If I've seemed a tad out of it lately, it's because I've been spending much of my free time over the past few days viciously slaughtering hordes of mutants, bandits, and other assorted creatures in Bullestorm. And I've been loving it. After beating the single-player campaign over the weekend, I think I might go so far as to say that Bulletstorm is one of the most fun games I've played in a long, long while.
Now, let me take a step back and say I'm a sucker for first-person shooters in general—and ones with solid single-player campaigns in particular. I dig the experimental, indie vibe of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, the awesome, twisted puzzles of Portal, and the engrossing, story-driven action of the Modern Warfare series, Bad Company 2, and their imitators. However, I think one key ingredient to single-player shooter success has been missing from popular recipes for much too long now: genuinely fun combat.
Not to knock it, but Modern Warfare 2, for example, made me feel like I was slogging through wave after wave of generic bad guys only to progress to the next cut scene or set piece. The whole experience was still amazing, but the playable shooting that made up the bulk of the experience felt more like a chore than anything. At the other end of the spectrum, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Prypiat created amazing atmosphere and a sense of immersion, but encounters with enemies were unforgiving and often unpleasant. I suppose one could say their unpleasantness added to the immersion, but I remember a distinct element of frustration that really didn't need to be there.
To put things in perspective, I've spent more hours re-playing Mirror's Edge than playing either of those games, and that title is all about running away from the bad guys. That's pretty telling. Mirror's Edge wasn't a huge commercial success, and there are many good reasons for that—the steep learning curve and dreadful storyline come to mind. However, once I got the hang of it, the game's core gameplay felt truly enjoyable. It really struck a chord with me. Sometimes, when I'm bored, I'll still load it up and just soak in the beautiful decor, listening to my character's feet slamming against concrete as I jump from ledge to ledge, dodging bullets and outrunning enemies.
This brings me back to Bulletstorm. Epic Games and People Can Fly's new shooter doesn't draw me in quite the same way, but it really gets the core gameplay right, despite featuring a healthy number of cut scenes and a somewhat conventional, story-driven progression. The skillpoints system, the wild and wonderful weapons, the energy leash, the kick action, the sliding, the way bad guys begin to fall in slow motion when you kick or leash them, and the sheer number of ways you can kill those bad guys with or without guns... it all comes together to make combat fun, engaging, and thrilling.
Say a mutant runs up to me while two of his friends fire from cover a few yards behind. I can pull out the flail gun, fire an explosive chain that wraps around the first mutant, pinning his arms to his chest. As he tries to wrestle free, I kick him backward within splash damage distance of his friends, then activate the remote detonator. Boom. All three are turned into a mess of guts and gore as the game awards me with skillpoints aplenty for the creative kill. A similar result could be achieved with the screamer pistol's alternative fire mode, which shoots out a flare that sends enemies flying back, exploding for substantial damage shortly thereafter.
I can also use the environment as a weapon by kicking or leashing enemies into certain death. Here I am amid a radiation storm, dangerous-looking purple lightning coming out of a gaping hole in the ceiling in front of me. Farther back, tucked behind a barrel, a mutant is taking shots at me. I press Q to bring up the energy leash and fling him in my direction. His body is disintegrated as he comes into contact with the radiation. Other, suitable targets for leashed or kicked enemies include ledges, cacti, barbed wire fences, and fans.
Or, I can just be an all-around badass. I can activate the leash's thumper mode to fling everybody in the area into the air, slide forward and use the four-barreled shotgun to remove bad guys' legs before they have a chance to respond, or hit the bouncer's alt-fire to shoot a cannonball that keeps bouncing on the ground for massive damage to nearby enemies... then kick it around the room.
The possibilities are endlessly entertaining.
In a way, I'm tempted to draw parallels between Bulletstorm and the Max Payne series. In Max Payne, the bullet-time feature and combat dynamics made me want to choreograph every single firefight just so. Far from being a chore, gunning down mobsters almost became an art form. Similarly, Bulletstorm pushes the player to find the most creative, gory, and amusing way to deal with each fresh batch of enemies—not just because it's fun, but because skillpoints are used to purchase vital ammo and weapon upgrades. It's a great and very original system that totally works.
Mindless killing isn't the whole story, of course. Bulletstorm's intoxicating gameplay is augmented by truly gorgeous level design and art—a constant stream of eye candy that almost looks like it should belong in a more high-brow title. The attention to detail, the colors, and the amazingly vast alien cityscapes really add another dimension to the game, I think.
Check out the gallery below for more screenshots.
On the flip side, Bulletstorm has its rough edges. While the storyline and characters do a great job of tying the gameplay together, they sit in the sort of awkward, uncanny valley between believability and intentional cheesiness. Your cyborg-ified sidekick sounds like Worf on a bad day, and the beginning of the game is weighed down by long cut scenes with somewhat trite, poorly acted dialogue. Much like in Mirror's Edge, I learned to tune out the second-rate story and enjoy the gameplay.
The PC version of Bulletstorm also has a moderate case of consolitis. The "R" key fills in for both use and reload functions, which meant I often found myself accidentally reloading my weapon when I meant to, say, climb a ladder or throw a switch. The menu interface blends mouse input with odd keyboard controls, like making the player press "v" to apply settings. Worse still, the game refers to "left" and "right" weapon slots—and last time I checked, weapon selection on the PC is done with the number keys or the mouse wheel. That caused confusion and frustration when gearing up using the game's many equipment dropkits. Both Epic and People Can Fly have released PC exclusives in the past; they really could've done a better job here.
Finally, and much to my surprise, Bulletstorm became somewhat infamous last month for its use of swear words and allusions to sexual acts. I'm not sure if this is a publicity stunt or a misguided attack by well-intentioned but shamefully ignorant anti-gaming advocates, but frankly, nothing in the game made me raise so much as an eyebrow. If you're at least mildly familiar with Internet memes and message board culture (be it from 4chan, Something Awful, or elsewhere), you'll probably feel the same way. This title entirely deserves its Mature rating; it's for young adults in their late teens and 20s, and the writing is calibrated accordingly. Nothing unusual there. If you're in that age group and somehow find it offensive when the game gives you a "gang bang" skillpoint bonus for blowing up several enemies with one shot, well, perhaps it's time to get a sense of humor.
But I digress. My point is, Bulletstorm is a great game—and living proof that single-player shooters can still get their priorities straight by putting fun first and foremost. I heartily recommend it. Now if only other developers would take the hint, dial down the cut scenes and cinematics, and focus on making their games fun to play. I think if they did that, we'd live in a better world.