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Fun romp of a shooter - Bulletstorm

01 Apr 2011

Epic Games and People can Fly have,  with Bulletstorm, set themselves the noble task of trying to inject a bit of humour and imagination into the rather stale and overly serious gameplay mechanics of the modern first-person shooter.  Have they succeeded? Or is Bulletstorm just another of the growing number of second-rate, first-person shooters?

The player takes control Grayson "Gray” Hunt, the leader of a group of misfits known as Dead Echo, a Confederate government wetworks outfit ridding the galaxy of terrorist and the like. Or so they were told. Upon realising they’ve been duped by their Confederate handler, General Sarranto, into killing otherwise innocent opponents of those in power, Gray and his men steal their ship and go AWOL.

After fending off a group of bounty hunters, Gray makes, with the aid of booze and just a little bit of crazy, a rather bad judgement call. Gray decides to take on the Confederate’s flagship, Ulysses, commanded by General Sarranto, himself. After a short ship-to-ship skirmish, clearly outgunned and desperate, Gray flies his ship on a suicide course into the battle cruiser... and survives, flying right though the ship’s hull.  Gray’s crippled craft and the Ulysses both plunge towards the abandoned, former leisure planet, Stygia. The crash and a brief altercation with the planet’s unfriendly denizens, leaves only Gray and his (hastily) cybernetically repaired shipmate, Ishi, the only crew members alive. Together they must fight their way across the planet, reach the General and steal his ride off the rock.

Instead of just aiming and firing a variety of guns at a multitude of enemy types, Bulletstorm challenges players to get creative and "kill with skill”, handing out Skillshot point for stylishly dispatching opponents. Giving a bad guy a swift kick will send them skywards, allowing the player to either pepper then with bullets or, with careful aim, send them careening into spikes, carnivorous plants or other hazards. The more creative, the more Skillshot points are earned, which in turn can be exchanged for weapon upgrades. All the weapons have a standard ammo mode and an unlockable charged mode. The charged mode gives players a small amount of high-powered rounds that are guaranteed to make a bloody mess of the enemy.  As well as a number of different guns, Gray also has an energy leash, which can be used to drag items and, more importantly, enemies towards him for a good kick or for simply finishing off with gunfire. It is worth noting that all direct physical interactions with opponents trigger a slow-mo effect that gives players a bit of extra time to figure out a way to "kill with skill”.

The gratuitous nature of the combat is bound to cause either a chuckle or outrage depending on how politically correct you are. It doesn’t take much imagination to work out where the bullets need to go to achieve Skillshots like "rear entry” and "nutcracker”. Amusing, maybe, but I still found it a little short of its genre-bending aspirations. One thing that I’m certain of is that Bulletstorm, with its violence and creative (as well as rather amusing) use of profanity, is definitely not for kids.

The tour of Stygia takes players though huge vistas, ruins, sewers and collapsing buildings (Gray is not a very careful fellow, so mind your step). Although using the same Unreal engine as the Gears of War games, the graphics are nowhere near as crisp.  They're compromised, no doubt, by the multiplatform release of the game, so it’s not been afforded the Xbox 360 optimisation that Gears 1 and 2 enjoyed. It is not that the graphics are poor; they’re just nothing special.

While Bulletstorm is a refreshing change from the generic first-person shooter mould in that it does succeed in encouraging creative ways of killing opponents, the experience is surprisingly forgettable. I don’t feel that I’d ever return to the campaign for another go, unlike the Call of Duty or Halo games. Perhaps the developers realised this and figured that the bite sized chunks served up in the Echoes mode, complete with an online leaderboard for bragging rights, would be enough to entice players back to the game. The Echoes mode gives player the opportunity to play levels again with a simplified weapon load-out and scoring system, like a time-trial/arcade mode. At the end of each level players are awarded stars that unlock even more levels. Echoes is surprisingly good fun for a quick blast.

I’d love to say that the multiplayer mode really saved the game. Unfortunately, even after the game’s release I couldn’t find a quick game through its matchmaking feature. It seems that the only way to viably play online is with a group of similarly minded friends. The multiplayer mode is a cooperative affair, fending off waves of attackers, similar to Halo’s Firefight and Gears of War’s Horde mode.

At the end of the day, Bulletstorm is a fun romp of a shooter. Some of the more creative ways of killing the denizens of Stygia will raise a chuckle. The fire fights never become a chore. The story is an uneven mix that tries to be funny, but at the same time is a bit too serious considering the ridiculously over-the-top action. Duke Nukem this is not. Worth checking out if you have nothing better to play, but it still sits in the shadow of far better first-person shooters.

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