Sci-fi first-person shooter Bulletstorm is a celebration of adolescent crassness. It is neither artful nor sophisticated, proudly wearing strings of obscenities as a badge of dishonor. Subtle it isn’t; entertaining, it is. Where the meatheaded characters and forced, childish dialogue fail, the gameplay mostly succeeds, pushing you through a variety of attractive environments and encouraging you to “kill with skill.” In Bulletstorm, you earn points by kicking your enemies into cacti, shooting them in the rear end, and flinging them into the air with your electric leash, among many other variations and combinations of bullets, boots, and exploding barrels. You spend these points on ammo, weapon upgrades, and more, giving you reason to perform these moves beyond the initial gratification they provide. Bulletstorm is sometimes ludicrous and often ludicrously fun–an enjoyable and occasionally embarrassing journey to the profane future it predicts.
The Confederation of Planets’ General Sarrano is a product of this future. This potty-mouthed, wholly abhorrent man is part of a secret army called Dead Echo–as was Grayson Hunt, a grunt who discovered that the targets that Sarrano ordered his team to execute were innocent of wrongdoing. Years later, a drunken Grayson, thirsty for revenge, leads his crew of mercenaries into a battle they’re ill-prepared to win. Grayson and Sarrano both crash-land on the planet Stygia, where Grayson’s quest for vengeance is coupled with his plan to escape. As Grayson, you are accompanied by Ishi, a colleague constantly fighting to control the robotic AI used to patch his brain after he’s injured during Grayson’s alcohol-fueled rampage.
Ishi is Bulletstorm’s best character: conflicted, temperamental, and unpredictable. Nevertheless, praising any of this game’s characters is somewhat of a backhanded compliment, given their shallow penchant for describing events, emotions, and each other using four-letter words combined in various nonsensical ways. A few of these bizarre outbreaks of sexual innuendo might be absurd enough to put a momentary grin on your face, but the cringe-worthy dialogue isn’t coupled with, say, Duke Nukem 3D’s hysterical hypersexual excess, Serious Sam’s vibrant surreality, or Vanquish’s tongue-in-cheek skewering of modern video game machismo. In fact, Bulletstorm’s finest narrative moments are those that leave the trashy talk behind and touch ever-so-briefly on Grayson’s guilty conscience, and his attempts to help Ishi conquer the AI infesting his mind. Unfortunately, the verbal sleaze gets tiring quickly and undermines any attempt at serious storytelling. Perhaps developer People Can Fly meant for this dialogue to be so over the top as to be side-splittingly funny. Instead, it comes across as a forced attempt to appeal to our basest instincts.
This sequence is easy, but great visuals and sound make it exciting nonetheless.
And so Bulletstorm lacks wit, but it has no shortage of entertaining, in-your-face action. The six-hour campaign is packed with fun shooting made even more enjoyable by the way you earn rewards for being awesome. Your awesomeness begins with the energy leash, which lets you grab foes from afar and yank them toward you. Doing so causes them to helplessly hover in the air for a few seconds as if the laws of time and gravity were temporarily suspended just for that particular enemy. This moment of stasis is your chance to kick screaming masked mercenaries into electric fields, fill their heads with lead, and drop exploding crates onto them. You can slide into them at great speed and knock them off cliffs, use airlocks to send them into the vacuum of space, and feed them to flesh-eating plants. These clever kills are called skillshots and are accompanied by a pop-up proudly proclaiming the name of your move and how many points you earned from it.
Skillshots have such names as “Rear Entry” (a kill involving shooting an enemy in the hindquarters) and “Mercy” (shooting an enemy in the groin and then killing him with a headshot). The immature innuendo thematically ties the gameplay to the narrative, but the fun doesn’t come from the titles of the skillshots; it comes from the discovery of new ones and the successful performance of ones you already know. Various environments give you different ways of exterminating Sarrano’s cronies, letting you use poisonous pods, swarms of killer flies, and electrified billboards to your advantage. It also gives you a number of excellent and enjoyable weapons to wield, which have specific skillshots attached to them as well. The assault rifle and shotgun are much as you would expect, but a few of these deadly instruments give you intriguing ways of dealing with your screaming foes. The most interesting of these is the flailgun, which fires two grenades linked together by a chain. The chain wraps around your target and immobilizes him, and then you detonate the grenades, annihilating your enemy–and possibly many other enemies in the blast radius. These weapons also have exciting secondary modes. For instance, with the revolver known as the screamer, you can fire a flare into enemies that launches them into the air before exploding and setting fire to nearby grunts.
That’s gotta hurt.
These elements come together in enjoyable and interesting ways, and when you are surrounded by enemies, the tempo is quick and satisfying. You can slide along the ground and into a foe, which recalls the rocket sliding mechanic in 2010′s Vanquish. While that game progressed at a breakneck pace that Bulletstorm never approaches, the similar mechanic here still produces moments of slick energy that culminate in spurts of blood and piercing shrieks. You can exercise crowd control with the leash’s Thumper upgrade by slamming your whip down and launching enemies into the air, where they hang for several moments while you fire at them with abandon. There’s a lot happening much of the time, with explosions filling the screen, mutants covered with bulbous growths charging at you, and lumbering minibosses demanding your attention. Even so, Bulletstorm makes you feel skillful, for two main reasons. Firstly, a smooth difficulty curve and frequent weapon upgrades allow you to keep up with your increasingly challenging enemies. Secondly, the skillshot notifications serve as a constant reminder of how talented you are. You even earn points for certain mundane actions, such as holding down a shoulder button to view a scripted event.