Bulletstorm – the next Unreal, or a storm in a teacup?

Hands-on with the single-player portion of People Can Fly’s gloriously hammy shooter.

By Edwin Evans-Thirlwell, November 17, 2010

We’re big fans of overkill, us card-carrying “core” consumers, be it aural or visual. Show us a giant squid’s head exploding under satellite laser bombardment, and we’ll dutifully whirl around in search of high fives. Expose us to dialogue featuring the words “strap on” and “dildo”, and we’ll whoop like school children. Break out a chainsaw, and you’ll be treated to a standing ovation.

But we’re also some of the nastiest critics imaginable. However desensitized we may be to violence and death, the tiniest of design flaws – a sticky input here, a tardy texture map there – get under our skins like soiled hypodermic needles. Our loathing for imperfection knows no bounds. We’ll readily gawp at big booms and high-velocity wisecracks, but the second the curtain falls our brains will kick back in, our priorities realign and may God help you, Mr Developer, if your wind physics aren’t up to scratch.

EA’s Bulletstorm likes a bit of overkill, would you believe. A first-person shooter from the chaps behind the similarly themed Painkiller, it’s a more-or-less ironic riff on the Gears of War school of action gaming, with a dash of score attack thrown in for shits and giggles.

The biceps are big, the necks thick, the boots steel-capped and the voice-acting lovingly coated with tar. Innards fly like paper streamers as I progress through a campaign level, ridding scrap-metal shacks and platforms of ten-a-penny grunts. Airborne drones emerge from a simmering orange sunset to peck at my flanks, only to disintegrate under charged assault rifle shots. Chunky red barrels of flammable liquid glisten invitingly to the rear of enemy positions.

No idea what that is. It's probably safe to say that it doesn't wish you well, though.

People Can Fly’s dual stick running and gunning feels tight, but the game-raisers here, we’re told, are combos or “skillshots”, which often draw on main character Grayson Hunt’s energy leash. The latter is Bulletstorm’s equivalent of the Gravity Gun, mapped to left bumper. A tap lassos an enemy and drags him (it’s usually a him) into close-up, where he’ll dangle in mid-air like a pinata, convulsed by jags of electric-blue slow-mo. Hold the bumper, and Grayson will wrist-flick the leash and hammer it down for a long distance juggle.

Couple the foregoing tricks with limb removal, alternate fires, slides, kicks or environmental damage and you’ll be rewarded with a skillshot caption, scribbled across the carnage in lime-green arcade cabinet font. Snaring a target with the flail gun’s tethered grenades, booting him into a comrade and remote-pulling the pin produces the “Gang Bang”. Punching an aerial foe full of shotgun pellets gives you the “Bullet Kick”. Fancier combos equal more unlock points, and the idea is thus less to beat the odds as to beat them with flair.

It’s a solid, gutsy thrill. Projectiles slam into bodies with the force of a freight train. A generous health bar permits players to pick and choose their combinations at reasonable leisure. Of particular note is the Bouncer grenade launcher, whose alternate fire creates a lethal football of energy which can then be punted around interiors to catch out dug-in opposition.

I’m left wondering, however, when things are going to get really interesting. The arsenal and skillshots are fun, but they’re not quite as loony as they could be. Lest we forget, Planet Moon’s Armed and Dangerous sported a cannon loaded with Great White Sharks. Ratchet & Clank got to grips with industrial-strength vacuums, and hypnotising disco balls. Dead Rising 2 let you burst a zombie in two by opening a parasol in his stomach. By contrast, a shotgun with two whole extra barrels feels a little turning-it-up-to-11.

I also can’t help but ask whether the likes of Unreal or Gears need spoofing. The latter in particular is practically a parody already – machismo stretched to its absurdest extent, tongue never far from unshaven cheek. In pointing to these inspirations and winking, Bulletstorm looks just the teensiest bit out of touch.

There’s also a multiplayer mode, which we were unable to sample – watch this space. The game’s out for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC on 22nd February 2011.

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