murder him just to shut him up and it’s so obvious he’s going to double-cross us it’s the one time the game falters and slows down. The rest of the time it’s exhilarating but once he’s involved it’s ‘been here, done that’ and his character being so frustrating makes it worse. Critics complained about the uneasy balance between the serious story and the knockabout gameplay but really it can be seen as gallows humour in the face of an insanely difficult situation, its only when Sarrano's on the scene does BS feels tired and unoriginal.
Since Bulletstorm comes from Painkiller creators People Can Fly (which became Epic Poland then became PCF again) it shares a lot of that game’s style and approach. The hordes of baddies rushing at you are straight out of Painkiller and the leash is a techno version of the Painkiller weapon. But Grey, interacting with Ishi and Trish is a much more entertaining character than PK’s Daniel while their escaping this Hell is somehow more interesting than Daniel trying to purge his soul. It’s a brilliant world to kill in. Also great is how Grey continues to make things worse for himself and the others, his temper and machoism getting the better of him - one level sees them navigating through a cave system where something is following. They find themselves an exit but there’s huge eggs in the way. We all know this will not end well, Grey knows it, Ishi begs him not to but Grey merrily smashes them to get through. Of course, something big and nasty isn’t happy but rather than just appear at the end of the level as a boss battle, the huge Godzilla creature just keeps putting in appearances as they progress through the game, eventually appearing in the final third in a great aerial set-piece. Trishka just marvels at how Grey could have willingly upset such a creature.
Bulletstorm is a short game, it does rely on a lot of scripted moments and over time, kills lose their appeal; the plot and gameplay feel at odds often and the open/cliff-hanger ending is unforgiveable - it’s easy to see how it was overlooked not just in the face of some major AAA games in 2011 but also as a cartoony bit of silliness. But it easily surpasses any COD Reskin for sheer inventiveness and pure-blooded shooter fun. It’s just really good. And that ending does suggest PCF knew they had a good game but were over confident, like this was the start of a franchise. Maybe it was publisher pressure to create a story-arc but there’s no reason why Grey couldn’t have gone onto other adventures rather than just drag this slight plot out into a series (That was FEAR’s problem). It’s a shame we didn’t get to knockabout with Gray again.
That is, unless Gearbox’s gamble pays off. They bought up the IP and re-released Bulletstorm in 2017, much to everyone's surprise, chucking a 4K up-res and some maps in and asking near full-whack for it. Who for? It's not like the original was aged or unavailable. Bioshock’s remaster didn’t make Rapture any more beautiful or immersive; the Skyrim redo was for the hardcorers - when are publishers going to realise its the experience not the pixel-count that brings us back? It's a worrying trend; publishers seem to think releasing remasters will push the brands back into the charts, give the IP some value and keep the franchises going while they tried to figure out what to do next. If you’re going to remaster a game, it needs to be a game that needs it, that can capture new fans and let the originals replay it at today’s spec – the Monkey Island series or Broken Sword with its additional scenes rounding out the story; the success of those overhauls led to new adventures. Bethesda should have remastered Morrowind instead. Worse, in Gearbox's remaster you can swap Gray out for Duke Nukem - complete with re-recorded lines from John St.John. Both Gray and Duke use their foot for a melee weapon and they’re both macho, but really that’s where the similarity ends and this seems like a disservice to Bulletstorm (and both Gray and Duke) and just a cynical marketing campaign to reboot both franchises. Avoid Gearbox’s latest evil plan and stick with the original. Get in there and kill some dick.
2011 | Developer People Can Fly / Epic Games | Publisher Electronic Arts
platforms; Win, PS3, X360 (PS4 & XO for the remaster)