The interactive cut-scene that opens Bulletstorm is one hell of a curtain-raiser, and for any number of reasons. Primarily though, it highlights what a rough ride videogame screenwriting gets these days. Often ignored entirely by the world’s foremost cultural commentators, it’s seen as totally unworthy of any significant degree of evaluation, unless the game in question exists within the framework of something acceptably highbrow; which is to say, Heavy Rain. But if Bulletstorm’s opening were to have appeared in a movie – a scene in which a motley band of drunks play a cruel game with a captive enemy, featuring an empty whiskey bottle in place of William Tell’s lionised apple – it would surely be spoken of as a sequence of queasy, dark wit and sly invention.
But if beneath the surface Bulletstorm is actually gunning for a spot in the hearts of the cultural elite, it sure as hell doesn’t make things easy for itself. Aside from the constant influx of cartoonishly ultra-violent set-pieces, you’re also very unlikely to find a videogame that has a more disagreeable bunch of anti-heroes at its centre. They’re all profane, frequently drunk, and bruisingly sarcastic at all times, and often choose to display their love for one another by viciously (though infrequently) clouting eachother about the cranium. And although it’s obviously impossible to begrudge relentless action in an action game, if you don’t grow fond of the foul language (of which there is actually surprisingly little) you have to admit one thing; at least it’s inventive.
And invention is something that Bulletstorm’s torso is completely riddled with. Although its novel Skillshot dynamic is what’ll keep you coming back for weeks and months to come, the single-player campaign never once takes your engagement for granted. Just as you’re beginning to get comfortable with the way everything works, you’re thrown into a series of labyrinthine arenas that ceaselessly encourage you to experiment. As your confidence grows these sequences expand – bigger areas, more enemies, sharper tools – and they’re broken up by a parade of awe-inspiring blockbuster set-pieces. But none of them are mindless, and all hinge upon utterly inspired ideas. In one sequence you’ll use a palm-based remote control to manoeuvre something that looks vaguely similar to a Gears of War Brumak; in another you’ll try to halt the world’s biggest (and most unruly) tyre with the aid of nothing more than a minigun; and in another you’ll be given precise control over the trajectory of your own sniper rifle fire.
Even during these big-budget offshoots, taking Skillshots into account is always of paramount importance, and you don’t actually do a whole lot in the campaign that doesn’t net you points; be it playing trigger button ping-pong to hoist yourself along a rope, or quickly hitting a single button on command to get the drop on a plot-based point of interest. It’s the kind of game that grips like a vice from the opening few moments and never lets go, and you’ll finish it feeling shaken and elated, and desperate to plough through it all again on the harder difficulty settings. But for all of its brilliance, the campaign isn’t the real draw. That would be Echoes mode – bite-sized morsels of the campaign bereft of cinematics and narrative, and optimised for score-based play.
Obviously speed is imperative to prolonged success in Echoes, and the mode brings Bulletstorm’s brilliant control scheme to the forefront. The sprint button (double tapped for a slide move that also functions as an attack) is a riff on Gears of War’s ‘Roadie Run’, but it’s immeasurably faster and nowhere near as restrictive, enabling you to tackle sharp corners at speed; and when you’re really hot-footing it, it feels more like a driving game than a shooter. Bizarre Creation’s vastly underrated The Club is regularly cited as a valid comparison point here but as fantastic as that game was, experimentation was always your enemy; and the leaderboards quickly became nothing more than an intimidating list of people who simply had more spare time on their hands than you did. But in Echoes you’re always toying with different attack combinations or eyeing up brisker routes, and the joy of repeatedly mixing everything up means that the mode is gratifying in the same way as a great puzzle game, and monumentally addictive to boot.
Bulletstorm is every bit as brash and uncouth as you were expecting, but also about ten times smarter. It’s a barnstorming AAA rollercoaster, and no amount of vacuous hype or idiotic tabloid conjecture can derail the realisation that this really is a model example of razor sharp design nous, and ingenious genre craftsmanship. Although Bulletstorm has Epic Games written through it like a stick of rock – thanks to the emergence of many a visual Gears motif – the collaboration between them and their new subsidiary People Can Fly has set a pretty daunting yardstick for both teams. Its ferocious lack of subtlety may turn a few people off, but make no mistake; this is a stupendously entertaining piece of software, and an experience that has clearly been built to last.
Watch the Bulletstorm trailer here: