HIGH Wrapping a mine around a grunt's head, then kicking him into a group of other grunts and watching the gibs fly as he detonates.
LOW Every line that comes out of every character's mouth. For the entire game.
WTF You terraformed the planet where (SPOILER) lives?!? WTF!?!
We all mourn Firefly in our own way. The developers at People Can Fly, for example, made a video game about disgraced soldiers-turned-space pirates crash-landing on a planet destroyed by a combination of corporate malfeasance and governmental corruption, which is now populated almost entirely by reavers who even wear their victims' skin as masks, lest we miss the reference. Judged by that standard, the game is a depressing slog through a clichéd mess of a plot, and every second of the roughly six hours I was forced to spend with history's least likeable video game protagonists was a painful chore. Judged on its merits as a high-speed, ultraviolent FPS, however, it's far more successful, which is why I'll largely be doing that.
A highly-tuned thrill-ride, Bulletstorm opens with a crashing spaceship then establishes a pace that doesn't let up for the entire running time. It's rare for 30 seconds of the game to pass without someone's head exploding. If a piece of the environment can't be kicked into an opponent to create a huge explosion, it's only because the game would rather the player use their laser-leash to drag said opponent into the object's many deadly spikes.
When the sum totality of a game's appeal lies in providing players with a huge array of weapons and tasking them to creatively disassemble armies of nearly-identical goons, one might expect that the game would quickly grow tiresome. It's to Bulletstorm's great credit that its methods for destruction are so numerous and varied that even when the credits rolled I found myself eager to go back and check out some of the challenge levels, looking to sample some of the elaborate methods of murder I'd missed the first time around.
Weapon design can be a sticky proposition in most modern shooters, as developers struggle to find a comfortable mid-point between something that can be fun for the single player adventure without badly tipping the balance in multiplayer matches. By focusing on single player and co-operative MP, Bulletstorm's developers are freed from such considerations, allowing them to offer a wide array of profoundly overpowered firearms—any one of them capable of blowing an enemy to pieces, setting a whole crowd on fire, or reducing foes to charred, radioactive skeletons.
They've even found a way to make the sniper rifle work (which may seem out of place in a game primarily concerned with charging up to enemies) by kicking one's antagonists into mid-air, then shooting their groins as they fly into giant man-eating plants. Rather than bother the with dull precision and patience demanded by most sniper weapons, all Bulletstorm asks players to do is point the rifle in the foe's general direction and fire away, at which point the player takes control of the bullet, steering it in slo-mo as its target flees for his life.
I repeat: Bulletstorm has managed to turn sniping into an action-packed thrillfest. What more can be said? Well, there's the fantastic level design, I suppose.
While the gameplay itself may be fairly repetitive—narrow empty hallways lead to enemy packed arenas, repeat—the settings are so varied, and the action setpieces that take place within them so audacious and unexpected that I found myself agape in awe more than once.
Trains are chased by giant, tenacious generator wheels. Huge public works projects crumble. Each of the game's levels features at least one scene so large-scale and brutally violent that it sets a newer, higher bar for action titles. They even demonstrate a facility with foreshadowing—there are two sequences that promise something huge is coming later in the game, and expectations are set so high by them, that it's amazing the game manages to fulfill them as completely as it does.
So, with all that praise duly heaped, is there anything at all wrong with Bulletstorm? Well, as suggested above, there's the story, which, from its abhorrent opening to its frustratingly sequel-baiting non-ending, doesn't offer a moment that isn't flat-out awful.
When a game starts with the player being asked to learn the controls by tormenting and then murdering a helpless hostage, it's obvious that they've got their work cut out for them when it comes to making the audience like, or in any way identify with, the main character. Right afterwards, however, it becomes clear that the developers had absolutely zero interest in actually doing that work.
This is seriously the story of a special forces team who are betrayed by their commanding officer, swear revenge, then spend the next decade or so doing… nothing of note. Is there any reason for the plot to fast-forward, other than to make the characters look lazy? Well, yes, but it's an immensely contrived plot development that's technically a twist, so I won't spoil it here, but it's only out of courtesy—I don't believe anyone could actually be surprised by something that's telegraphed so obviously. Their endless foul-mouthed banter is so droning, one-note, and puerile that I muted the dialogue early in the proceedings, and never once regretted my decision.
I don't know what possessed People Can Fly to saddle such an exceptional action experience with such a terrible story, but being surrounded by monstrously stupid, foul-mouthed sociopaths actively lessened the gameplay experience for me. So long as a player can tune out the plot and characters, Bulletstorm is an unmitigated action masterpiece, but damn, does the story work hard to mitigate everything good about the game. When Bulletstorm gets its promised sequel I only hope some actual grown-ups get involved somewhere in the production and raise the story up to the level the gameplay deserves.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via rental and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 6 hours of play were devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 times) and 2 hours of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language, use of alcohol. Any parents who consider allowing their children near this game should be slapped across the face. Setting aside for a moment the omnipresent profanity and hyperviolence, the game is upsettingly misogynistic, featuring shockingly frequent threats of sexual violence, and even an instance of attempted rape. For the love of god, keep your children far from this game.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You will have a better experience than those who can hear the terrible dialogue. Gameplay-wise you should should be fine as well. Yes, audio cues will help warn of oncoming attacks, but the difficulty level is surprisingly fair, and the game is designed around the assumption that the player is going to be shot frequently, so a few extra hits won't make much difference.