Bulletstorm is uncouth. …there, I just began this review with the understatement of the millennium. In a game that urges you to “kill with skill,” that features not-so-subtle Skillkill titles like “Gag Reflex,” “Rear Entry,” and “Gang Bang,” that includes a record number of cuss words, that makes you laugh maniacally at horrific carnage, we emerge a little exhausted. It’s the kind of after-effect that’s almost languid in nature; you just sort of slump in your chair with a silly smile on your face, and all your muscles relax. It was insane. It wasn’t perfect; the little glitches and repetitiveness of the adventure got to you a little, but at the end of the day, you’re thinking about new ways to kill. In any other venue, this would be cause for concern. But somehow, developer People Can Fly infuses a lighthearted feel into the over-the-top violence…hard to explain how, but they do. Is it worth $60? Well, that’s up to you.
Graphically, we’ve got the Unreal Engine. For many PlayStation 3 fans, this conjures up unpleasant memories of mediocre visual presentations, which are often rife with small – yet noticeable – issues. But hey, don’t let that dissuade you, because while we have the Unreal signatures (somewhat muddled coloring and an overall lack of clarity), there are some huge highlights in Bulletstorm. Massive dinosaur-like beasts, a huge grinding wheel that chases you down a train track, and some surprisingly large and well-designed environments. The special effects are just downright gross, which of course means the designers hit their goal. Overall character design and detail is decent and we don’t have that layer of polish found in Killzone 3, but those high points just can’t be missed.
The sound is a bit more subjective, because I imagine some may have an issue with the voiceovers and writing. As I said before, there’s a whole lot of swearing and indeed, they go overboard. It just stops being amusing or fitting after a while; it becomes clear that the scribes were merely trying to jam offensive words into most any sentence. Still, the voice acting itself is really quite good and while I think they missed a big opportunity in regards to the music, the soundtrack does work. It’s very fitting, but man, in my eyes, this game is begging for some hard-hitting rock or metal tracks. But that’s subjective and not something everyone would agree upon. The sound effects match the graphical effects in terms of crispness and effectiveness so no worries there. In general, much of the sound will just make you wince, which is a good thing; you really want to hear exactly how that particular gory death sounds, right?
Without getting into the Skillshots and the epic atmospheric moments, the basic controls are about as standard as they get for an FPS: zoom in with L1, fire with R1, crouch with L3, prepare a charged shot with R2, and run by holding down X. You can double-tap X to slide, but then the fun stuff comes in: you toss out an energy Leash with L2; it yanks enemies towards you so more damage can be dealt. Then there’s the Circle button, which is used to Kick; combining the Leash and Kick commands is a basic foundation for many Skillshots and can be used in any variety of ways. Kick a dude off a ledge to get the Vertigo takedown, or Leash an enemy into a cactus or set of electrical wires. That’s really about as basic as it gets, though; after learning this easy stuff, it’s time to get all sorts of fancy. It takes more effort, but it’s worth your time.
In fact – and this is the primary caveat for the entire review – if you don’t opt to experiment and try your hands at different Skillshots, Bulletstorm downgrades into a very “meh” shooter. The good news is that I can’t really imagine why anyone would approach this like any other FPS, when it quite clearly is not designed to be like the competition. Besides, the points you earn for executing Skillshots (and learning new ones) are like cash; they’re redeemable for ammo clips and upgrades. Therefore, if you don’t choose to participate in the Skillshot program, you really won’t get very far in terms of bad-ass weaponry, and you’ll quickly lose interest. The vast majority of this game’s entertainment is centered on that “kill with skill” theme and the sooner you embrace that concept, the more fun you will have. Crushing your foes in new and elaborate ways is just endless entertainment.
You can always access the Skillshot database by pressing Select, where you’ll find lists of General and weapon-specific Skillshots. I was able to do all the Skillshots for the Carbine within the first couple of hours but those are pretty basic compared to some of the more complicated ones. Many require several steps – shoot an enemy in the balls, then shoot his head off – and others require the use of environmental objects. Killing a foe with a newsbot is one, and nailing him with an explosive hot dog cart is another. Then there are a bunch of secret Skillshots that you won’t even know exist until you do them (or until you look them up online). There aren’t a ton of weapons but I’m giving that lacking a free pass this time, just because each one is freakin’ awesome in its own way, and you’re always striving for more unique Skillshots. My favorite is the sniper rifle; it reminds me of the Seeker in Singularity… God, I love that slo-mo...
It’s loads of fun but there are a few problems. First off, I did get stuck on random pieces of the environment a few times (one time resulted in death). There’s something a teensy bit wonky with the collision detection for some reason. Secondly, ally AI is mediocre at best; they’ll kill a few enemies, especially those who rush forward with knives, but for the most part, your partner isn’t extremely helpful. However, I must once again consider a free pass, because I thought about this last night- if my buddy was killing foes left and right, I’d have less opportunity for Skillshot attempts. And that’s important. So is it a flaw…? Well, let’s just say “yes” and “no.” Thirdly, the game can get a little repetitive and tiresome; most notably when you get in a Skillshot rut and forget that you should be trying new weapons and new techniques. Or maybe you’ve decided the more difficult Skillshots are out of your reach and you just wanna blast through, and then you realize things are pretty bland without that singular mechanic.
Lastly, the story: look, this a game that doesn’t need much of a plot and it’s so ridiculously over the top, I believe we should’ve had a story that is equally absurd. There are plenty of humorous moments but they do try to strap a coherent drama onto this wickedly fast-paced, chaotic beast. It doesn’t really work, despite some valiant attempts by the voice actors. The best parts are the comedic aspects, like after you’re done controlling a half-robotic T-Rex with a remote control (you take out half a town doing that), Gray mockingly sobs, “I had named him Tailwagger P. Tallylicker, and now he’s gone…” Or something like that. The point is, the game excels when everything gels; when the ridiculous silliness of the gameplay fits in with the rash man’s man that is your main character. When they try to get dramatic and serious, it’s just jarring. It’s not bad; I just don’t think it fits.
But the bottom line is that Bulletstorm is likely a little better than the sum of its parts. The online multiplayer can be crazy fun and retribution has never been so satisfying. It’s not technically perfect but then again, nothing about this game is “technically perfect.” It looks good, though, and certain parts look great. The epic, fall-out-of-your-chair moments are numerous and much appreciated, the “kill with skill” idea works exceedingly well and always forces you to be creative and imaginative, and the effects, atmosphere and style are all engrossing. If this one grabs you, it’ll be tough to stop playing. I can almost guarantee that. The control is almost superb and the leash, kick, slo-mo, and most all other elements of the gameplay are very well implemented. It’s just a blast to play, despite the aforementioned drawbacks, which can indeed have a significantly negative impact on the overall experience.
Maybe the best thing to do is say, “if you liked the demo, you’ll love the game.” Oh, and if you want to let off some steam, this is probably a very therapeutic title.
The Good: Quality sound and decent voice acting. Some truly amazing visual/atmospheric highlights. Great control. “Kill with skill” never seems to get old (provided you stick with it). Cool weapons. Style and attitude kicks ass.
The Bad: Some slight – and weird – collision detection issues. Soundtrack doesn’t quite deliver. Beneath the Skillshots lies a standard shooter. Dramatic story wasn’t needed.
The Ugly: Really can’t be played around the easily offended.
2/24/2011 Ben Dutka