Bulletstorm did a ton of advance work securing its reputation as this year's fratboy game, full of snickering, dick jokes and arm punches. It's unapologetically lowbrow, but that doesn't mean it's stupid. Hell, some of the smartest guys I know were in my fraternity.
Don't look to Bulletstorm's protagonist, Grayson Hunt, for enlightenment. He's a templatised space pirate, a foul-mouthed drunk with a heart of gold. His lack of impulse control isn't what sets up every calamity in the story as much as it is his friends' enablement. Bulletstorm's mad genius is instead in the game structure, and you'll see it when you run out of ammo and exclaim, to quote Hunt, "Son of a dick!"
Why You Should Care
Bulletstorm is a less-than-serious shooter without being deliberately campy, built around over-the-top action called "skillshots" that are abetted by a time-displacing energy leash and a big-ass boot to the face. It's a food fight with guns and explosives that anyone can enjoy.
What We Liked
A Thinking Man's Shooter: For all of its bravado, not only will you get very little out of Bulletstorm sitting on the trigger with an eat-lead mentality, I doubt you could complete the game, even at normal difficulty. Bulletstorm doesn't get enough credit for requiring you to think about your foes' traits, and the environment and how to most efficiently brutalise them. It's not an option. This requirement is enforced by making you buy your ammo (enemies drop some; it's never enough). A basic kill is worth so little XP that clearing out a room conventionally leaves you with barely enough funds to buy ammo for the next battle. XP "prices" for ammo and upgrades scale with difficulty, so the harder settings demand that you optimise every kill. Subtle though it is, this is where Bulletstorm's design breaks the hardest from the conventional shooter mode.
Weapons Balance: It's also, counterintuitively, a plus that your standard weapon, the assault rifle, is actually rather weak. You're better off upgrading to and the delightfully constructed alternate weapons ASAP. You can only equip two of these, and resupply stations may not be in reach if your tried-and-true loadout is insufficient for the next battle. So vary your arms. Don't forget that the leash is a serious weapon of its own; its inclusion and downright necessity means Bulletstorm integrates melee to a much more enjoyable degree than any other shooter.
The Scenery: The set design is a pure winner. Bulletstorm is set on Stygia, a lush resort world gone to hell. From sweeping vistas atop a dam or cliff to the cramped subterranean interiors, or the decay of the pleasure city, Elysium, the visuals are very well done and eminently integrated with the storytelling. The manner in which things have been destroyed makes sense, and imparts the anything-goes feeling of being in a deserted city after a major disaster.
The Script: Bulletstorm is the largely conventional story of pirates marooned among hostile natives, this time in space. It's gotten a lot of press for its foul language, but that overshadows the memorable buddy-flick repartee between the main characters, brightening up what could otherwise be some laborious firefights or dull transitions. Gen. Sarrano, a kind of R. Lee Ermey from space, has by far the most colorfully abusive vocabulary, though his provocations of Hunt's guilty conscience fall flat and are well overdone by game's end. Still, Rick Remender delivered a script that sounds like it was fun to write and fun to act. It's definitely fun to hear.
What We Didn't Like
Teammate AI: Ladies, pardon my french, but I think this next sentence fits the game's character: If these pissmaggot fucksticks are the most highly trained soldiers in the space army then we're talking about a galaxy full of shitbirds that could be conquered in a day by goddamn Melmac. This is seriously bad teammate AI. Bulletstorm applies an aggressive, unpredictable flanking behaviour to your foes; that's good. Your ding-a-ling teammates respond by constantly switching positions and obstructing your shots. I can take ineffective support so long as they get out of the way. But to have Ishi Sato repeatedly intercepting my flailgun charges, blocking my powerslides, or stepping in the way just when I'm about to blast an explosive hazard, is a real fun-killer.
The Plot: The dialogue was a plus; once the plot finishes explaining the story of Stygia and what happened here, everything lurches into full cliché mode. If Bulletstorm's campy violence and potty-mouthed attitude could have winked a little more at how typical the plot twists and resolutions were, I'd be more forgiving, but this is when the game takes itself most seriously. I still can't understand why, given the setting of an entire galaxy, every science fiction writer makes all the character relationships as incestuous as Kentucky. It's worse when that's the big reveal.
Too Many Set Pieces: Last year, producer Tanya Jessen said that a lot of shooters suffer from a kind of dread - "Oh no, bad guys, how am I going to get past them." Bulletstorm sought to change that to "Alright! Bad guys! How am I going to get past them?" In the firefights, the game does deliver on that. On the other hand, what I felt was "Oh no, set pieces, how am I going to get past them." The instructions can be tough to pick up among the audiovisual noise, and the lack of a minimap doesn't help on the timed runs to safety, either. Bulletstorm packs in a ton of here-do-this-now events that makes a game that's tolerably linear in its combat sequences feel very rigid in between.
I didn't yet mention the multiplayer or the "Echoes" replay mode, which I neither liked nor didn't like, I just sort of experienced. Multiplayer is four-man cooperative-only over six maps, in a kind of horde mode that sends waves of baddies and only passes you to the next level if you pass a points threshold dependent on creative kills. Despite the maps' small size I always seemed to be too far from the enemy spawns.
A more preferable replay mode is the Echoes, timed solo runs through the campaign chapters (without cutscenes and dialogue). Your skill points combine with the time on the level to give you a star rating, which goes to a leaderboard. If you want action without chitchat, the Echoes are a nice pick-up-and-play snack without forcing you to repeat all the interstitial stuff in a campaign mission.
The Bottom Line
Bulletstorm's got a bit of a dumb-blonde act going; it bats its eyelashes with gory kills, plot clichés and more quotable profanity than Full Metal Jacket. But underneath is a much smarter shooter than its marketing is giving it credit for, thanks to an economic system in which ammo is the prized commodity. It's a game I didn't really start to appreciate until I got into the second playthrough, and maybe you won't either. But Bulletstorm's still a game that's worth the second go-around.
Bulletstorm was developed by Epic Games and People Can Fly and published by Electronic Arts for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows PC, released on February 22, 2011. Retails for $109.95 ($89.95 PC). A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Completed the main campaign mode, played online multiplayer and Echoes replay modes on the Xbox 360. Killed their dicks and came out smelling like sun-dried asshole.