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Bulletstorm: Good, but not as great as I’d heard

Content of the article: "Bulletstorm: Good, but not as great as I’d heard"

So, Bulletstorm is a 2011 cult classic first-person shooter from People Can Fly, makers of the 2004 cult classic first-person shooter Painkiller. It's been revamped and rereleased a few times over the years, and picked up quite the reputation as a hidden gem that never got the attention it deserved. I played the most recent release, the 2019 Duke Of Switch edition. You can guess which platform.

In it, you play mercenary-turned-pirate Grayson Hunt, in a poorly-defined Borderlands-esque corporate shithole sci-fi universe. Grayson is gruff, aggro, and reckless. And drunk. So drunk that the story begins with him drunkenly deciding to ram the battleship of his nemesis, a backstabbing bastard of a General named Serano. This takes out both spaceships, and most of Grayson's crew, as they crash on a nearby planet filled with monsters, psychos, and other things to shoot. The plot then involves Grayson and a recently-cyborged survivor who's very salty about it, trying to make their way across a crumbling resort town towards a spaceport, while murdering millions of dudes along the way.

And murdering is the point. Bulletstorm's big claim to fame is its "skillshot" glory-kill system, boasting more than 150 unique ways to turn flesh into goo. The focus is on environmental kills, such as flinging enemies onto giant cactuses, or kicking them into live electric wires, or blasting them backwards into whirling turbines. You get a lot of tools for manipulating and moving baddies around, including a mighty boot, a "leash" that works as a grabber, and multiple weapons with absurd knockback. These are backed up with weapons which are half sensible – shotgun, rifle, etc – and half exotic, such as a weapon that shoots remotely-detonatable bomb collars or a gun that shoots spinning drill bits.

When the gameplay works, it's a hell of a lot of fun. The game makes use of intelligent contextual slowmo to make the baddie-juggling easier, making it fairly easy to position and rebound enemies as you want. Although the physics are a bit wonky and kicks, in particular, feel pretty inaccurate. While the levels are totally linear, the individual battle arenas are intelligently laid out with plenty of tricks and traps to utilize. Varying up tactics and playstyle is rewarded through a points-based system that buys you ammo and weapon upgrades. Kick more ass, to kick more ass.

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It also features some spectacular setpieces, including an amazing chase from a hundred-foot-high wheel of death, and a crazy-awesome sequence where you get to control a giant robotic dinosaur while demolishing an area. There are a number of memorable moments, mostly in the first half.

And at about 8 hours, the campaign moves at a brisk pace.

However . . . the game seems a bit hobbled by the decision to have a slow-moving Gears Of War style hulk of a protagonist. He often feels like he's moving too slowly for the action around him, and it's way too easy to get hung up on the geometry. A couple inches of ledge brushing his leg is all it takes to bring him to a halt. His lack of mobility causes a lot of frustration, particularly in target-rich engagements.

Another frustration was a weird system they implemented where a QTE-style prompt has you look towards major events of interest, while rewarding points for quick reflexes. The problem is, the look button is the aim button! When one of these events happens, you momentarily lose the ability to aim & shoot. Or maybe even lose control of the camera in the middle of a firefight. It wasn't a bad idea conceptually, but they should have never implemented these events when combat was a possibility. Particularly one room near the end of the game where it basically forces you to freeze in place, showing you a miniboss you couldn't possibly overlook, and preventing you from shooting. I'd swear the developers did it on purpose to handicap the player.

Also, the game is tonally all over the place. It can't decide if it wants to be totally sillyridiculous, or relatively serious, and weaves wildly between the two. Normally a game like this barely needs the plot commented on, but that's the issue – it puts a heavy emphasis on plot, and the plot just isn't that interesting. Most of it is endless arguing between the main characters, and Grayson alternating between doing stupid suicidal shit, and being emo over how his stupid suicidal shit keeps getting people killed. In the same game that, again, has you controlling a giant robot dinosaur while Grayson cackles gleefully at the carnage he's creating.

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But it really falls apart in the last couple hours. The level design devolves into a series of increasingly smaller rooms, with increasing numbers of bullet-sponge baddies, and no major setpieces. I even felt somewhat discouraged from experimenting with the exotic weapons. They were all so fiddly, needing a lot of setup and enemy-positioning to really pay off, whereas the basic shotgun/rifle/sniper trio were plenty effective on their own. By the end, it got to the point where it seemed like trying to do anything fancy would just get me killed.

In theory, the game wants to encourage replays, with rewards up to "unlimited ammo" for being competionist about finding every possible skillshot kill. Although the frequent pauses for plot/dialogue would make that a bit of a slog. YMMV here, but it would potentially have decent replay value if it hooks you.

And then there's the ending, which is utterly anti-climactic. There's no huge boss battle, either. The action spectacle highlight of the game was back in Act 5, of 7. Then… OK, I'm going to spoiler-tag this next bit to be polite, but I really think people should know this going in: It ends on sequel bait rather than wrapping up the story. Grayson lets General Serano get away, for basically no good reason. The ONE thing I was actually invested in was seeing that asshole get shot in his stupid face, and the game doesn't even give satisfaction. Oh, and the "boss battle" is a short QTE. Just to add to the crushing disappointment of the finale.

So, yeah… Bulletstorm has a lot of good ideas and the first half of the game is definitely fun, but even at only 8 hours, it feels like it ran out of ideas (or time/money) during the second half. The characters aren't particularly likeable, and the game seems to have very unrealistic ideas about how compelling its plot is. I definitely get the 'cult classic' fame it has, but it's definitely flawed and doesn't live up to the "best shooter you never played" rep it seems to have picked up online. At least IMO.

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