Make it Rain
review for Bulletstorm, 1-player first-person shooter, out now
Unironically, the game that Bulletstorm most reminded me of, was Vanquish. Not because of any sort of thematic link (though both had some pretty cool androids in it), but rather concept-wise. While Vanquish was "what if you combined Devil May Cry with Gears of War?", the concept of Bulletstorm was a little simpler to execute - "what if you combined Painkiller with Gears of War?" ...why was this simpler to execute? It helps that was created by the people who made Painkiller and Gears of War, for one.
Bulletstorm is the game you get when you give People Can Fly, the developers behind the balls-to-the-wall old-school shooter Painkiller, the money, studio backing, and Unreal engine of Gears of War-creators Epic Games. Whether or not this is your cup of tea depends on how much you can stand Gears of War - I loved Gears of War 2, I'd go so far as to say it's probably the best Xbox 360 exclusive title there is. However, while the concept is easy to justify and recommend, the game itself is... meh.
Let's start with what makes this game good. The Unreal engine has become something of an industry standard, so it's pretty amazing that the visuals of Bulletstorm still manage to take me by surprise. For a game so focussed on overtly-masculine, gun-toting ex-military grunts, this game has a ton of incredibly beautiful vistas and locations. From serene hotel lobby views, to the eerie, mystical-natured caves of giant insect monsters, to the very Star Wars-esque cityscapes of future Earth - the detail and polish of Bulletstorm's locations are staggering, and it's nice to see the Unreal engine being used for something other than gun-metal gray, brown corridors.
Also nice are the dialogue and line readings from the cast. The game sort of produces an atmosphere of forced jollity by having the protagonists speak sarcastically to each other, speak about penises, and spouting such creative swears as "dick-tits." It sounds a little run-of-the-mill on paper, but Bulletstorm had me laughing out loud at some incredibly well-timed comedy moments, whether ancillary lines like "it's murder time," or fully-scripted cutscenes. Likewise, some of the weapons in this game are suitably bonkers - from a four barreled shotgun that makes fillet out of whatever stands in its line of fire, to sniper rifles with remote-controlled bullets, or suicide-vest launchers that work like sticky bombs on steroids. The arsenal is unique and varied, and totally worth playing the game for.
However. The humour and the weapons seem to be at odds with the game's despicably serious pulp sci-fi tone. Grayson Hunt is our player character, and he is - as mentioned - a grizzly ex-military grunt, looking for revenge on his past squad leader, General Serrano. It's written way too straight, with the opening cutscene in particular trying to straddle a line between over-the-top and serious, and failing - scenes of a broken door making an Xbox 360 red rings of death-symbol are juxtaposed by Grayson speaking, drunk and remorseful, of sending himself and Serrano to the depths of hell together. It works in Gears of War, but Gears of War was a gritty, brown, space military shooter. Bulletstorm is (trying to be) a light-hearted, quirky, humourous space shooter. It's like People Can Fly wrote a script for a comedic space opera, and then Epic took the script from them and decided it had to be more emotionally engaging or some shit. It's perplexing.
Now, I have to admit, I was excited for Bulletstorm. The concept, mixed with the trailers for the game parodying Halo 3's launch trailers and developer dairies, made the game look like a blast from the past. It, alongside Duke Nukem Forever, made people hail 2011 as "the return of the arcade shooter". And I was going to welcome it with open arms. But of course, something, somewhere, had to go horribly wrong.
There are two well-worn tropes of the military space shooter - iron sight aiming (popularized by Call of Duty 4), and cover-based shooting (perfected by Gears of War). They're acceptable game mechanics, when the game they're implemented in calls for them. Bulletstorm, especially when looking at the marketing for the game, did not seem like a game that called for them. So you can imagine my disappointment when the very first thing the game tells me to do is: "hold down Right Mouse Button to aim down weapon sights." ...I was taken aback. A friend of mine had told me, "dude... it's just Call of Duty in space," and I dismissed these claims. This is a game that scores you for shooting people up the arsehole, that lets you kick people off cliffs and leash people into spike traps. It won't be anything like Call of Duty!
...well, I learned a valuable lesson in trusting your friends. This game is a lot like Call of Duty. That's fine! Call of Duty is a well-made series if you discount the horrendous Black Ops. But stop me if the sentence "Bulletstorm plays like Call of Duty" seems a bit counter-intuitive to you. Because it does. And it is.
Bulletstorm can be fun. It has some incredible weapons, some jaw-dropping set-pieces, and a lot of genuinely funny, well-written lines. It even has a pretty likable cast - my favourite being the conflicted half-robot, half-human friend Ishi, who is fighting his part-AI brain for dominance of his conscience. There are some kills and moments that made me shout "wooowww...", and it's doing its best to be a visceral shoot-'em-up. But my god, when I'm promised a Painkiller-style shooter, there a things I do not expect from it. The necessity to take cover is one of those things. The encouragement to aim down weapon sights is another. And Call of Duty-style "climb up the wall/along the rope" set-pieces are one more. For a game that seemed to set out to be as anti-Call of Duty as possible (hell, see Duty Calls), the game takes way too much from the big book of Duty. It can be fun at times, but it's not the game I wanted - and dare I say it, not the game People Can Fly really wanted to make.
My recommendation? If you want a Call of Duty meets Gears of War in space, with small dashes of over-the-top shooting in a very Serious Sam style, feel free to double the score below. You'll be immensely satisfied. But if you - like me - wanted from Bulletstorm the return of the arcade shooter, you will be left incredibly disappointed. Bulletstorm is well-made I guess, and it can be entertaining in stretches, but overall, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth, of something that wants to be Painkiller, but has been held back by the shackles of modern-day gaming trends. If you want something like Bulletstorm, buy Bulletstorm. If you want an over-the-top, fun shooter, buy Serious Sam HD: The Second Encounter, and wait until Duke Nukem Forever to satiate the request for a modern-day, fun FPS.
For the right kind of gamer, this is 10/10 gold. But for someone like me, who loathes the popularity of Call of Duty and its runty little wannabe clones, leave it well alone. The demo on Xbox LIVE delivers all the Serious Sam-style gameplay that you could want from Bulletstorm - the rest of the game, I promise you, is a massive disappointment.