Friday, August 12, 2011

Review: Bulletstorm (PS3/360)

First Person Shooters tend to take themselves very seriously these days.  It's getting more and more difficult to tell every Battlefield Ghost: Fall of the Modern Rainbow Company from the others, and they're getting so precise.  I'll admit I had basically zero interest in playing Bulletstorm (from EA, Epic Games and People Can Fly studios) after reading and seeing previews for it.  It seemed crass and vulgar, just for shock value.  I expected a slim story with just lots of blood and guts.  Basically, all for show with little substance.  Video games are still getting a bad rap from mainstream media anyway, and I felt Bulletstorm was just adding fuel to their fire.  But something happens to me when a game falls below that $40 price point.  My standards relax a little and I'm willing to give a chance to something I'd previously written off.

During Bulletstorm, you play as Gray(son), a self-imposed leader of a band of mercenaries working for an elite, top-secret group, Dead Echo, which was in charge of protecting the Confederation of Planets (which has a symbol curiously similar to Halo's energy sword).  Gray is basically Marcus Fenix's baby brother with Han Solo's thirst for adventure (and wisecracking) and Duke Nukem's sensibilities.  A mission goes horribly wrong and the team is exiled and become the hunted, due to a large bounty on their heads.  Gray then becomes paired with Ishi, a fellow team member, who has undergone a bit of a transformation, which makes the pairing more unconventional than you might think.  The two set out, each with their own reasons, but willing to work together.  Gray is out for revenge, but also redemption.

Gray and Ishi crash-land on the planet Stygia, which looks like a cross between Pandora (from Avatar) and Coruscant.  There are warring factions and mutants galore, which obviously leads to a fair share of combat.  The thing that separates Bulletstorm from other FPS, is the skillshot.  Anybody these days can just gun down countless enemies, one after the other, but skillshots take imagination and ..... skill.  Each skillshot warrants a point value (skill points), depending on difficulty and ingenuity, which can then be used to upgrade your weapons.  Simple kills, the old-fashioned way, only garner 10 points.  Traversing through the game that way would leave your weapons and ammo at a minimum.  

There are 131 different skillshots to master in Bulletstorm, and more than half of the fun is figuring them out.  Sure some are basic like kicking an enemy into an electrical source (Shocker), cactus (Pricked), or sharp metal object (Voodoo Doll), but the enjoyment comes from some of the more complex ones: Attaching an explosive to an enemy then kicking him towards a group before exploding (Homie Missile), killing an enemy with a shot to the throat (Gag Reflex), or snipe an enemy with a shot to his crotch (Nutcracker) or behind (Rear Entry).  I can just imagine the round table discussions that were being held coming up with the names alone, and pretty much every time I discovered a new one, I ended up smiling and the name.

Gray also inherits another potent weapon, an Energy Leash, early on in the game.  The Leash is basically an electrified whip that can pull enemies that are far, closer to Gray.  When they get leashed, the enemies also slow down for more precise skillshot action.  The weapon selection in Bulletstorm gives just enough variety and spin-off from typical FPS, that it felt fresh and new.  When first playing, I felt uncomfortable not having any grenades to throw, but eventually got used to it.

Bulletstorm plays extremely cinematically.  As you would expect, loads of action and everything seems larger than life with explosions, blood, colors, sweeping cameras, etc. galore.  The story mode is divided into 7 acts, with 2-3 chapters into each act.  The pacing is excellent and most sections don't seem too long or too short.  I played the game on 'Very Hard' mode and it seemed like another FPS 'Normal' level.  That's the point of the game, it's supposed to be fun, not necessarily complicated or grueling.  

The first two-thirds of this game are really excellently done.  The eight available weapons (introduced slowly over the course of the game), especially The Leash, feel different enough from little tweaks here and there, and the variety of enemies (some fast, some charge, some stay back, etc.) really hooked me in using the full assortment of firepower available.  Pulling a pilot out of a helicopter instead of just shooting it down feels more bad-ass.  Guiding a sniper rifle bullet into an enemy's head is always enjoyable.  Kicking enemies into solid objects, with stuff splattering everywhere is always gratifying.  Adding to Gray's swashbuckling bravado, there are bottles of alcohol hidden, and if he takes a swig, the screen turns to double (or triple)-vision and the walking controls don't work as expected.  Being inebriated and dispatching of bad guys adds even more skill points.  

The gameplay is broken up once or twice an Act, with more scripted sequences such as rail-shooting, or eliminating waves of enemies, but is the action is unfortunately quite linear.  The pathways are all marked by invisible walls, so there is not much exploring, and if you're hunting collectibles, new checkpoints usually close previous areas.  My favorite part of the game was when I got to control a Godzilla-type creature, causing havoc with each step and shooting fire out of it's mouth at helpless thugs.

The slight problem I had with Bulletstorm is that about two-thirds through I had pretty much discovered all of the skillshots I was going to discover (I think I ended up in the low 90's out of 131).  I began to rely mostly on the same few weapons (as you can really only equip two, as the basic machine gun always has to be equipped) and the same handful of skillshots.  Towards the end, I also didn't really use The Leash all that much in combat.  The enemies grew a bit stale as after a certain point, there was not much novelty.  I also thought that an online co-op mode was greatly missing, as my CPU controlled partners were never that much help.  

In addition to the story mode, there are a couple of extra experiences to be had.  First, are the Echoes, which are bite-sized pieces of the single player campaign in which the goal is to score as many points as possible using different skillshots.  The Echoes are timed, which factor into the score, but are a great way to try out different techniques with different weapons.  They are graded from zero to three stars depending on your score.

As for online multiplayer, there is what's called Anarchy mode, which up to four players competing together to eliminate up to 20 waves of baddies, some with bosses and mini-bosses, culminating in the Blood Symphony skillshot, if you're lucky.  Initially, I was saddened by the lack of online competitive multiplayer, but the more I thought about it, I really would not want to be humiliated by some of the skillshots, via human opponents.  There have also been 2 DLC packs since launch, which bring more multiplayer maps, Echoes, and Leash colors.

The graphics in Bulletstorm are definitely a selling point.  Bright colors mixed with the decayed steel of the city landscape really gave it a look of it's own.  The field of vision when Gray is running or sliding really puts you in the action and make the game more engaging.  The enemies are detailed, and amply filled with blood, guts, puss, etc. to make their demise a sight to behold.

Bulletstorm proudly uses just about every curse word in the English language, but only occasionally does it feel like too much.  Sometimes a couple of curse words are put together in ways I had not heard before.  The soundtrack is appropriate ranging from heavy metal guitar riffs when you die to sweeping orchestral melodies that set the stage for the upcoming action.  The voice acting is top-notch as well, as the actors must have been cracking up at some of the lines they had to say.

Replay Value
For under $40, you get quite a bit with Bulletstorm.  The campaign should last 10-12 hours on the hardest mode then throw in the Echoes and co-op multiplayer, and you have yourself something worthy of your gaming dollar.  You probably won't go back and play the campaign again, but trying to get three stars on all of the Echoes is quite challenging.

Don't go into Bulletstorm hoping for a Mass Effect story or even a Call of Duty shooter, as you'll be disappointed.  I went in with an open mind and got something that had been done before, yet fresh and exciting at the same time.  Skillshots are extremely humorous and simultaneously gratifying, and a twisted, adult sense of humor kept me amused throughout.  The game is crass, vulgar, graphically violent, and way over the top, but I smiled or laughed quite a bit and enjoyed it immensely.

Score: 8.8

Bulletstorm is currently available for $29.99 from Amazon, and $39.99 from Gamestop.

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