BY BRENDEN SHEA: The first-person shooter has been a staple of the gamer diet since the early days of Doom and its Wolfenstein predecessors. Over the years, it has seen more than its fair share of excellent entries. From Quake, to Half-life, to Halo and beyond, shooters and their frenetic energy have kept people coming back for more. Now, shooters are more refined than ever before, but in recent years we’ve had some decidedly old-school bashers come along and revive the older style of games like Quake, not the least of which is the most recent Doom.
But there’s another game that had a similar style of frantic, knee-jerk shooter reaction, and that was Bulletstorm. Now, with the release of the Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition on PlayStation 4, it was time for me to go back and revisit this old, oft-forgotten classic. And boy, is it a classic.
For those who don’t know, Bulletstorm was a first-person shooter released on the PS3, Xbox 360, and PC in 2011 by People Can Fly and Epic Games. Featuring an all-star voice cast, superb gameplay, an edgy and crass gameworld, and great graphics for the time, Bulletstorm was an awesome piece of gaming art that unfortunately flew under the radar of many thanks to a horrible marketing campaign that gave the game virtually no public visibility. Thus, despite generally extremely positive reviews from gaming outlets, sales of the game were lackluster, any hope of a sequel was shelved, and the game faded into obscurity. And so here we are, almost 8 years later.
So, what makes this game so freaking good?
In its simplest sense, it’s the gameplay. Though Bulletstorm’s plot is certainly decent, the shining star here is the addictive gameplay. While the plot is strong, it’s unfortunately unlikely the characters will stick with you out of ALL the other possible characters you can think of in the known gaming-verse.
There’s no iconic Zelda or Samus Aran here. Or Cloud. Or Solid Snake.
That’s not a knock on the crew of Bulletstorm or to say they’re bad by any stretch; the performances of each character is great. The characters themselves just aren’t super memorable and fit fairly common tropes without bearing enough distinguishing uniqueness. They do however fit nicely within the plot devices of the game and serve their function well. Even with stellar performances from actors like Steve Blum, you aren’t going to remember Gray, his character, as the first character you think of when you imagine Steve Blum, and he has done a lot of characters over the years. I mean, a lot. I’ll touch a bit more on the plot later, but it is hardly a serious negative of any sort for the game and is more than adequate for making this game shine.
Anyway, back to the gameplay…
At its heart, Bulletstorm is more than anything else about killing enemies. By any means possible. And in as high a quantity and as bloodily as possible. So, to accomplish that, Bulletstorm features an arcade-like points system known as Skill Shots that rewards you for killing enemies in a variety of creative, and always gruesome, ways. There are literally dozens of these Skill Shots, with a unique set for each weapon type, of which there are several, allowing you to easily play through the game without having collected them all.
Performing these Skill Shots, in turn, rewards you with points, which you need to further supply ammunition and upgrades to your weapon (though ammo can also be found on the ground and enemies). You see where this can get extremely addictive, as you push harder and harder to get more creative with every enemy kill as you probe and explore for various new ways of performing Skill Shots. To make Skill Shots even more entertaining, the developers at People Can Fly were gracious enough to bless you with a delightful tool called The Grappler, a bionic device that attaches to your hand and you can whip out in front of you to hook enemies and pull them into you or, gleefully, into other objects or your line of fire.
When I say these Skill Shots are fun, boy are they insanely fun. First off, the gunplay alone, without the Skill Shots, is still excellently balanced and every firefight is fast-paced. Firefights happen back to back for the vast majority of the game, meaning there’s rarely downtime, which is exactly how a good shooter should be. But when you add in the Skill Shots on top of the gunplay, the fun factor just soars through the roof, as every single encounter with an enemy is suddenly a potentially unique experience.
Grab an enemy and suck them towards you only to kick them in the chest and launch them into a pile of electrical wires. Or take your grappler, hook them, and pull them towards you just in time to shoot them with your quad-barreled shotgun so hard that you literally blow their torso away and dismember them. That’s just two options.
One of my favorites was the guided sniper rifle, which allows you to pull off these amazing headshots but, even better, a headshot and neck-shot at the same time for a gruesomely satisfying end-result. The myriad of options is near endless, and I didn’t exhaust them even after playing well beyond the time required to complete the game, which itself is fairly short.
As for the enemies themselves, there’s a good variety, and they are pretty smart, taking cover, strafing strategically to flank you, and some of them even being capable of deflecting your grappler shots. Your teammates AI isn’t too bad either. Although they won’t necessarily be turning the tide in any of your battles, they don’t get in the way either and that’s a good thing. Boss battles are a highlight for the game, and honestly, other shooters should take some notes of battle designs of Bulletstorm’s boss encounters, as they remain challenging without being tedious, and blend seamlessly within the game while feeling highly organic. The mutant plant boss battle is the most notable example of this, it is probably one of the better and more enjoyable boss fights I’ve had in some time. Its executed well, isn’t a chore and provides just the right degree of challenge without being ridiculous or too easy. And the final battle at the end, while I won’t spoil it, is also a satisfying conclusion that provides just the right degree of challenge.
It’s not bad looking either, given its age.
Graphically the game is very much a product of the time, being 2011. Given its age, it holds up quite well, the one notable exception being sometimes the character’s facial expressions look a bit wooden and stiff during cutscenes, but that’s to be expected for its age. It runs on the Unreal Engine and its characters bear a striking hulkiness to the character designs of Gears of War, and the game world does have a bit of a Gears of War aesthetic to it if you took Gears, mixed it with a post-apocalyptic world a la Borderlands, and then dropped it all onto a tropical South Pacific island. It features a lush color palette, and the art direction is highly apocalyptic inspired, with all sorts of crazy mutants, cannibals, and nasty creatures coming to kill you. It makes for a fun mix, and some of the enemy designs are downright disturbing, like the cannibalistic Creeps who wear pieces of sewn human flesh on them like some nightmare from Texas Chainsaw.
The story is okay, too.
Storywise, the game tells the tale of Gray’s pursuit to avenge the deaths of his former team while saving the life of his last remaining member, Ishi. To do this, they have to traverse the danger-filled lands of an inhospitable planet they’ve crash landed on in order to catch up to their former boss and commander, the ruthless General Sarrano. Along the way there’s a few twists and turns but nothing too unexpected. Each character is well-developed and you get a real sense of who each of them are by the end of the game. I personally found Sarrano and Gray the most memorable, though both Trishka and Ishi are well-done as well. I wish there had been more time to get to know the rest of Gray’s crew. Though I understand it was necessary to the plot to continue without them, a part of me wishes they had not killed them off so early.
While the story is plenty good enough for the game, it is the one and only area where if I had to be picky I wish it was just slightly better. Though by no means necessary typically for a shooter to be successful, it could’ve taken the game from great to truly iconic, at least for me personally. And that’s already singing some high praises for it. Although each character is well-developed and the voice actors involved did a superb job bringing each of them to life, I couldn’t help but find them for the most part relatively forgettable.
My main issue with each character is they seem to fall too easily into common character stereotypes and as a result were unable to engage me emotionally. Their performances were great, but nothing was uniquely “them”. They didn’t tug at my heartstrings. I never felt invested in any of them. While many successful characters, of course, may feature clichés in their character makeup, there is usually some unique feature to them that allows them to transcend these limitations and make them more memorable. Here, while each performance was admirable, the character seemed to sort of get lost behind the performance, and thus I found myself if anything relating more to the voice actors themselves rather than the characters they were putting themselves into. This is why while I do think the characters are good I don’t think they are great. They fall victim sadly to their own clichés and thus become difficult to remember after some time has passed.
That said, these are minor, minor gripes about an otherwise near perfect game, and believe me, if you enjoy shooters, will love this game. I loved it and frankly its one of my favorite shooters of the last 10 years. It is such a gem and is rarely talked about, but it is definitely worth diving into. If you haven’t played it you owe it to yourself to check it out, and if you have played it, well, it is high time you get back in and do some shooting. We may never get a sequel, but with how good this game is, maybe we don’t even really need one.