Welcome back to a regular series of retrospective articles on recent games of this generation that slipped under the radar, were given a commercial drubbing, or were ignored commercially by the gaming audience at large. These are games that deserve a second chance, that deserve the opportunity to be rediscovered and re-assessed. Next up: Bulletstorm.
The first person shooter is a genre so over-saturated and over-represented in gaming, for every ten games that stick narrowly to it’s rigid conventions, one tries something a little different. One of the most successful of these attempts (mechanically at least – commercially, the game bombed) was People Can Fly’s superficially idiotic, yet deceptively deep Bulletstorm.
In many ways Bulletstorm attempted to develop the FPS by going looking to the past and injecting the increasingly serious, realistic and moody genre with more arcade style sensibilities, proclaiming that the player “Kill with Skill”. At it’s most reductive, Bulletstorm is not so much a traditional FPS, but an arcade attack game wrapped in FPS mechanics.
The story, for what it’s worth, it hokum and nonsense of the highest order, so silly and ridiculous that it emerges with more dignity than most stories in games of this type. It is the 26th century, and the known human universe is run by a military organisation known as the Confederation of Planets. Playing the drunken and reckless Grayson Hunt, the player finds themselves aboard a small spaceship, seemingly in charge of a small, ragtag band of soldiers. It soon transpires, via dialogue between the group and a memorable flashback scene, that this small group were once an elite black ops team, who deserted due to conscientious objection. Former boss, and chief antagonist of the ensuing action, a general named Serrano, hunts Grayson’s band down, and the opening section sees Grayson and his posse invaded and beaten down. His solution? To kamikaze his ship into Serrano’s huge Battle cruiser. It is a perfect encapsulation of what follows; bold, reckless and over the top.
Of course, Grayson survives, along with his aggressively insubordinate partner Ishi, who ridiculously had to be cybernetically enhanced on the ship whilst in orbit, leaving him unpredictable and bitter. The two soon find themselves attacked by the local inhabitants, who have of course been transformed into mutants for no other reason than to provide a suitably generic array of fodder for Grayson to maim.
Yes, opponents are merely meat puppets, to be used to assist the player in achieving a sense of wanton gratification, but crucially in the best possible way. There is only a relatively limited range of weapons that allow you to achieve this, such as standard pistols and sniper rifles and each weapon has a secondary fire mode, from area of effect grenades to powerful one shots. Introduced via a standard tutorial aboard your crashing ship, you have the standard moves: aim, shoot, reload, jump, et al. Alongside this, you are able to interact with the environment with a kick, which at first seems rather innocuous and merely a way of interacting with the environment. But this initially rote move and weapon set is soon supplemented by a game changer once you awake on the planet below – the leash.
This allows the player to grab enemies from afar, pulling them towards them in slow-motion, and giving the player the chance to aim for head, limb or sensitive organ shots. Or of course, use the kick to launch them into the air and into surrounding objects. Up until this relatively early point, the shooting feels more than adequate, and is fast, fluid and above all, fun. The introduction of the leash changes this, and adds a dimension to the genre that hasn’t really been explored properly since. It adds a huge amount of options to play, especially when it
At various junctures throughout the levels, there are abandoned pods, which use of the leash on will enable you upgrade your weapons , purchase ammo and view your progress in the huge amount of kills you can achieve. This allows you to see what you could and should be doing, and with skillshots available such as Vertigo (send an enemy down a huge drop) and Rear Entry (kill an enemy by shooting him in the ass), Bulletstorm positively encouraged you to experiment and play with variety.
Points litter the screen as you bash enemies with your boot, hurl enemies into spikes, and shoot mutants in the balls. The variety of ways you can kill your opponents is one of the games highlights, and really showed a way forward for the genre. In allows a greater sense of both freedom and interactivity, something that the genre is distinctly lacking at this stage in the genre’s development.
One of the most arresting things about Bulletstorm is it’s use of colour. No-one who has played Gears of War: Judgement can deny the injection of colour People Can Fly brought to Epic’s world, preceded as it was by their involvement in the much more varied and vibrant style that permeated the concluding part of the trilogy. Environments are often drop dead stunning, with huge draw distances and a visual design that seems geared towards halting your attention away from the action. Levels are varied and add to the pace. Two stand outs include walking down an enormous skyscraper and a shootout in a neon lit model city.
The games light and vibrant tone is augmented by the writing. In a world of serious military shooters, the humour and the sheer dumbness of the plot keeps things moving along entertainingly. This is helped by the characters, who spout dumb dialogue at every opportunity. Prime example: Ishi, sensing the destruction of the building that he and Grayson find themselves in says “ I sense an imminent explosion.” Quick as a beat, Grayson replies with “And I sense an imminent getting the fuck outta here.” Shane Black would be proud.
Bulletstorm knows what it is, knows the limitations of the genre and dared to push against it. It is undoubtedly a Bruckheimer of a videogame, brash, glossy and loud. It is however, more Con Air than Pearl Harbour: tight, outlandish, full of great dialogue and worth experiencing again and again. If you have any interest in the genre, and haven’t tried it yet, you really ought to, to see a glimpse of where the future of first person shooters might have headed. It’s a shame the genre at large seems more enamoured with a more serious, po-faced style, and that the audience wants more of the same, but hey, if that’s what the people want…
So what do you want to see next time on Reloaded? I’m keeping it narrower this time, so vote on the subject of the next article, and choose from the following underappreciated gems:
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
Dead Rising 2
Max Payne 3
The game with the most votes gets the Reloaded treatment! Get involved and DM me on the site, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me via @craigieh28