Bulletstorm was one of the best games of the last generation, tragically ignored because of an awful marketing campaign, an even worse PC port, and the fact that EA wanted audiences to spend $US60 for a seven-hour campaign, which is a steep price by any metric. It's too bad because once players got past all that, they found a clever score attack game based on "skillshots", or unique enemy kills. Even better, Bulletstorm featured great characters and storytelling, incredible gunplay, wonderful enemies, and an astounding world.
I could tell you that each level is my favourite one, and I'd be telling you the truth. Each one is totally different than what came before, with some all-time great encounters, super cool weapons, and great writing to back them up. But when I look at Bulletstorm, one particular encounter sticks out to me: Act 4, Chapter 2: Maneaters Prefer Tight Spots.
Maneaters is a turning point for Grey, the game's main character. It establishes a motive that's deeply rooted in Grey's guilt. Up until Maneaters, most of Grey's actions have been about survival: find this person, get to that point, escape the planet. At its core, Bulletstorm is a game about screwing up. Your character, Grey, got most of his friends killed. His fellow survivor, Ishi, was so badly hurt that he had to become a cyborg. In one level, Grey smashes some gigantic eggs, only to find a vindictive monster hunting him down later in the game. In another, he callously disregards a suggestion to keep quiet, which leads to an enemy ambush. Almost everything Grey does ends in disaster. Recognising this and dealing with the fallout is a core element of Grey's character development throughout the story.
Maneaters succeeds in other ways as well: it introduces new mechanics to Bulletstorm that spice up the gameplay experience, but it does so while keeping players in the game, rather than pulling them aside to train them.
It also solves the prickly problem of dealing with first-person boss fights. Many shooters suffer from samey, dull boss encounters that consist primarily of staying under cover and shooting an enemy who takes damage without responding to it. Maneater's final boss, in contrast, encourages players to utilise all their skills in a genuinely enjoyable encounter.
A Devious New Move
By Act 4, Grey and Ishi have met the soldier Trishka. Faced with the insane mutant monster men that occupy the planet, the trio have no choice but to work together to fight their way off the planet. Tracing a missing soldier's radio signal, they find themselves underground in a room with a weird plant, which is where Maneaters begins.
Ishi shoots the plant, releasing a spore that partially blinds players and suddenly enrages Ishi and Trishka, provoking them to attack each other. As Grey, you break up the fight. This isn't just for show, by the way: Bulletstorm is introducing a new gameplay mechanic in a risk-free environment. If the spore had been introduced in a combat sequence, players might have been too busy fighting to take notice. Because players can see the spore's effects in a safe space, their entire attention is devoted to it. Now you have a new tool, we see what it does, and we know how to use it.
Throughout its campaign, Bulletstorm takes opportunities to train its players in the use of its mechanics without simply pushing tutorials on them. Rather than stop to explain what it does, Ishi shoots the spore, you experience its effects first-hand, you move on. One of the most important rules in storytelling is "show, don't tell." Bulletstorm shows.
In the next room, you're given a chance to resupply, which is great, since the climactic battle immediately before Maneaters opens is likely to have used up a lot of your ammo. Beyond this room, we see another spore, this one further away. Trishka yells at someone to shoot it, so you do, just as some of the Skulls come rushing into the room. Once again, you're in a relatively risk-free environment, but this time, you're given the chance to use the spore the way you'll be using it in combat.
Within just a couple minutes, you've been effortlessly introduced to a new mechanic that you'll encounter throughout the rest of the game.
A Better Reason To Keep Fighting
A locked gate blocks your path. There's a ladder hanging down from a hatch in the ceiling, but Grey is, apparently, incapable of jumping up to reach it. This is actually Bulletstorm's biggest flaw, in my opinion: players can't jump unless the game provides them with a contextual means to do so.
Ishi can jump, however, so he climbs up the ladder, bypasses the gate, and opens it from up above. Normally, I'm not wild about 'wait for other people to stop talking' checkpoints. From a gameplay perspective, it's usually boring. It actually works here, however: by forcing us to rely on Ishi to progress, we have to split up, after which something really cool happens.
The gate opens, and Ishi shouts for help. You run up the stairs, but you're too late; a giant, plant-like tentacle rises from the ground, opens its mouth and swallows Ishi whole. Trishka insists he's dead, but Grey doesn't think so. Steve Blum's performance as Grey is great here -- it's clear Grey blames himself for Ishi's tortured existence as a cyborg, and he places a huge burden on himself to make things right. Because you've been acting as Grey this whole time, it's easy to want the same thing Grey does. Ishi doesn't deserve what happened to him; you're responsible. So you -- the player and Grey -- are willing to do whatever it takes to get him back.
A few moments after Trishka gives him up for dead, Ishi's transponder starts beeping. He's moving fast -- the plant's taking him somewhere, and we have to give chase. Unfortunately, we don't get very far before more Skulls attack. It's a great firefight, blasting you through crazy mutant men down an overgrown staircase. The giant cacti from previous levels make a return, which means we can use Bulletstorm's awesome whip and kick mechanics to manipulate enemies into them. There's an explosive barrel or two to mess with, and, of course, now the berserker spore's added into the mix. It's a lot of ingredients in a wonderful combat stew, leading to this great, chunky firefight that ends almost too soon.
Grey notes that Ishi's transponder has stopped moving, and Trishka assumes the worst, like she always does. The pair round a corner only to come face to face with a charging native, but he doesn't get very far before one of the plants reaches out and grabs him like a chameleon grabbing a fly.
Once again, the game clearly shows us something new before letting us get face to face with it: now carnivorous plants have been added to the mix. Fortunately for us, they don't move through the level, though they're more than happy to reach out and grab unsuspecting victims. If you do it right, you can kick an enemy or exploding barrel into the reach of a hungry plant. It will snatch either one right out of the air and eat it, resulting in the 'Feeder' or 'Bad Digestion' skillshots.
This is one of the things I love about Bulletstorm: it's constantly offering new ingredients for you to cook with, ensuring a diverse experience each time. When writing this piece, I didn't even know about the 'Bad Digestion' skillshot until I started wondering whether or not the plants would eat things other than people, and I burst out laughing when I found out that they would. Unfortunately, they won't catch on fire when eating burning mutants, but you can't always get what you want. As you fight your way to Ishi's last known position, the game increases the stakes, sending in an enemy helicopter loaded with plenty of missiles and bad guys to shoot. As the helicopter drops off its squad of enemies, some of the plants attack, ripping it from the sky.
The fight to the helicopter is just like the previous ones, though a gatling-wielding mini-boss steps out of the wreckage. I like these mini-bosses. They're tough enough to demand attention, but weak enough to encourage players to get up close and personal. Do enough damage to a mini-boss and you'll stun him, giving you a chance to damage his armour and reveal a weak spot. It's a nice little break from the rest of the combat.
Not content to let things stay as they are, Bulletstorm introduces you to some new enemies: members of the Skulls who carry the spores in their mouths, which basically means they're toxic spore carriers. Just like that, the game's developers at People Can Fly have added another dimension to the combat experience. Sadly, the fight's over all too soon, and you're making your way through a very different type of encounter.
Up until now, unless you've made a terrible mistake, the plants have eaten the Skulls. Now, the plants are less visible, and it's a lot easier for one to reach out and drag you to your death. Fortunately, you're given plenty of time to mash the controls and break free. The level had been all about shooting people who were shooting you. Now it's about simply being aware of the plants around you.
Breaking free of hungry plants is a mechanic you'll need to know because, at this point, you're about to face the boss.
The Right Kind Of FPS Boss
I love boss battles. Done well, they're a perfect climax that encourages players to play to the best of their potential while providing an invaluable break in the pacing that keeps players engaged. Lately, however, I've noticed a peculiar problem: first-person shooters don't seem to have that many boss battles, and the ones that do tend to be pretty bad. But why is this? Can a shooter even have a great boss encounter? (If you've read my work before, you know the answer, but humour me.)
When we think of bosses, we tend to think of large, high-damage, high-health enemies that take time and skill to beat. That's often very true, but there's more to it than that. Third-person games tend to do bosses well, so let's look to them for some inspiration. A good third-person boss seems to be about three different things: an awareness of the game space, skilled combat, and unique mechanics.
When you're facing off against Ornstein and Smough from Dark Souls, you need to be aware of the space you occupy as well as your relationship to both bosses. If you want to win, you need to be aware of your surroundings, use them to your advantage, and, most importantly of all, control the geographical relationship between you and the pair to succeed. To survive Reborn Laura from The Evil Within, you'll need to think about her spawn points and how to lure her into situations where she can take damage. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance's Senator Armstrong, requires players to dash in and out of range as he unleashes his shockwave attack or sidestep him when he charges. Players can't just stand still -- they must engage with the space.
Of course, plenty of enemy bosses manage to get up close and personal. A skilled player can time attacks, utilise the right weapons, or complete a prescribed series of button presses to win. Players need to be combat proficient, utilising their full range of abilities to take on a boss. Revengeance, for instance, requires players to be able to parry, dodge, and strike. You can't just mash X until you've won -- you need to use your full combat repertoire to survive.
Bosses, as mentioned earlier, are often used to break up a game's pacing, keeping the experience feeling unique and refreshing. In The Evil Within, using a match to burn corpses prevents them from returning to life. Reborn Laura uses corpses as spawn points in a confrontation in Act 5 -- burning corpses lets you control where and how Laura spawns, ensuring her demise. An optional mechanic suddenly gains a lot more meaning. Laura's interesting because she gets you to engage with the combat space in a new way -- if she was just like all the other zombies in the game, she wouldn't feel nearly as special.
I'm not even sure I'd consider Laura a great boss -- she's got an unpredictable hitbox and can easily kill players in one frustrating hit -- but she's miles beyond the average shooter boss. Consider Destiny's Valus Ta'aurc. Yes, he's large, yes, he outputs a lot of damage, and yes, he can stand still for 20 minutes while you unleash your most powerful weapons on him. He's a boss, but he's an awful one.
Valus' range and high damage output incentivise standing still. Exiting cover practically guarantees damage, so it's best to find a safe spot, poke your head out to shoot every once in a while, and duck back in. If that weren't enough, Valus can take an awful lot of damage. It's a fight that's about standing still, pulling the trigger every few seconds, and repeating this behaviour until he dies, which can take ten or twenty minutes.
The Valus fight isn't a break in the pacing so much as it's a complete and utter breakdown. It's a fight that discourages any sort of spatial engagement or skilled combat, and it's not that different from any other fight in the game except that it takes a lot longer. Fighting Valus isn't an engaging, skill-based fight; it's a tedious endurance battle, and it isn't a fun fight in the least.
Bulletstorm has no interest in boring you.
The game's giant plant monster, a "hyper-mutated flytrap," hefts itself into view and begins attacking with its roots. At first, much like Valus Ta'aurc, you must simply shoot its body. Because this boss resorts to melee attacks instead of shooting, there's a lot more room to move around. The melee attacks even encourage that.
Once you've shot the flytrap enough, its weak points light up: now it's not just a matter of shooting at the boss, it's a matter of hitting the right spot. Fortunately, this is fairly easy to do, but in order to kill the flytrap, you'll have to make liberal use of Bulletstorm's dashing and sliding mechanics: you can't just stand still if you want to hurt the monster, you actually have to engage with it!
The flytrap will try to grab you, just like the other plants did. If it succeeds, you already know what to do, since the game's shown you: mash the E button, escape, get out of the way. The flytrap will continue through various phases, which require you to dodge its attacks while sustaining fire on various parts of its body as they light up. Eventually, you'll kill it. With that, the level ends -- you'll meet back up with Ishi in the next cutscene.
You've got a lot going on. The boss encourages you to move, to aim well, to dodge attacks, and to treat the combat space in a way you wouldn't have previously. It's a superb combination of all the things that make for a great boss fight -- a dramatic crescendo in the gameplay experience.
Maneaters Prefer Tight Spots is great for a bunch of reasons. First, and foremost, it deals with the core theme of the game -- Grey's guilt over his failures -- by almost robbing him of his shot at redemption. Rescuing your only friend in Bulletstorm's harsh and cruel world is a powerful motivator. You're not just goofing off, you're fighting your way through enemy hordes to save your friend.
Mechanically, it's a great level because it's introducing a bunch of substantial new elements to Bulletstorm's gameplay stew, spicing things up in an interesting manner, and it's introducing these elements in really clear, easy-to-understand ways, rather than simply throwing a bunch of things at you all at once.
Then, to top it all off, it's got a great boss that diversifies the typically bland first-person shooter boss formula by incentivising movement and player positioning, dealing with the physicality of the enemy, and keeping things varied and easily understandable. Where a boss like Valus Ta'aurc is simplistic, Bulletstorm's is deep, but clear in a way that keeps things feeling simple.
Bulletstorm is the complete package: great, varied gameplay and awesome storytelling. It's approachable yet rewarding, intelligent but devoid of needless pretension. Great motive, engaging bosses, and economical training make for wonderful games. Bulletstorm is simply great game design; I hope other developers will learn from its example.
GB Burford is a freelance journalist and indie game developer who just can't get enough of exploring why games work. You can reach him on Twitter at @ForgetAmnesia or on his blog. You can support him and even suggest games to write about over at his Patreon.