We’re not sure how Bulletstorm manages it, but there’s something about this Epic/People Can Fly co-production that’s brilliantly retro and excitingly fresh at the same time. For all its headline-grabbing Skillshots and ultra-violent spectacle, Bulletstorm has the feel of one of the great 90s PC FPS games; the sort of game that the makers of Duke Nukem, Quake, Blood and Unreal might have made if they’d had today’s technology to work with. In a world dominated by po-faced military shooters and grim sci-fi epics, there’s something wonderful about an FPS full of bright colours, needless carnage, swarming, rushing enemies and big, fat shotguns that go boom. In a way, Bulletstorm is what Daikatana would have been had it been anywhere near as cool as the legendary Jon Romero made it sound. As the credits roll, you half expect him to appear and reveal that, after all this time, he’s finally made us all his bitches.
Of course, the credit really goes to the good people at Epic and Painkiller developers People Can Fly. With Painkiller, PCF tried to make a latter-day Doom and almost, but for some sloppy design, succeeded. With Epic’s help, it’s now created something even better. You might not realise it by the end of the prologue - effectively a slightly clumsy, extended tutorial - but this is the best balls to the wall shooter to come along in years.
The secret isn’t in the story or the atmosphere. The plot is spectacularly generic while the characters are the sort of one-dimensional, quip-throwing meatheads that we’ve seen in shooters from Duke Nukem to Gears of War. You have a hero who’s a drunken ex-space marine, his buddy who’s unwittingly become a cyborg and one of those stereotypical tough chicks in a vest. They’re on a despoiled, once lovely planet dominated by feuding gangs and they all want to get off. Bar the odd twist or turn we won’t spoil here, that’s it. If you want originality or depth, you probably want a game with a different title.
Here, however, there’s a difference: the writers and the characters know how ridiculous it all is, and the impressively sweary script spares no opportunity to throw in a fabulous, filth-ridden punchline or gleefully dumb in-joke. Bulletstorm never takes itself seriously, and it encourages you not to either. It’s a shooter that knows that the fun in shooters is in shooting - oh, and maiming, slaughtering, spiking, decapitating and generally making things go bang.
The Skillshot is Bulletstorm’s smartest idea. Sure, you can kill off your foes just by shooting them in the noggin, but you’ll earn more credits for disposing of them in a range of even more grisly ways. Here the game throws in two vital tools - a leash which throws enemies up into the air before pulling them towards you, and a brutal kick that sends them flying, in gratifying slowmo, the other way. As a bonus, there’s a nifty slide move that gets you into the fray that little bit quicker, and lends you some element of surprise. These tools then mix with an inspired selection of weapons - all 90s FPS classics but made more interesting with alternate firing modes and burst attacks - and a collection of environmental hazards too numerous to mention.
Skillshot credits can be spent at special dropkits on ammo, burst attacks and weapon upgrades, plus new moves for the leash which pound your foes into the ground and send their compadres flying - again in slowmo - into the air. This results in what Epic likes to call “the circle of awesome”. The more nasties you kill in more spectacular ways the more ways you get of killing even more nasties in even more spectacular ways. This is a game, then, that knows that if leashing an enemy towards you then kicking him into a massive, spiky space cactus is fun, then kicking an exploding hot dog cart into a crowd of goons is even, erm, funner. It’s the kind of game where a Skillshot called “rear entry” is awarded for shooting a flying baddie exactly where you might expect. To say it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea is putting it mildly, but if you like the sort of sick and twisted cartoon gore that characterised the classic 90s shooter, then Bulletstorm brings it bang up to date.
Bang up to date means, of course, that the graphics are spectacular. At first Bulletstorm doesn’t seem to have the visual grandeur of some other Unreal 3 games such as Gears of War, but the alien scenery becomes more beautiful and detailed as time goes on, and the game ramps bigger, jawdropping moments with each passing hour. If we were mean we might say that the levels could do with a bit more variety, but there are still plenty of standout moments, including remote-controlled monsters, speeding trains and one of the best sniper battles we’ve ever seen. Where the likes of Call of Duty: Black Ops want to be action movies you can play, Bulletstorm aims at being the kind of big, dumb sci-fi action movie that nobody would ever have the guts or the budget to make (though we’d like to see Zack Snyder and Jason Statham try).
Bulletstorm inevitably works best as a single-player experience, but Epic and People Can Fly have found ways to get your friends involved. The first is the Echoes mode, which remould select, ultra-violent portions of the campaign as Skillshot-heavy, high-score challenges. You can compare your efforts against those of mates on your friends list and unlock new chapters by collecting stars for your performance. It’s what Bizarre’s unjustly forgotten The Club should have been, and more. Beyond that, we get Anarchy mode, which is effectively a variation on the Gears of War Horde or Halo: Reach Firefight mode with added Skillshots. Both are brilliant additions that will seriously extend the longevity of the game.
By now, you probably know if Bulletstorm is or is not your bag. If so, then it’s an easy, caveat-free recommendation - it’s just as much fun as it sounds. If not, you can easily find something more original and worthy to fill your time. This might not be the deepest or richest FPS this year, but if you like the odd burst of cathartic ultraviolence, you won’t find anything better on the market.