Thursday, March 24, 2011

Bulletstorm Review

Bulletstorm does so many things exceptionally, outrageously well as to eclipse the one area where I could argue it fails.

You’re Grayson Hunt. He’s a perpetually sloshed 26th century dime-store-Duke-Nukem space pirate and ex-assassin who wants off the horror-show wasteland of a former resort planet called Stygia where he crash landed with his crew’s sole survivor, the bitten, sullen half-cyborg Ishi Sato. See, getting off that rock full of genetically enhanced mutants, Godzilla-esque monsters, criminals and flesh-eating flora would make getting revenge the Army General that lied to and betrayed him and his crew so much easier.

I’m really not dumbing much down. That’s your story. It plays out over seven acts plus a prologue, and completing “Campaign” mode shouldn’t take a first-person-shooter veteran much more than a lone lazy afternoon.

That’s really a damn shame, because despite an unremarkable single-player campaign scenario, the big-and-loud action, hilarious voice performances and acerbic script, and refreshingly skill-based mechanics make a very enjoyable FPS experience.

Look, it’s not an Earth-shaking generality that whatever game aspect a developer emphasizes gets the extra loving at some other area’s expense. It rarely occurs to us as gamers that there’s a finite amount of data, code and of course time – however astronomical “next-generation” technology has made that ceiling – that developers have to craft any given game. Nor is it beyond comprehension that studios and developers realize something very simple: gaming is the business of capturing an audience. Gamers who buy first-person shooters buy them mostly for the online/multiplayer experience. Therefore, if that’s what the audience wants, sliding attention from the less-important-to-buyers single player campaign to the crucial-selling-point multiplayer experience makes perfect sense.

Still, the game feels so incomplete without a solid single-player mode. If EA’s sports franchises can develop infinitely deep full-season, single-player franchise modes for Madden every single year without ever sacrificing a satisfying online experience, I don’t see how developers emphasizing other genres can’t match that.

Bulletstorm’s game-play mechanics and presentation simply couldn’t excel beyond the standard run-gun-and-melee FPS pale with any engine except Unreal Engine 3.5. When you tag a game’s packaging “Kill With Skill” because you’re encouraging and giving players almost unheard-of tools to kill and destroy as creatively as possible, every viscera-coated death’s ultimate visual had better be worth the carnage’s elaborate, skillful execution. From dynamic rag-doll physics to some glorious bullet-time style slow-downs to ratchet up painful impact, Unreal just does what Unreal always does best: some of the most satisfying game-play visuals any engine can provide.

Unless you’re playing a FPS for the first time since the original Goldeneye or Perfect Dark, I have some bad news: this game won’t exactly overwhelm your eyes. This isn’t exactly cel-shading, but then again, this isn’t exactly Mass Effect 2 or Halo in tone. Given the game’s raucous, dumb-fun tone and dark humor, though, something a little more cartoonish and bigger-than-life rather than life-like feels appropriate. After so many visually stellar games like Mass Effect 2, Heavy Rain, the upcoming L.A. Noirre and The Godfather, a game like this is a good reminder that sometimes a game can’t really help you escape while playing it without a little exaggeration and insane bombast. All the more reason I can’t and won’t fault Gray reminding me of an alkie Deadpool who looks like a ridiculous Hugh Jackman caricature.

But any hot-rod can look pretty when standing still in “Park.” You only appreciate its power when it moves you. Playing Bulletstorm actually made me a little bit . . . . well, angry. Oh, not at People Can Fly or Epic. But developers like Bungie can quite frankly die in a fiery fire, because these lower-on-the-totem-pole developers just proved that there can be much, much more to FPS combat than “run, point, shoot.” I haven’t played many shooters except BioShock and Mass Effect 2 that so effectively combine melee/ranged attacks and firearms to create so many free-form attacks that keep the game so fresh. Using the ranged “leash,” Gray can rip armor from mini-bosses, fling enemies off structures and into nearby hazards or simply rip enemies toward him and riddle them with a mid-air shower of lead.

I must admit, two hours in, and I was one happy little gore-hound. It's not every day I get to laud praise upon a game because it rewards me for the ultra-specific combo of blasting an enemy in the gonads, then kicking him in the skull to finish him off, or rewarding me with this games XP equivalent because I dispatched a foe by literally pumping his anal cavity full of lead. But I've also played few games that make a little resourcefulness so rewarding. Environmental attacks can feel like an after-thought sometimes, when really using them well can be the hallmark of an intelligent, cagey gamer. In Bulletstorm, creative and effective use of the environment can often be preferable over chewing through clips of ammo.

Personally, I several times disposed of enemies that repeatedly dodged my push-kicks with backward jumps by kicking at them until they either backed against a wall against which I could stomp them, or occasionally kicked them straight off a ledge.

It really goes beyond that, though. Not only does the game give players that violently creative freedom and provide big rewards for honing actual technique, but it ties doing so to surviving the game. The bigger and more skillful the kills, the more “skillpoints.” And those skillpoints buy ammunition and upgrades from checkpoint “dropkits” scattered randomly across the maps. Anyone who wants to survive this, especially at higher difficulty settings, won’t think of settling for standard 10-point kills when just a little extra effort could keep you alive by affording you timely upgrades to keep up with the ramping-up strength of enemies.

Best of all, I must admit my admiration for a perfectly balanced difficulty. Things absolutely get hairy, but nothing ever feels insurmountable. I particularly adore the “sniper” mechanic of POV-steering a bullet around obstacles and into a fleeing enemy’s soft tissue. Even when I fired a near-miss, it was never actually frustrating. It just made me knuckle up and say “So damn close! OK, I know I can do this, let’s get this done . . .”

Those are the hallmarks of every truly great game I’ve ever played, the best of the best: difficulty that challenged me but never broke me, and free-form control to pull off visually-satisfying, skillful feats in-game.

I picked on Bungie above for a reason. I must admit, Halo tells a magnificent story throughout the series. That’s never been my problem with the franchise. The combat has just always felt too static to me, much in the same way that the first two Assassin’s Creed games’ combat grew repetitive and would’ve made wanting to see the games through to the end difficult had it not been for those games’ phenomenal visuals and intriguing stories.

To be fair, the frustration with Bulletstorm makes a U-turn and sprints to almost the precise opposite extreme: the game-play and controls could set a new standard for dynamic FPS combat mechanics but just as it proves that the genre can do so much more than run-gun-and-melee, it misses Bungie’s Halo high-water mark for a FPS with an epic, compelling, lengthy solo campaign. In my opinion, it makes Bulletstorm feel like three-fifths of a truly great game – just a little more than halfway there.

I can’t recommend buying Bulletstorm unless one could either find it very, very cheap, or truly loves online gaming and can’t wait to go mano-a-mano with friends using the distinctive combat mechanics. Make no mistake, that’s truly a worthwhile experience and should keep multiplayer-shooter lovers coming back.

Just start that party without me.

I’m Sleepless Colin, and you’re not.