Review: Bulletstorm (Sony PS3)

Bulletstorm
Developer: People Can Fly/Epic Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: First Person Shooter
Release Date: 2/22/2011

Much like other gamers of my generation, I spent several hours playing Wolfenstein 3D when it first came out. However, my love of the FPS genre didn’t really kick in until Doom 2 was released. The first time I played a modem-to-modem deathmatch with a high school buddy of mine, I was hooked.

That addiction carried on for several years, until finally, by the time I got my hands on Unreal Tournament 2004, I’d become sick of Deathmatch play. No matter the graphics, or the gimmicks, it had all just become the same game over and over again.

And guess what? It still is. Nowadays I only venture into Deathmatch online play for the purposes of a review, so I can cover the options, balance, technical issues, and so on. Perhaps this is a topic for a column rather than a review but how much HAS Deathmatch really changed since UT 2004 came out, aside from graphics?

At any rate, when Bulletstorm found its way into my hands, a shooter that not only put the majority of its focus into rewarding you for killing enemies, but also for killing them in as many unique ways as possible (Kill With Skill, as they put it), and that it didn’t even HAVE a Deathmatch mode, I knew I’d have to give it a shot.

1. Story

Plotwise, Bulletstorm takes a page out of the American Civil War, restages it as a futuristic, intergalactic space conflict, then coats it in a thick layer of Duke Nukem style “equal opportunity offender” bad taste cheesiness. The story centers around Grayson Hunt, a Confederate soldier who, along with his elite Dead Echo black-ops squad, goes rogue after discovering that instead of taking out dangerous targets across the galaxy, their commanding officer, General Sarrano, had been lying to them, using them to assassinate political targets who threatened to expose his various illegal activities. Grayson and his squad spend years out in “the frontier” working as mercenaries, until finally they have a run-in with Sarrano’s flagship in orbit over the planet Stygia, a former Confederate Resort planet that is now controlled by various gangs, mutants, and wild animals. Almost mad with a taste for revenge, Grayson risks killing his entire crew by sending his cruiser right through the hull of Sarrano’s flagship, causing both to crash land on the planet below.

Grayson finds that many of his crew are dead, and one in particular, Ishi, is on his way out as well. The ship’s doctor attempts to patch him up using cybernetic implants to keep him alive until they can get him proper medical care, but the ship is attacked by gang members shortly after crashing landing, leaving the doctor dead and Ishi having to fight though unimaginable pain, his anger towards Grayson, and the A.I. the doctor installed constantly vying for control of his body. Grayson and Ishi head out to find another way off planet, and to make sure Sarrano didn’t survive the crash.

It’s not the most original story, but it gets the job done. Much of the more serious aspects of the plot, such as the relationship between Grayson and Ishi, are undercut by the game’s repeated use of profanity and off-color jokes. Some of them had me rolling, but many of them often took place either before or after a very serious moment between the two protagonists and just felt out of place. When Ishi talks about the severity of Grayson’s choices and the price everyone has paid for him to have the opportunity to enact his drunken revenge, it rings false to follow that up with Grayson joking about how attracted Ishi is to him, and Ishi actually responding in kind humor just moments after expressing how furious he is with the man. This is not at all helped by the eventual addition to the team, a woman named Trishka who has a very personal connection to Grayson’s story, but spends most of the game telling the others that she’s going to “kill their dicks” and other original uses of what a certain pointy-eared alien once called “colorful metaphors.”

The game just seems bi-polar in nature. It’s as though People Can Fly had two different shooters being produced at once: a gritty futuristic war shooter, and a Duke Nukem style arcade shooter. Then at some point, budgetary constraints and the knowledge that both a futuristic war shooter (Killzone 3) and a new Duke Nukem game (Duke Nukem Forever) were headed to shelves this year convinced them to combine the two in hopes of helping it stand out from the competition. It can’t decide whether it wants to be taken seriously or be the groan-inducing, gag-a-minute Ice Pirates of the FPS genre.

2. Graphics

Bulletstorm, being an Epic co-production, runs on the most recent iteration of Unreal Engine 3, and so all of the well-known graphical issues inherent with the engine are on display here: horrible horizontal screen tearing, slow texture pop-in, frame rate instability, and so on.

It does have some nice lighting effects, and at first the level design is interesting, what with it being a former resort world that’s been reclaimed by nature and… other things. But not too far into the game, the levels start to resemble one another. Several times, you’ll fight in what look like dilapidated public parks with dried up fountains, abandoned hot dog carts, and empty park benches, all overrun with plant life. It’s as though once they actually got you to the city, they ran out of ideas. As you cross into the actual city, the whole game starts to look like the first level of Enslaved: Odyssey To The West, and even then, they repeat some of those environments over again. You’ll end up visiting the interior of Sarrano’s ship twice before the closing credits roll.

The characters are easily distinguishable, and in design seem somewhere between the understated grunts of Killzone 3 and the ridiculous looking armored Incredible Hulk soldiers from the Gears of War series. The enemies aren’t quite as well conceived. Several of the same enemies are re-used over and over (which is true of every shooter), most of which have an overly cartoony look to them. The majority of the enemies look like they were lifted straight out of an episode of Fist of the North Star, with the only changes coming much later in the game when you run afoul of Sarrano’s armored thugs (who sort of look like a cross between the soldiers from Haze and the Helghast) and the offspring of a marriage twixt the Rock Lords and He-Man known as “the Burnouts,” large muscular mutant creatures that appear to be carved from lava rock and can only be killed by causing the bright orange protrusions on random areas of their bodies to make them explode.

And then there’s the gore. Lots and lots of gore. It’s not anything that will impress fans of the God of War or Dead Space games, but it’s the most over-the-top gore I’ve seen in a console FPS since The Darkness came out in 2006.

So aside from its sadly common glitches, Bulletstorm has an appealing but overall redundant design, made all the less impressive by the fact that it was released the same day as the visually superior Killzone 3.

3. Sound

The sound effects are all very distinctive. You can tell via the stereo effects where enemies are, where attacks are coming from, and in the case of one of the hidden items you spend the game looking for, the ability to follow the sound of a robotic female voice is a requirement and works very well.

The voice acting is all top notch, but the actors are just given a sub par script to work with, mostly due to the aforementioned bi-polar nature of the story. The voice actor portraying Sarrano in particular does a fine job of injecting some R. Lee Ermy into his gleefully creative profanity. Any minute I expected to hear him ask ‘What is your major malfunction, numbnuts?!”

Where the game’s audio failed me was in the score. Bulletstorm has a very by-the-numbers, stereotypically epic “gritty space shooter” score that will sound immediately familiar to anyone who’s spent a few hours with Sev, Commander Shepard, or Master Chief, with the exception being that unlike those titles, you won’t remember a single note of this game’s score once you put it back on the shelf.

4. Control and Gameplay

People Can Fly clearly put a lot of thought into setting their game apart from the overcrowded FPS genre by altering the kill system and by adding a couple of somewhat new game mechanics.

Early on in the game, Grayson finds a device called a Leash, a wrist strap device that plugs into his consciousness and allows him to project a ribbon of energy at enemies and objects, pull them closer to him or (once you’ve powered it up) slam the ground and send all the enemies on screen flying to their deaths.

Its execution has a feel that seems derived from a few other titles, including Dead Space, Bionic Commando, and Metroid Prime. In its most basic use, it functions as a first-person equivalent to Scorpion’s hook and chain weapon from Mortal Kombat. You sling it at an enemy, and it grabs them and pulls them towards you. It conveniently even works through some solid objects, allowing you to snatch enemies from behind cover or through gaps in destroyed walls. Once they are pulled close enough you can press the Circle button to kick them, which causes them to fly backwards in a slow-motion bullet-time effect, giving you several seconds to pull off head shots, shoot them in the ass for a “Rear Entry” killshot, and so on. You can also use it to pull down debris to create new walkways, grab explosive objects and kick them towards a group of enemies, then squeeze off a round to send them screaming to their fiery deaths… you get the idea.

Which brings me to the other aspect of the Leash. As stated above, it ties into Grayson’s consciousness and actually rewards him with credits based on the different ways he kills his enemies. The more creative you get with it, the more points you earn. There are somewhere around 160 different unique killshots, and I earned about 60% of them through my first playthrough without even trying for them. Most of them are environmentally based, and so will naturally occur during the course of the game. Many are also tied to specific weapons, so just playing with the game’s weapon variety will earn you a few. These points can then be used at various Confederate access stations scattered throughout the levels to boost your weapon abilities, ammo and so on.

As for the weapons themselves, they’re serviceable. You have your assault rifles, your hand guns, and your heavy weapons. Once you find a new weapon (there are six or so total in the game) and pay for the ability to reload it, you can then pay to upgrade its ammo capacity and add a secondary fire feature, each of which is particularly devastating when used properly.

In a bit of a change up for the genre, there is no jump button. There’s no jumping at all, except for pressing X to vault over cover or low obstacles. In its place is the slide mechanic. You can hold down X to sprint, or you can double tap X and do a power slide, which somehow gets you from point A to point B much faster than running. While sliding, you can pull off slow motion headshots, grab enemies with the leash, pull them towards you and kick them in the face, and so on. The feel of it is somewhat of a cross between Mirror’s Edge, Vanquish, and the slide and shoot mechanic from Wet, and I barely used it during my initial runthrough as I found no real strategic advantage from using it. Of course, it’s more about looking cool as you kill enemies, and it does make it harder for you to be shot while you’re racing towards your foes, so I suppose it serves a purpose, just a purpose I rarely used because once I got a hold of a sniper rifle, as that’s just about all I ever wanted to do.

The sniper rifle itself is almost as fun to use as the leash. Once you get a target in your sights and squeeze off a round, you go into a bullet cam mode where you can actually steer the bullet toward your target. If you get him in the head, you get a special headshot bonus. The whole mechanic is similar to the guided arrows in Heavenly Sword, only you don’t have to use the Sixaxis motion controls to pull it off. Once I got the hang of it, I was even able to slide towards an enemy, pull them towards me with my leash, kick them backwards, aim and pull off a shot with the sniper rifle, and hit them right between the eyes for a headshot bonus. It’s one of the most fun aspects of the game.

Also, I can’t talk about the gameplay without bringing up the “on rails” moments in the game. There’s a scene where you’re in a vehicle, being chased by an enormous spiked wheel while shooting down helicopters, that really gets the adrenaline flowing, and then towards the end of the game you’re in a small helicopter battling it out with a Godzilla-sized monster, which is hinted at in an earlier scene where you take over a 25 foot tall animatronic version of the beast and use it to smash your way through a line of bad guys. These moments did a good job of breaking up the action, but the game needed a couple more to really round it out, as they would have gone a long way.

6. Balance

Here is where the game really starts to show its faults. In trying to use the leash mechanic to give the game a different feel, People Can Fly have instead crafted a shooter with a campaign that feels akin to Halo‘s multiplayer, where the gunplay takes a bit of a back seat to melee attacks and perk usage.

There are several areas in the game that are clearly meant to be incredibly challenging, but instead are laughably easy due to the leash. Sections that, by design, had what should have been intense, sweat-inducing firefights became a running joke as I breezed right through, pulling enemies into explosive obstacles or flinging them off a cliff Wile E. Coyote style. It would seem that this is how the developers wanted it, since many of the enemies are Halo-style bullet sponges that, even from point blank range, take several shots to the head with the standard rifle before they’ll go down, thus encouraging you to find more effective ways of dispatching them.

The Leash also makes some of the more difficult targets a walk in the park. Take the one-man helicopters, for instance. Those flying annoyances take a massive amount of ammo to destroy, and can kill you fairly quickly… unless you use the Leash to simultaneously blow up the helicopter and drag the pilot towards you (naturally, you earn a Killshot if you shoot him dead before his body hits the ground.)

Now it could be said that this was done to encourage players to come up with more creative ways to pass these areas and earn some new Killshots, but should the inclusion of creativity always mean the exclusion of challenge? The Little Big Planet series and Halo‘s Forge mode would seem to dictate otherwise. Yes, it is immensely fun to find a new way to kill opponents in Bulletstorm, but when it causes an imbalance such as this, it needs to be approached from a different angle.

7. Originality

Bulletstorm‘s originality is not greater than the sum of its parts. Whereas it may be the first shooter to incorporate a leash, a skillshot mechanic, a power slide move, controllable sniper shots, and so on, all of those features have been used in previous titles (as mentioned earlier). Add to this the Gears/Enslaved inspired graphics and the “insert Basil Poledouris soundalike here” musical score and what you’re left with is a completely derivative shooter that’s fun at the time, but doesn’t leave a lasting impression.

8. Addictiveness

I blasted through the campaign in about six and a half hours, give or take. I started it Friday morning, I was done with it by Friday evening. It can be addicting, unlocking Killshots, and the Leash mechanic is a lot of fun to use. But towards the end, I was ready for it to just be over. After the last scene with Serrano, I expected to see the ending and some closing credits, only to find myself in yet another long slog to make it to the “real” end of the game. I believe my reaction to it at the time was “Ugh.” And the “surprise” post credits ending that totally destroyed any and all plot resolution for the sake of a potential sequel didn’t exactly whet my appetite for another playthrough.

And then there’s the multiplayer. Compared to other titles on the market, the multiplayer is a bit of a joke. It’s a team co-op affair where players have to work together to rack up Killshot goals. The game is split into 20 levels, and if your team doesn’t earn enough points to meet the goal in the allotted time, you get to repeat the same level over and over until you do. The only way to rack those points up in time is to use team-based Killshots, like you and another player leashing the same guy and ripping him in half, that sort of thing. But such efforts aren’t exactly easy to coordinate A) from a first person perspective B) with only a couple of headphones to coordinate it all. Add in the fact that, to this day, half the people you meet on PSN don’t use headsets (despite the fact that they can use the Bluetooth headset for their cell phone) and what you have is a stumbling, clumsy mess half the time, with half your players wandering off doing their own thing instead of working as a team to get to the goal score.

And no, there’s no Deathmatch, which I personally consider a plus, but I know the diehard fragheads out there will consider it nothing short of inexcusable, especially considering that they still list its absence as a prime reason to not buy Borderlands, one of my favorite games of this generation.

9. Appeal Factor

What can I say here? It’s a first person shooter with a lot of dick and ass jokes where you’re rewarded for all the different ways you can find to off a guy. Every male between the ages of 18-35 is going to want a copy of this based on that description alone. Despite it being a “popcorn movie” shooter that will have to live up to Duke Nukem’s long long long long long awaited newest adventure when it releases in May, Bulletstorm should have no trouble finding an initial audience, though the multiplayer certainly won’t keep them around, so expect this to be a rental/quick trade in for those COD/Halo fans out there who live for the frags.

10. Miscellaneous

Here’s another example of how the Leash makes the game easier than it should be. Towards the end of the game you will encounter a long battle wherein you are attacked by repeated waves of those “Burnout” creatures I mentioned earlier. Now again, the only way to kill those enemies with bullet fire is to shoot the big orange bowling ball-sized protrusions all over their bodies. So when several of them are coming at once, hitting all those sweet spots without getting crowded can be a real challenge… unless you use your leash to sling them at the burning cars that line either side of the road. Then, what was a tense firefight becomes a laughable sight gag, as you simply stand behind one of those burning cars, grab each Burnout that leaps over the wall or comes around the corner, pull it towards you, and laugh insanely as it explodes upon impact with the flaming car you’re standing behind. For me, this was the funniest part of the game, and it didn’t have a single line of dialogue.

The Scores
Story: Mediocre
Graphics: Good
Sound: Decent
Control and Gameplay: Decent
Replayability: Mediocre
Balance: Poor
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Decent
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Mediocre
FINAL SCORE: Mediocre Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
I find myself disappointed. I was really looking forward to this game, but ended up with six and a half hours worth of somewhat wasted potential. Hopefully, when the sequel comes out, the balancing issues will be worked out, the multiplayer will be more robust, the game will take place on a more alien (ie original) planet, and the writers will decide whether they want a drama or a comedy. Dramedy does not work in shooters guys. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t. You either go full serious like Killzone, or straight slapstick… unless you limited it to a few one-liners here and there like the Uncharted series, but then again I just don’t see Elena ever threatening to kill Drake’s dick.

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