With a title like Bulletstorm you know what you’re in for. Lots of shooting, a heap of violence and probably a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. On this basic premise Bulletstorm delivers in spades but beyond that seems to have an identity crisis. There’s no one area in which it really excels and it even commits the cardinal sin of shooters (there’s no competitive multiplayer). Between juggling an innovative campaign, an unique scoring system and a co-op multiplayer mode thrown in just for good measure Bulletstorm seems to have taken on too much and failed to really deliver on anything.
There’s no mistaking the point that Bulletstorm is primarily a single-player affair and the cornerstone of any single-player game is its single-player campaign. Emphasis on the ‘single’ part. While I can praise the campaign for its length (about 10 hours – above average these days), it is curiously missing any form of co-op, which is particularly odd given how similar it is to Gears of War (but more on that later). Even in the game’s ‘Echoes’ mode, which seems purpose built for multiplayer, the option is mysteriously absent. That aside, the campaign comes and goes without much of note actually happening. There’s no dramatic build up, no noticeable climax and a set of protagonists who you really have to struggle to care about. There were also boss fights, and yet no final boss and that’s something that always annoys me. It’s sad to say, but by the end I was just thankful that the experience wasn’t nearly as crass and juvenile as People Can Fly PR might have had me believe. Small graces.
For a game from the makers of Painkiller, Bulletstorm isn’t all that frenetic either. You’re never swamped by legions of enemies and combat plods along at a deliberate pace. It could even be played in 3rd person and not much would change. I’m left wondering if the clunkiness it shares with Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 poster franchise isn’t more than just coincidence. The one difference is the ‘leash’, a lasoo-like arm-mounted contraption that lets you yank objects and enemies across the field in slow motion. Given every second object in Bulletstorm explodes, this sets up a lot of cool scenarios and in some cases allows for genuine creativity in demolishing a group of foes. The downside is that killing people more often involves environmental hazards than bullets, which is odd given the game’s namesake. You certainly don’t have the rounds to take everyone down the old fashioned way and some of the more intriguing weapons (Bouncer, I’m looking at you) can’t hold enough ammo to make much of a difference on the battlefield. While I’m all for encouraging the player to be creative, I don’t like being denied the option to go at the game Doom-style should I so choose. Surely there could have been a happy medium?
Speaking of Doom, where is the rocket launcher? Ammo issues notwithstanding, Bulletstorm has some damned cool weapons. The mounted chaingun is suitably devastating and the Flail Gun and Bouncer are interesting new toys for jaded FPS’ers. Hell, Bulletstorm even manages to make the sniper rifle useful. So why then is the quintessential Quake weapon missing? Even the enemies get their hands on them over the course of the campaign. As for how this oversight managed to get through development I have no idea. Maybe it wouldn’t have gelled with the game’s Skillshot-oriented design. But seeing how much fun Bulletstorm has with the other FPS mainstays I’d love to see its take on the good ol’ rocket launcher in a sequel. Fingers crossed for that one.
In fact what seems to underline every aspect of Bulletstorm is the focus on score and Skillshots and it’s something I think the game got very wrong. Scores are great and trying to perform every Skillshot on the list is fun, but otherwise the system just serves to undermine everything else in the game. Rather than providing a currency for performance, Skillshots ensure that the most contrived ways of taking out an enemy - not necessarily the most creative or most skillful – are the ones used. If simply kicking someone into a fan nets more points than, say, leashing them into the air and shooting them in the ass, which do you think you’ll end up doing more often? The score attributed to each Skillshot is seemingly arbitrary and in any of the modes based on points things get very boring, very fast. Overall the system comes off as being slapped on top of near-finished gameplay in a shortsighted attempt to add depth and cohesion to the disparate elements of an otherwise generic shooter.
The next such element, Echoes, lets you run through short segments of the game in hope of achieving the highest score and highest star-grade possible. The key to success in this mode is pretty much summed up with ‘if you see anything red, make sure it blows up’. That co-op is not allowed in this tailor-made game mode is just bizarre and it also renders Echoes a bit redundant. Why run through these cut-down segments instead of replaying the campaign chapter they were pulled from? By now you’ve likely summised there’s no Deathmatch, Capture the Flag or the like. That leaves us with Anarchy as the only other non-campaign mode and the only one which involves other players. The mode itself is flawed – groups of four players survive against waves of enemies trying to reach point-base targets each wave (although ‘survive’ is used loosely as its almost impossible to die) – and so is its implementation. It uses Games for Windows Live P2P matchmaking so expect wildly variable pings. And while there is an unlock system calling it inconsequential is an understatement. Anarchy has no weapon unlocks or any meaningful character customisation. You can change your skin (not your model) and that’s about it. Perhaps the most differentiating aspect for players – different leash colours – has been relegated to pre-order unlocks. Even at max level you’ll just have just have blue and white to play with, while the average Joe who pre-ordered with EB will have every colour of the rainbow ready to go on day one. I really have to question what sort of longevity this one-dimensional mode will have with no worthwhile rewards for playing.
Of course there are also things Bulletstorm gets very right. It is absolutely gorgeous and, for all that has been said about Unreal Engine 3 over the years, the visuals stand at least should to shoulder with anything else out there right now. Further to that, Bulletstorm boasts some of the largest areas and biggest baddies you’ve ever seen in UE3. Character models are plain but outside of those hamfisted story segments it never really matters. And even though the story sucks, writing off the campaign completely would be doing the game a disservice. Although uneven and ultimately unsatisfying, there more than a couple of moments during the single player game that will make you sit back and think ‘oh shit’. Being chased by the giant wheel, remote-controlling a giant robot and shooting a giant lizard off a building are just some of the campaign highlights. Emphasis, definitely, on the ‘giant’ part.
These spots of momentary brilliance sadly do little to conceal what Bulletstorm really is; an unfocussed shooter promoted solely by the smokescreen of Skillshots and ‘dicktits’ PR marketspeak. It has no particular strength and no real staying power once the curtain has closed on the campaign. The FPS genre is cluttered today moreso than any other genre in the history of gaming and so I begrudgingly regurgitate the overused argument that, today, being an average shooter is not good enough. And with all its deficiencies Bulletstorm is just that; average.