There’s a cycle that can be found in every form of art and entertainment. It goes like this: something—a style, a genre—starts simply; then, gradually, it becomes increasingly complex until, at the end of the cycle, it appeals to a narrower and narrower segment of consumers. Then what happens? The cycle starts over with a return to simplicity. Think about how three chord rock and roll supplanted the cerebral music that bebop jazz had become, or how punk rock kicked away the pretensions of artsy stadium shows.
I was thinking about this a lot as I blasted my way through Bulletstorm, Epic Games and People Can Fly’s attempt to return the first-person shooter to its mindless, profane, Duke Nukem-esque roots. Essentially, much the same way Croteam’s Serious Sam tried to clear the Half-Life-infused air in 2001 by offering up a frantic, silly splatterfest devoid of story, logic or realism.
With Bulletstorm, the situation is a little more nuanced, because the game wants to be a pure (though hardly mindless) shooter with a, surprisingly, coherent story. Its goal is to return the genre to something close to its roots while it also includes just about every action game trope imaginable: from jaw-dropping set pieces to frantic on-rails segments. Along the way, it borrows, steals, and references a shelf-full of shooters and action games. Most importantly, however, Bulletstorm is just a damn fun game.
Let's start with that.
Thanks to fluid controls, a perfectly-paced learning curve, effective and varied weapons, and the Skillshot system, which encourages and rewards creativity in dispatching enemies, there is never anything like a dull moment in the single-player campaign. Sure, it’s a totally linear path from start to finish, but, thanks to the energy leash and alternative fire modes on every weapon, each kill turns into a rapid-fire mini-puzzle with multiple solutions and the potential satisfaction of scoring extra points for innovation. Rewarding the successful player with weapon upgrades is nothing new, but the way the Skillshot system pushes the player outside of kill box thinking adds an interesting and welcomed layer of complexity to what could have been just another pretty-looking but forgettable shooter.
The story—you play Grayson Hunt, a hulking soldier on a mission of revenge and retribution—doesn’t tread any new narrative ground, but the presentation is outstanding. From your sidekicks to your enemy-turned-unwilling ally, the characters are interesting. Though nearly useless in battle, they definitely help propel the story forward. Moreover, in terms of visual presentation, the art design and environments range from familiar to genuinely stunning. I was amazed at the surprising variety of interior and exterior settings. For a game that is clearly focused on gunplay and creative mayhem, the loving attention to the visuals come as a bit of a shock. Throughout the game’s 6 chapters, I never knew what I would find around the bend. Creature and character design and animations are both excellent, and the frame rate—even during the many chaotic battles—remains generally hiccup-free. Bulletstorm is not a long game, but I’ll take an action-filled 6 or 7 hours over a longer game that pads its paucity of invention with tedious backtracking over familiar terrain.
Sound and voice work are outstanding, and even the cut scenes are worth watching (at least the first time around). Sure, the dialogue is very heavily laden with profanity and crass innuendo, and though it often sounds a bit juvenile, the humor scores a hit at least as often as it misses. Like everything about Bulletstorm, the language and violence are gleefully over-the-top. The musical score is typical action game fare, a symphonic frame now and then filled in with testosterone-fueled guitar riffs.
Gigantic boss monsters, turret sequences, timed escapes, extended escort missions—Bulletstorm is definitely a collection of amped-up action-shooter greatest hits, tweaked and tuned. Yet, in the end, it's still basically variations on a very familiar theme. A bit surprisingly, the multiplayer modes are limited to "Anarchy," a co-op survival mode, and "Echoes," a single-player competitive game in which the object is to use Skillshots and quick thinking to post the highest score possible. Sure, Echoes is super-addictive and a ton of fun, but given the outstanding weapons and environments, some sort of deathmatch seems like it should have been a no-brainer.
Bulletstorm’s frantic action and M-rated, blood-drenched gameplay harken back to earlier generations of shooters, but its richly detailed design, outstanding visuals and the innovative Skillshot system mean that the game easily transcends its “return to roots” vibe for an experience that’s easily one of this year’s best.
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