Jay Wilbur, co-founder of id Software, once famously said in a 1996 interview that “a great game with a bad story is still a great game.” Fifteen years later we have Bulletstorm, the ultimate epitome of Wilbur’s first-person shooter principles; a clear throwback to the Dooms, Quakes, and Unreals of the past.
Bulletstorm’s story is not terrible per se: It is simply filled with so many deliberate stereotypes and parodies, that you can’t help but wonder whether the developers, People Can Fly, were intentionally poking fun at today’s modern, grounded-in-reality FPSes: The game’s opening sequence and end-game boss fight are clear satires of Modern Warfare 2.
Yet, no matter how ludicrous or incredibly stupid the single player campaign is, it still manages to bring a smile to your face somehow.
As the protagonist Grayson Hunt, you find yourself stranded in an isolated planet that used to be a tourist attraction, but has since descended into anarchy due to its homicidal and mutated inhabitants. Haunted by his past, Hunt seeks to redeem himself on the new world by seeking a means of escape and regaining his honour.
In any other game, this trite tale of revenge and redemption would have been laughably forgettable, but Bulletstorm’s plot manages to stay entertaining because of its profane dialogue and bombastic characters. There is a lot of sexual inneundo, and the word “dick” is used repeatedly by everyone to comical effect. Who needs Duke Nukem when you have Hunt’s nemesis, General Sarrano, a Gary Busey sound-alike on steroids. Hunt’s cyborg companion, Ishi, is sadly underwritten, which is an unfortunate waste considering that Ishi is always fighting by your side for more than three-quarters of the campaign.
Then you have the notorious Skill Shots, the subject of a storm (no pun intended) of media controversy from Fox News. Unlike Soldier of Fortune II, Bulletstorm is very clearly removed from reality. Not once was I disgusted or disturbed by the plethora of killing methods available, explained in the game’s universe as an incentive to reward soldiers for the most creative kills.
Similar to BioShock 2, the combat in Bulletstorm is one gigantic sandbox, a self-made playground limited only by your creativity and the weapons at your disposal. The firefights are never tiresome: You are always constantly figuring out how to maximise your Skill Shot rewards, which can then be spent to purchase more ammo and upgrades. Hunt’s energy leash and melee kick attacks (a Duke Nukem mighty boot and Megaman-esque slide) is Bulletstorm’s answer to Valve’s gravity gun, allowing you to punt, pull, and slide your enemies into environmental hazards, or vice versa.
With a few rare exceptions, Hunt himself is mostly immune to these hazards. Levels are conveniently filled with many invisible barriers to prevent the player from going out-of-course or falling off ledges. It limits exploration and makes the campaign very linear, but its purpose is to funnel you from one battle to the next with little downtime, which is the whole point of Bulletstorm.
After completing single-player, I restarted the game on a higher difficulty level without a second thought. The campaign is worth replaying at least once just to try out all of the different weapons, Skill Shots, and upgrades.
It’s a shame that Bulletstorm’s multiplayer never reaches the same potential. Deathmatch is unavailable, which is perfectly understandable as it would have been impossible to balance the overpowered weapons for player-vs-player. Instead, a maximum of four players can take part in a team co-op survival mode called Anarchy, against increasingly harder waves of enemies. The waves for each map are virtually identical, spawning the same enemy types and the same bosses. There is no penalty for losing: If the entire team fails, the wave simply restarts, over and over until the win condition is met. It’s fun for the first couple of hours, but it’s no replacement for Killing Floor or Left 4 Dead as the online mode’s replay value quickly runs dry.
More glaring is the absence of a campaign co-op mode. Hunt is always accompanied by an AI companion in the single-player mode, Gears of War-style. Surely it would not have been unfeasible for People Can Fly to simply allow another player to take control of the computer player for online co-op play? Serious Sam showed us how its riotous campaign was infinitely more fun to play with friends, making this omission seem like a huge oversight and wasted opportunity given Bulletstorm’s strength.
In an age filled with Call of Duty, Battlefield, Medal of Honor, and Halo, Bulletstorm may seem like a step backward from the current trends of the modern first-person shooter. But much like Serious Sam and Painkiller before it, the game strives to remind us of our early FPS roots, showing us that every once in a while, it’s perfectly okay to become dumb once again.
About the PC port:
The PC version of Bulletstorm has been very poorly ported. The first major problem is the console-style game menus. The game designers simply forgot how to take advantage of mouse-based navigation. There are certain menu tabs and settings that require you to press “Space” or “Enter” on your keyboard to make a confirmation. It’s not as bad as the PC version of Borderlands, but still annoying.
The second, more egregious issue is that the game’s .ini files have been encrypted. Any PC gamer who has played an Unreal Engine 3 game like Bulletstorm knows that the modification of the .ini files is essential in order to tweak the game for maximum performance. People Can Fly’s official explanation? The encryption is to prevent players from hacking the game parameters to gain an unfair advantage in multiplayer games. But why lock out all the .ini files, especially the ones required to configure the game’s settings?
These two issues were enough for this reviewer to deduct one point from the review’s final score.
The Good: Profane, outrageous, and wildly entertaining single-player; Replayable campaign; Ludicrous weapons and Skill Shots.
The Bad: Poor multiplayer with no campaign co-op; PC version ported poorly.
The Bottom Line: The smartest, dumb FPS you will ever play. Bulletstorm is an over-the-top homage to the old FPS games of yesteryear.
The author played the PC retail version of Bulletstorm. He completed the single-player campaign twice (once on Normal and the second time on Very Hard), and played about 4-5 hours of multiplayer with a friend.
The game is out for PC, Xbox 360, and PS3. The PC version’s recommended retail price is SG$56.90.