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Bulletstorm

(Epic Games; US: 22 Feb 2011)

Bulletstorm is full of surprises, all of which can be summed up with the statement, “It’s not as low-brow as the marketing would have you believe.” In fact, I would even say that Bulletstorm is the thinking man’s shooter, an FPS that demands players do more than just hide behind cover aiming for headshots. The depth of combat isn’t the only surprise: The characters are genuinely interesting, the crude dialogue is shockingly endearing, the set pieces are gigantic, and the planet Stygia, despite its apocalyptic appearance, is quite possibly the most beautiful world ever constructed for a game.


Right from the get go you see that space pirate Grayson Hunt is an asshole. He interrogates a bounty hunter by getting drunk and shooting wildly, then kicks the guy out an airlock. This is your hero. But very quickly we see a different side of him through flashbacks, and the main plot even acts as a kind of redemption quest for his past mistakes. He’s fiercely loyal to his crew, even as his drunken leadership constantly puts them in danger. The other characters are just as conflicted. There’s the mutinous Ishi who must work with Grayson to get off Stygia, and rather than make this mutinous crew member a one-dimensional antagonist, we sympathize with his hate for Grayson. Then there’s the cocky Trishka who is just as crude as the boys but has a tragic past that relates to the events at hand. Even the main villain Sarrano gets enough dialogue to flesh out his personal beliefs and comes across as more arrogant and as coldly practical than he does as truly villainous. No one has the moral high ground here. Everyone has a character trait that’s humanizing and one that repulsive, creating a fascinating group of anti-heroes.


The dialogue has become one of the more infamous aspects of this game since it was previewed. It’s full of vulgar though nonsensical insults (basically just add “dick” to every insult that you can think of). Out of context, such dialogue can seem forced, meant only to push the envelope of acceptable language in games, but within the context of the game, it not only feels natural, it feels appropriate. This is the language of fantastical space pirates, and after you’ve just impaled six guys with an explosive drill that lands on some exposed wiring and electrocutes everyone nearby, your normal salty language just isn’t going to cut it. The back-and-forth between characters also betrays a growing camaraderie that’s fun to listen to. Trishka’s foul mouth surprises even Grayson, and the deadly serious Ishi is the perfect foil for Grayson’s devil may care attitude.


The story is simple: people crash on a planet filled with hostiles and must fight their way off, but within that simple set up, there’s a surprising amount of thoughtful detail. The planet has a full history that’s slowly revealed, which explains all the mutant enemies that you fight. There’s even a narrative justification for the skillshots combat system that’s quite interesting. Still, the story is just an excuse to push the characters through a variety of majestic environments. Stygia is beautiful, and such swaths of color are rarely seen in shooters. It’s as if Nintendo made a violent action game. There are moments after you’ve cleared a room that you’ll just stand at a ledge and marvel at the scope and color of this world.


But Bulletstorm isn’t being sold on its world or story, it’s being sold on its combat. Grayson has a leash that can whip enemies over to him, a kick that sends them flying back, and every time that you launch a guy into the air he goes into slow motion, giving you time to set up some of the more elaborate kills, like kick him off a ledge or into some spikes or into a another group of guys after placing a mine on him to blow up the entire crowd. You have lots of regenerating health so there’s rarely a need to hide, but you still have to smart about approaching fights. Every special kill nets you a point bonus depending on its difficulty, and those points act as currency for upgrades and ammo. Since enemies drop so little ammunition, if you don’t “kill with skill” you’ll be left at a serious disadvantage. Easier difficulties make things cheaper, putting less demand on you to perform high scoring skillshots,making it a good way to ease players into this unfamiliar kind of combat.


In addition to the campaign, there’s Echo and Anarchy mode. Echo mode takes levels from the campaign and turns them into time trial courses, but instead of competing for the best time, you’re competing for the most points. This is where the combat really shines. In the campaign, you’ll be compelled by the story to push through levels quickly rather than exploring for every hidden death trap. Since Echo mode uses the same levels, you get a chance to look for all best ways to kill and maximize your points—both modes feed back on each other: Get your bearings in the campaign, become an expert in the Echoes, and take you’re your new skills back to the campaign on a harder difficulty.


Anarchy is a co-op multiplayer in which four people fight waves of enemies. Surviving the waves is easy, but your team can’t progress until you all pass a set amount of points. If you don’t pass this par, you replay the wave. It’s smart that passing depends on the combined team score since this prevents things from getting too competitive. Stealing someone’s kill holds everyone back.


Bulletstorm may seem excessively over the top at times, but that insanity must always be tempered with strategy. Behind every bombastic battle lies in depth knowledge of the environment, guns, enemy types, and the most effective skillshots. This is not just a vulgar shooter; there’s a surprising amount of thought behind everything from character motivation to combat arenas, and unlike other shooters of the past few years, the story actually acknowledges the consequences of such grandiose acts of violence. Bulletstorm is an action-comedy (a woefully ignored genre in gaming) with a cast that can actually support the occasional moment of gravitas, which makes it a fun breath of fresh air amongst its peers.

Rating:

Nick Dinicola made it through college with a degree in English, and now applies all his critical thinking skills to video games instead of literature. He reviews games and writes a weekly post for the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters, and can be heard on the weekly Moving Pixels podcast. More of his reviews, previews, and general thoughts on gaming can be found at www.gamehounds.net.


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