Sunday, May 11, 2014

Bulletstorm: Pure, Simple Fun

Once upon a time, a Polish developer by the name of People Can Fly created a game called Painkiller. During a time when first-person shooters were shifting more towards gritty realism, People Can Fly decided to make a shooter that harkened back to the good old days of fast-paced, cathartic action shooters, wherein the only goal was to kill everything in sight. Featuring a wealth of exotic locales, varied enemy types, and unique multi-function weaponry, Painkiller was a breath of fresh air in a genre that had seen most of its creativity stripped out in favor of copying the growing trend of military shooters, and it was awesome.

In 2011, People Can Fly came to the rescue once again with Bulletstorm, this time working in conjunction with Epic Games. Like Painkiller, Bulletstorm has no pretense about being anything more serious than a fun, chaotic romp. Eschewing the popular modern cover system, Bulletstorm is all about getting you directly into the heat of combat. In this game, your goal is not only to survive and make it to the end of each level; it's to do it in the most stylish way possible. In this game, you're rewarded with skill points for finding creative ways to kill your enemies using the game's elaborate "skillshot" system.

The skillshot system alone is enough to set Bulletstorm apart from the crowd, but it has a few other tricks up its sleeve that lend it a unique personality. The environments are simply outstanding, the weapons have cool, original functions, the levels feature their own specific gameplay mechanisms, and the humor is, well, also rather unique. I'm not sure that Bulletstorm has enough lasting impact or sheer, rounded quality to survive the test of time -- it has a few significant flaws that bother me -- but it's pure, simple fun, and definitely worth playing if you're tired of mainstream shooters and want to try something a bit different.

In Bulletstorm, you play as Grayson Hunt, leader of a band of space-mercenaries known as "Dead Echo." Under the steady employment of General Sarrano, Dead Echo serves as a black ops group assassinating criminals, traitors, and terrorists, until they discover they've been used to murder innocent civilians who threatened to expose General Sarrano's tyranny. Grayson rebels against Sarrano, becoming a space pirate for a number of years before launching a surprise attack on Sarrano's flagship in orbit around the resort planet Stygia. Both ships crash land on the planet's surface, thus beginning the game in proper as Grayson attempts to catch up to Sarrano while finding a way off the planet.

Some members of Dead Echo, after discovering they've been used by Sarrano.

There's a lot more to the story than just that. There's a split-personality cyborg who accompanies you throughout the game and serves as an internal conflict and point of self-reflection for Grayson, a female soldier of Sarrano's ranks who discovers her father was one of the men killed by Grayson's unit thus providing yet another conflict of interest, and a ticking "DNA bomb" set to eradicate all life on the planet forcing Grayson and Sarrano to work together at least long enough to secure a way off-world. But none of that really matters, because this is a game about scoring 100 points for "shooting an enemy in the balls, and then shooting or kicking his head off."

The story feels at odds with the gameplay, which is meant to be an absurd, nonsensical "stylish shooter" that rewards you for "killing an enemy by shooting him in the ass," and yet the story is a somewhat serious melodrama. The two opposite tones just don't mesh very well; since the game's main selling point and central feature is the points-based shooting combo system, the story feels like it just gets in the way and interrupts the fun.

The first hour of the game consists entirely of cutscenes and scripted, limited-control gameplay sequences meant to introduce the story. It's incredibly slow and boring, especially since you don't start getting into the skillshot system until about an hour in, but what's worse is that it seems like it's trying to cram an entire game's worth of backstory into the introduction. There's no buildup or resolve for anything that happens -- everything moves so quickly that it feels like a hodgepodge of random, arbitrary events that gloss over anything worthwhile in the plot. This trend continues later in the game when major twists are revealed, like when characters are frivolously "killed off" only to be brought back in the least climactic way possible because their death scene was so undeveloped in the first place.

Trishka pointing to General Sarrano's escape pod. 

The most important thing with any shooter, though, is that the controls feel tight and the weapons feel satisfying to fire; players spend most of their time in FPSs moving and shooting, after all, so if those two facets are uncomfortable or unsatisfying then it doesn't really matter how good the rest of the game is. Fortunately, the weapons in Bulletstorm feel like hefty, powerful weapons thanks to the deeply resounding sound effects, the recoil animations, and the knockback that enemies suffer when hit -- it feels immensely satisfying slicing an enemy in half with a close range shotgun blast or launching a cluster of enemies into the air with an explosion.

Movement, on the other hand, is more of a mixed issue. On the one hand, sprinting and sliding give you some fun ways to close the gap between you and your enemies while setting yourself up for some unique skillshots, but the complete and total lack of a "jump button" really takes away from your freedom of movement. I found myself instinctively pressing the spacebar in the middle of tense firefights attempting to jump and thus dodge a few bullets, because that's exactly how I feel this type of old-school action shooter is meant to be played. Instead, your only evasive maneuver is to slide away from an enemy, which usually means you're facing away from them and can't shoot them simultaneously.

The only times you're able to jump are in pre-scripted hotspots that basically just trigger a quick cutscene. Jumping therefore feels more like a quick-time event, of which there are quite a few in this game. At random times a prompt will appear on screen telling you to press a button to focus your vision on something in the environment, basically rewarding the player with skill points while ensuring they're not looking the wrong direction when something important happens. Any time you climb along a suspended ledge you're clicking buttons in sequence to advance. Various cutscenes throw prompts on the screen to get you to perform some action, and the entire final boss fight is one big quick-time event.

The environments could sell the game all on their own. 

The environments are varied and absolutely beautiful, which is a huge compliment for a first-person shooter, but there's not a lot of incentive to explore them. Levels are totally linear, and the inability to jump or fall off of ledges (invisible walls prevent you from ever stepping out of the game's boundaries) makes you feel totally railroaded. On the few occasions when you're able to explore a small side path, you typically only find a crate of ammunition or collectible item that grants you a few extra skill points and progress towards an achievement. These rewards are pretty much worthless, though, since skill points are abundantly rewarded if you play smart and resupply stations are dropped so frequently that you'll never be out of ammunition.

Except for the weak, eye-rolling story presentation, none of these are glaring issues for a first-person shooter -- it's just a little disappointing that they didn't do something a little more with some of their great assets. Bulletstorm is fairly typical in that regard -- serviceable, with flashes of brilliance, but ultimately nothing all that remarkable. Where Bulletstorm distinguishes itself, though, is in the inventiveness of its skillshot system and the variety of content you experience from beginning to end. 

In Bulletstorm, 135 different ways exist to kill enemies, such as "kill an enemy with a cannonball that traveled over 100 meters without bouncing," or "kill an enemy from 10 meters without using the scope," or "get an enemy airborne, then shotgun blast him into an environmental hazard," or "slice an enemy in half while wrapping the flail around an object," or "shoot a running enemy in the legs to trip him, then finish him off on the ground," or "kill an enemy by flinging them into the fire of another enemy," or "kill a Miniboss by firing a charged drill into his stomach, then kicking it." Seventy of these are specific to your weapons, while others are environmental kills specific to certain levels. 

Using the screamer to burn enemies alive. 

There are seven different weapons in the game: the peacemaker carbine is your basic assault rifle, which can fire charged shots that instantly melt a target down to its skeleton; the screamer is a flare revolver that can launch enemies straight up into the sky before exploding into flames; the flailgun shoots two grenades tethered by a chain, which you can wrap around targets or attach to things in the environment; the boneduster is a four-barrel shotgun that can send out a devastating shockwave; the head hunter is a sniper rifle that lets you control the bullet in mid-air and, after hitting an enemy, move them next to other enemies before exploding the bullet; the bouncer shoots explosive cannonballs that you can set to explode as they bounce around the level; and the penetrator shoots drills that impale enemies and bolt them to walls. 

In addition to those seven weapons, you also have an electro-whip that you can use to pull enemies towards you, and a melee kick attack that you can use to knock enemies back. When using both of these maneuvers, the game goes into slow motion so you can precisely aim a follow-up attack. Each weapon has its own secondary fire, which behaves completely differently than the primary fire, and each weapon comes with its own 10 unique skillshots to perform. The weapons unlock progressively over the course of the campaign, and then you progressively unlock their secondary functions, so there's always something new to play with. Finding your favorite combination of weapons is fun in and of itself, but it's even more fun hunting down the various skillshots and trying to complete them all.

The skillshot system is fun because it encourages you to play the game in different ways. I, for instance, have gotten so used to tactical shooters that require you to fire in short, controlled bursts; in Bulletstorm, I had to break myself of that habit so I could get bonus points for holding down the trigger in a sustained-fire killing spree. If you're anything like me, then the completionist in you will compel you to at least try to do everything possible in the game, so you'll be constantly swapping weapons and trying for new skillshots, just to see if you can pull them off. I also feel a sort of primal satisfaction for seeing numbers splash on the screen based on my accomplishments, so that alone makes you feel intrinsically good for pulling off an awesome skillshot that racks up beaucoup points. 

I love seeing numbers splash all over the screen.

The other incentive for pulling off skillshots is that the points you earn are spent directly upgrading your weapons -- in some cases buying entirely new weapons. With each weapon you can pay to unlock its charge shot, upgrade its ammo capacity, and refill your ammunition. While the skillshot system can encourage you to find creative new ways to kill enemies, thus encouraging you to play the game in different ways, its downfall is that it can also encourage you to repeat the same skillshots over and over again once you find the most practical, efficient skillshots. If you're in a level with exposed electrical grids and you have a stream of baddies coming at you, the temptation will exist to just stand there and kick each one into the grid for an easy 100 points, rather than trying to set up a more elaborate skill shot that may not score any higher. 

Skill points also become abundantly available to you, at least in normal mode, if you play the game with any semblance of intelligence, which can detract from your motivation to play the game well since upgrades can be so easily earned with only minimal effort. After a few hours, it felt necessary for me to bump the difficulty up to feel any sort of challenge, so for experienced gamers out there I'd recommend you start on at least hard mode. Alternatively, it would've been nice for there to be more possible upgrade paths to choose from, like upgrading your weapon's rate of fire or reload speed, or enhancing your slide ability somehow, or increasing your defenses. About two-thirds of the way through the game, I just ran out of things to spend my skillpoints on, and so the dropkits became largely useless, glorified ammo crates. 

Each level has something unique to offer to the experience. The game starts out on the planet's rocky cliffs and then takes you into the resort areas, then into a family vacation park while Disco Inferno plays in the background, then underground into sewers and into a mining facility, among many other locations. The amount of scenic variety is enough to keep things fresh throughout the entire game, but the levels introduce new gameplay mechanisms as well, such as one level that plays like a rail shooter, or another that lets you remotely control a giant mechanical monster. 

What an awesome boss. Shame it's just eye candy.

Occasionally, you even get to fight giant bosses, though I found these encounters a little underwhelming. I was ecstatic when a gargantuan skyscraper-sized monster crawled out of the ground and roared at me, because it felt like the Painkiller bosses all over again and you don't usually get to fight enemies that big in video games. I was completely disappointed when the game seized all control from me to show the characters' dramatic escape in a cutscene, and then the actual boss fight happened with me gunning a turret on a helicopter. Likewise, the final boss is one big quick-time event, and most of the stronger mini-bosses are disposed either with relative ease, or like any other enemy -- just with bloated health values. There was only one boss that felt like an actual boss. 

I feel like I've been fairly critical about Bulletstorm throughout all of these paragraphs, but the truth is I had a ton of fun actually playing the game. It's only when I sit down and reflect on the game retrospectively that I realize some of its shortcomings and where it failed to do something more interesting with its own ideas. As a raw shooter, it gets the necessary basics correct, throws in a fun, original game mechanic in its skillshots system, and packages it together with awesome levels and interesting weapons. That's about all you can really ask for in a first-person shooter of this style. I wouldn't rank it among the "best" FPSs I've ever played, but Bulletstorm is the most pure fun I've had playing a FPS in many years.

If you have any intention of ever playing the PC version, I'd recommend doing so before July; with Games For Windows set to shut down in July, a number of games using its DRM will most likely become unplayable. It doesn't sound like Epic has any intention of updating the DRM for Bulletstorm, especially considering it was pulled from Steam a little more than a month ago. It's still being sold on Origin for $20, and physical copies are dirt cheap these days. Otherwise, I think the console versions should survive longer down the road. 

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