I loved Bulletstorm. You think it’s strange seeing those words on my website? It feels even stranger to write them. It’s the most coherent shooter I’ve played since Spec Ops: The Line. I’m sure that also sounds strange. Spec Ops was a blistering condemnation of mindless violence and Bulletstorm is a gleeful celebration of it. Spec Ops was a dark, disturbing look at quasi-real-world warfare and Bulletstorm is a funhouse ride where you murder screaming space mutants.
In both cases we have games that know exactly what they’re doing and what they’re about, without the strange gameplay / cutscene dissonance that so many shooters suffer from. They nail the tone early on, and and use the conventions of the shooter genre to support their message rather than seeing them as an unwelcome obligation that the game designer has to meet between story beats. In both games you’re treated to absolutely gorgeous visuals that demonstrate that you can make a world “gritty” without making it dull, repetitive, and beige.
Also, both games have you playing a crazyman who is chasing a general who is responsible for mass destruction. That’s not supposed to be a profound parallel or anything. I just thought it was interesting.
In Bulletstorm you play Grayson Hunt, a space marine, bounty hunter, pirate, alcoholic, and complete asshole. Years ago he ran a squad of mercenary assassins who did exactly what it says on the tin. Then they discovered that the supposed “dangerous people” they were assassinating were actually innocents. They’d been killing honest citizens who were a political threat to their employer, General Sarrano. Grayson didn’t take this revelation well, and developed a Moby Dick type relationship with Sarrano. At the start of the game the two end up in a fiery space battle that leaves them stranded on a crazy post-apocalyptic hellhole of a planet. So while they’re trying to kill each each other they’re also caught between rival gangs of murderous cannibals, mutants, and ravenous indigenous wildlife.
All of this is the setup for the player to murder their way across some deliciously corrupted landscape. The game gives you points for killing foes creatively. Boot them into acid. Knock them off ledges. Toss them into spikes. Hurl them into spinning rotors. Shoot them in the head. Shoot them in the ass. Shoot them in the balls. Shoot off their limbs. Crush them with machinery. Feed them to the wildlife. Blow them into space. Confuse them into killing each other. Blow them into the air so you can shoot off their limbs and kick their still-screaming body onto burning spikes.
This is not a game about making friends.
The more creative and varied your killing is, the more points you get. It’s like a version of Tony Hawk, but with mass murder instead of skateboarding. You use the points to buy weapon upgrades and you use the weapon upgrades to dispatch your foes in new and diabolical ways. Bulletstorm is the first game since Borderlands to remember that shooting is supposed to be gameplay, not a time-sink between story beats.
But before you go running off to check out this now-bargain gem, you might want to read the fine print: Games For Windows Live. It’s on Steam, but the achievements, DLC, and multiplayer are done through GFWL. To rub salt in the wound, the PC interface is a comedy of stupid decisions and annoyances.
|The planet was originally designed to be a resort, but now it’s this hellhole. The irony is that if you really went to a resort then the game would be boring, but because the resort is no longer fun, the game is. Deep? No. But the game doesn’t pretend this is anything profound.|
Oh, you want to skip these splash screens? Well smack that escape key all you like, but you’re still going to watch these commercials for third-party technology companies that you don’t care about. Oops. Did you hit escape one too many times, like when the game FINALLY gets to the main menu? Well now the game is going to exit. So you can watch all that crap AGAIN. Actually, it’s going to crash as it exits. Nobody knows why. It just does that. Okay, you’re at the title screen again? Now press ENTER to begin. But then when you get to the next screen you use SPACE to make things happen. Now you’ve left the title screen. ESC no longer exits the game. Neither does Alt-F4, because this game was programmed entirely on a dual-shock controller and the coders have never seen a keyboard before in their lives.
Assuming you can actually placate GFWL enough that it’ll let you play: In-game, you use SPACE to sprint, but also SPACE to interact with stuff. Sometimes you use R instead. Or E. It depends. SPACE is also slide. There is no jump button, because what if players jumped outside of the Designated Jumping Zones? They might engage in Unauthorized Fun. It would be chaos.
On top of this are a scattering of lame bugs that can block progress. I got one that caused my NPC buddy to get stuck in the air so he couldn’t open the next blockade so the story could continue. This bug has been around since 2011, on all platforms. Nobody ever bothered to fix it. Why would a publisher spend tens of millions of dollars making a game but not dedicate a trivial amount of money to fix well-documented and reproducible bugs once they have your money never mind I just answered my own question.
Of course, if you get a console version you won’t have these problems. Then again, the console version probably costs twice as much, and won’t run on next-gen machines. I don’t know how to advise you here. People are making fun games. We have money. It should be a simple process to get the money to the developers and the games to the players and everyone will be happy. But somehow a group of very inventive clowns keep getting in the way, devouring the money and making the games less fun. It’s like they’re not happy until everyone else isn’t happy.
Aside from these thumbtacks-in-your-candybar type annoyances, Bulletstorm is a treat. It’s fun to play, a delight to look at, and it has some honest-to-goodness character beats hidden under the crass frosting of ridiculous macho shouting and near-constant dick jokes.
This is not BioShock Infinite, where you murder hundreds of police officers with a grisly sky hook but it’s okay because they’re probably racists mostly and that robs them of their humanity and makes their families not love them and the only way your character can deal with the atrocities in his past is to perpetrate tons of new atrocities and by the way time travel religion alternate worlds and ghosts and science and SYMBOLISM!
Sigh. I don’t mean that BioShock Infinite is a horrible game. It’s just that the game isn’t nearly as smart or as clever as it pretends to be, and for all the heavy-handed symbolism the game throws at us it has very little to say about any of it.
In contrast, Bulletstorm is unpretentious. Bulletstorm isn’t confused about its message, or throwing controversial topics at the screen like blood decals and calling it a message. Do you want to shoot some dudes? Here is an endless stream of psychotic cannibal murder mutants. Knock yourself out. Do you want a bit of character development? All of the good guys get some kind of arc here. They’re not big or fancy, but the journey changes them and how they relate to each other. All without breaking the flow of the game.
Making the main character an irresponsible dumbass was a brilliant move. I always resent it in games when I’m obliged to do something obviously stupid for the purposes of the plot. But in Bulletstorm Grayson is perfectly suited to the job of videogame protagonist. Yes, using EXPLOSIVES to clear this debris when we’re trying to avoid attention is obviously foolhardy. As a player, I do want to set off the explosives because explosions are fun and I know I’ll get to shoot more dudes. I just don’t want to game to pretend it outsmarted me when I take the only path available to me. Making Grayson a jerk clears this up by letting his idiocy take the blame. Instead of the writer constantly inventing new excuses for why everything has to break just as the player arrives, that conceit is built right into the main character.
Sadly, the ending is a set-up for a sequel that, going by sales numbers, nobody is interested in making. Still, it has a charm and honesty about itself that I really admire.
A video Let's Play series I collaborated on from 2009 to 2017.
The Best of 2014
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2014.
This Game is Too Videogame-y
What's wrong with a game being "too videogameish"?
The Best of 2015
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2015.
The story of me. If you're looking for a picture of what it was like growing up in the seventies, then this is for you.