Thursday, February 24, 2011

Review: Bulletstorm (Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC)

Bulletstorm is a new first-person shooter from Electronic Arts that combines the grittiness and testosterone-fuelled gameplay of Gears of War and the overly stylized world of Borderlands, however it brings some new ideas to the table to give both newcomers to the genre and seasoned veterans something to relish. Considering the current oversaturation of the genre, it’s easy to dismiss Bulletstorm as another cookie-cutter FPS, but the extreme violence coupled with the pre-release controversy ensures solid sales for this title. Looking past the hype, does Bulletstorm deliver? Read on to find out.

Assuming the role as main character is Grayson, a loose cannon mercenary who thirsts for revenge against his general, the vindictive and maniacal Serrano, after a previous mission in which he and his men were forced to commit unspeakable atrocities. The revenge mission is doomed from the start and Grayson soon finds himself marooned after crash landing on the planet Stygia, a hostile environment crawling with murderous natives who want nothing more to skin you alive. Serrano has also crash-landed and the quest for revenge continues proper. Accompanying you on your journey is your fellow merc Ishi, who was badly injured in the crash and is now a half-man, half-robot who reminds me of a cross between a potty-mouthed Spock and Harold from the “Harold and Kumar” movies. He is at odds with his own personality and the one that his robotic parts afford him, and some of the internal duality is rather hilarious. Grayson himself is the quintessential “meathead with a heart of gold”, loyal to his friends and haunted by past wrongdoings, but this can be lost amid his endless profanity, sexual innuendos and frequent drunkenness. Bulletstorm is over the top in every respect and the characters are presented accordingly.

Gameplay at first seems deceptively garden variety for an FPS, however you will quickly notice that the objectives in combat differ dramatically from other games in the genre. Most gamers tend to duck behind cover and wait for enemies to pop up, or spray bullets at everything that moves, neither of which is particularly effective in Bulletstorm. The objective of the game is to effectively and creatively kill enemies by utilizing “Skillshots”, specific attacks that provide you with Skillshot Points (SP), the game’s currency for obtaining weapons, upgrades and ammunition. Spraying bullets and killing enemies in a sloppy manner provides a paucity of SP, so you are expected to get creative in how you dispatch enemies in order to maximize how much SP you accrue. The Skillshots themselves are very fun to pull off and littered with dirty innuendos. For example, killing an enemy by shooting him in the buttocks gives you one called “Rear Entry”, killing someone with a hotdog cart gives you “Sausage Fest” and so on. Your weapons are the usual array of assault rifles, pistols and shotguns, but the biggest asset is your “Leash”, a bionic tether that is used to grab objects, enemies and manipulate the environment, similar to the bionic arm in the remake of Bionic Commando. Each weapon can be upgraded and given additional abilities, and each one has it’s own unique Skillshots tired into it. The SP you are given for pulling these off varies, but the bigger rewards come from combining Skillshots into combos, which are immensely satisfying when you finally pull them off.

The pacing of Bulletstorm requires you to constantly be on the move as there is no cover system to speak of. Ducking behind walls and barriers only affords you a small degree of breathing room, which can lead to some tense moments where you’re near death and frantically trying to find cover. Compounding the challenge is the fact that the enemy AI is extremely accurate and they will kill you very quickly if you are not employing skill during gunplay. As such, using all weapons, upgrades and environmental objects to your benefit is essential to survival, as ammo can only be purchased through the pods you find scattered through the game and ammo drops are infrequent. Perhaps sensing that the levels can get stale quickly, the game switches it up by employing on-rails shooting segments and various other set pieces that both add variety and another element of fun. My personal favourite is a section where you take control of a large, dinosaur-like creature and use it to blast enemies into oblivion. The pacing and variety in Bulletstorm makes it a cut above many other titles in the FPS genre.

Sci-fi action shooters are a different breed of FPS since they tend to weave intricate stories to tie the action together, unlike the Call of Duty games which are relatively light on story in favour of set piece battles with the story giving a light glue to hold everything together. Bulletstorm does a bit of both, giving us a character-driven story, albeit an absurd one, and numerous battles that range in setting and style, enough to give us variety but not too much as to feel like the game is scattershot in it’s design. The campaign is predictably short, clocking in at 6 to 8 hours depending on difficulty and the time spent exploring the environments. Another way that Bulletstorm bucks the FPS trend is with the exclusion of a competitive multiplayer section, which seems odd since a game like this screams for it. Instead, we are given a cooperative mode called “Anarchy”, in which you and up to three friends fend off waves of enemies utilizing your best Skillshots. It’s fun but unremarkable, so people expecting a grand multiplayer experience should perhaps look elsewhere. Another supplement to the campaign is Echoes Mode, which allows you to play through segments of the campaign, with points awarded for speediness and Skillshots utilized. These mini episodes of the game are surprisingly fun to play repeatedly and I can see this being the past of the game that has more replay value.

For all it’s strengths, Bulletstorm has a few relatively small weakness, some of which are subjective to the gamer. The dialogue, with all it’s crude humour and constant profanity, can get tiresome after a while and some of the one-liners are absolutely cringe-inducing. For some, this will be the main appeal of the game and I have to admit that some of the dialogue was laugh-out-loud funny, but I think this should always be tempered to avoid redundancy. Graphically, the game looks fantastic, however I did run into a few glitches that either involved my character getting stuck in the environment or the game not registered that I had completed an objective, resulting in my having to restart the game from a previous checkpoint. Depending on what you’re looking for, the lack of competitive multiplayer might also be a turn-off, but I rarely play online shooters due to my admittedly low skill level and the unfair advantages more seasoned players tend to have, so I don’t consider this a weakness personally.

In the end, Bulletstorm delivers exactly what it promises; a balls-to-the-wall shooter that revels in it’s ridiculousness and juvenile sense of humour. The over-the-top nature of this game might hit the wrong chord with some gamers, but it’s a pure joy for others who don’t take games or themselves too seriously. The addition of Skillshots adds a good depth of strategy to the firefights, and the cooperative multiplayer and Echoes missions will give you plenty of reasons to revisit this title after the credits roll. If you’re looking for a great shooter, or a stopgap between the next Gears of War or Call of Duty game, Bulletstorm might just be the game for you.

Rating: 9 out of 10

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