“Bulletstorm” Review: A Rain of Pain That Feels Pretty Good

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Publisher: Epic Games/EA
Developer: People Can Fly
Systems it’s available on: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
ESRB rating: Mature
System reviewed on: PS3

First there was a minor kerfuffle, dubbed #Boobstorm, that started on this very site as a result of an interview I did with producer Tanya Jessen, where she talked about the internal debate over female character Trishka’s breast size. Following that, sensationalistic reporting from Fox News went crazytown with inventing dangers around Epic Games’ newest release. The controversy surrounding their reporting has become its own separate story. Despite what Fox News says, society will not fall as a result of this game’s very existence.

What Bulletstorm does do, however, is imprint a frat party on a disc. Instead of chugging beer with keg stands, you chain together kills. Instead of doing Jagermeister shots, you do nutshots, blasting bad guys between the legs to cruelly comedic effect.

And, all the blather obscures the fact that Bulletstorm‘s a very important title for Epic Games for a few reasons. It’s the first new intellectual property from the North Carolina studio since Gears of War debuted almost five (!) years. Bulletstorm also marks a return to the PS3 for the developers, after a well-received if unexceptional debut with Unreal Tournament III in 2007. The chance to strut their prowess on Sony’s game console offers Epic the chance to find new acolytes, bring some of their Gears fanbase from the Xbox 360 or vice versa. (Epic Games President Talks “Bulletstorm,” “Gear of War 3” Multiplayer Beta)

So, it’s somewhat daring that the game carrying Epic’s standard into the choppy waters of uncertainty is a vulgar, divergent take on what the FPS can be. Bulletstorm channels what a high-school junior must think college parties are like–”Man, there’s gonna be all this booze and sex and the funniest and coolest bros with jokes and stuff”–and injects it into a first-person shooter. Part of you wonders if the raison d’etre of the game’s hero, drunken space pirate Grayson Hunt, is just an excuse to line up an unending stream of penis jokes and bro-tastic one-liners.

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The Skill Kills–the name for signature mechanic–require some effort to find and to pull off. Every gamer takes in the broad view of the game screen when they enter new locations but Bulletstorm Changes the way you scan the environment: instead of looking for enemies to kill, you’re also looking for ways to kill them. The world itself is an asset, chock full of giant cacti plants, trash cans you can make explode and all manner of emergent havoc waiting to be unleashed.

The player’s tools for orchestrating chaos are Grayson’s whip/leash, a stationary or sliding kick and the expected litany of outlandish firearms. Start off by lassoing an enemy and launch him upward with a sliding kick. Then, when time slows down, you shoot, impale or explode the poor bastard into any of dozens of Skill Kills. It may sound like a lot of work but it all happens very fast. Each kill grants you points that you use to upgrade or purchase new weapons or attributes. So, for all that raunch, Bulletstorm also figures something like a Protestant work ethic into its mechanics. The harder you work, the more you’re rewarded. (Killing with Skill: Trailer and First Look at EA & Epic’s Bulletstorm)

One thing that isn’t to rewarding is the lack of technical polish to the final product that takes some of the fun out of playing. Load times are very long and once loaded, there’ll be hitches and stutters during a play session. When you do start playing, the

in-your-face nature of the character dialog comes across like a cuss-filled, modernized sci-fi remix of the Sweathogs. Yes, there’s a rhythm to it and laughs to be had, but the absence of pacing and restraint make it get tiresome really quickly. The story of would-be redemption for Hunt and his motley band of mercenary pirates on a dilapidated pleasure planet gets undermined by the way it’s told. It’s hard to care about a character who himself seems not to care about anything–itself a cliché– who is so blatantly an assemblage of collective, unvarnished id. The characterizations overall feel like they’re trying too hard. (The Techland Interview: Cliff Bleszinski, Part 2)

As makers of the Unreal Tournament series, Epic’s got a strong pedigree in the online shooter sector. But the kind of real-time competitive multiplayer seen in the UT series is completely missing from Bulletstorm. There’s a sort of competition with the Echoes mode where you replay sections of the game looking to rack up point totals that gets get compared against your friends. But this social networking-style feature won’t satisfy fans who wanted to go mano-a-mano. There’s co-op multiplayer for the game’s Anarchy mode, at least, so you can blast away increasing hordes away with your friends.

For all the technical issues, tacky tone and anemic multiplayer options, Bulletstorm makes for fun play. The raunchy tone brings a welcome change from most unrelentingly grim FPS, even if it does overstay its welcome. Discovering a heretofore unknown Skill Kill in the heat of battle adds a improvisatory, exploratory thrill to combat. The flow of Bulletstorm is far more organic than most other shooters in recent memory, letting you exert some control over what explodes and why. While Bulletstorm harbors some of the worst earmarks of frat-bro affectation, it won’t leave you with a hangover or an arrest record. You’re left with an experience that’s oddly playful and inventive, almost in spite of itself, in a sleazy virtual playground.

Official Techland Score: 8.7 out of 10