Bulletstorm – Final Review

Bulletstorm’s narrative dangerously straddles the line between the endearing and the obnoxious, featuring highly juvenile writing and oftentimes bizarre – yet imaginative – phraseology. Fortunately, the endearing triumphs over the irritating – Bulletstorm has a considerable degree of heart, has its own distinct identity, embracing humor fiercely, and mostly departing from more mature, gritty themes, which traditionally occupy the modern FPS. At the center of this imaginative narrative is the protagonist, Grayson Hunt, who makes repeated displays of honor, chivalry, and dignity, even as he perpetually spews forth crass language, showing also a certain barbarism. Excellent voice acting and character modelling, both of which convey his gruffness, only heighten his endearing attributes – he is a splendid protagonist, showing some depth and internal conflict, proving himself as being a dynamic character rather than a wholly static one. But in this narrative, Grayson, affectionately dubbed Gray, is never alone, having always a companion or two at his side, the one constant mainstay being the cybernetic Ishi, body damaged in a previous mission, that damage necessitating drastic surgery; alongside the preservation of his life comes the discarding of much of his humanity, and Ishi becomes a consistent source of humor, remaining aware of certain societal norms, growing oblivious to other such norms, unsure of when to speak, how to react in any given situation; as with Grayson, he is a compelling individual, and the camaraderie between the pair is palpable – they are like unto a band of brothers, showing great fraternity and mutual respect and resolve – Grayson, that diligent, caring creature, could never abandon his companion out of honor, even as such an abandonment would lighten his own burden, make more easy and intuitive completion of the mission at hand – that discarding of humanity brings with it manifold complications. The dynamic between these two central characters, then, is quite compelling, Ishi a worthy squadmate and confidant.   

Motivating Grayson and Ishi is a thirst for revenge, a desire to right the terrible wrongs they were coerced into committing by their former commander, Sarrano, who leveraged his powers and authorities to slaughter the lives of countless innocents, Ishi and Grayson being the primary executioners, killing those they thought guilty of some moral or criminal offense. This manipulation, this villainy and coldness, results in an antagonist who is rather menacing and frightful, albeit somewhat cliched, his motivations self-serving, and painfully stereotypical. Sarrano, then, must be toppled and fast; Sarrano must pay for past crimes committed. In efforts to this end, Ishi and Grayson navigate oftentimes hostile environs, the planet isolated and breathtakingly beautiful, though now morphed into a warzone, the entire planet nearing implosion through Sarrano’s cold machinations. Sarrano may be villainous, while the relationship between Grayson and Ishi may be profound, though overall the narrative shows no real commanding ambition, merely going through the motions, never aspiring for greatness, the only attempts at novelty centered around the mentioned comedic tone. Still, once Sarrano’s intentions are revealed – destroy the planet, namely – the narrative becomes a race against time just as much as a quest for revenge, and a considerable degree of tension and anxiety is evoked, as it is revealed that Sarrano and Sarrano alone has the capabilities to flee the planet, to reach safety and preservation. For a time, Ishi and Grayson act alongside their oppressor, betrayer, and manipulator, realizing his powers and expanded access. This notion of acting directly alongside an antagonist is indeed rather novel, and points towards some lingering respect as existing between Sarrano and his subordinates, despite the wrongs endured. Still, everything is painfully predictable and uninspired. Some life is injected into the narrative by the character Trishka, encountered fairly early on, whose innocent father died at the hands of Sarrano – or, more specifically, Grayson and his brothers in arms. With earnest yet tough voice acting, she is expectantly likable, and in her figure is observable great character growth, as she is forced to grapple with Grayson’s actions, ultimately realizing she cannot hate him for an act committed in total ignorance – they bond, and fiercely. The narrative is at times excessively humorous, though moments of grounded seriousness and narrative heft periodically arise to temper that humor.  

The environments explored are frequently very beautiful, abounding in diversity, the planet like some great canvas for the developers’ creativity. It is the diversity which is most notable – some regions are dominated by towering, majestic skyscrapers, extending upwards towards the heavens, while other locations are radical departures, one almost Mediterranean in atmosphere, staggered houses boasting beautiful, tiled roofs. Urban environments are especially enjoyable to explore, bright neon signage having a very prominent presence, evoking many futuristic stylings, which characterize all of these environments – here is a world far more advanced than the world at present. Alongside this beauty is decay, squalor, those beautiful, light-lined streets having massive piles of accumulated rubble. One sequence transpires in a funhouse of sorts, with clever manipulation of scale, Grayson’s stature matching that of the countless projected skyscrapers – collectively, the presentation present here is masterful, this creative excellence matched by considerable technical prowess. Draw distances can be impossibly large, communicating the vastness of the planet proper, while skyboxes can be dazzling in their beauty, boasting billowy clouds, tranquil, inviting blues, while intense lighting results in an overall sunbaked aesthetic. Somewhat of an imbalance is in place, though, in that interior environments are not as well executed or masterful as are exterior environments. The sense of claustrophobia characterizing interior locations clashes greatly and markedly with the pervasive sense of openness sought elsewhere in the level design. True, these claustrophobic environs can break up potential environmental monotony, though still the imbalance is in place. Also, a great deal of environmental destructibility is in place. It is not of the same scale as a recent Battlefield game, in that the destruction is completely predetermined, and cannot be executed organically, but the periodic episodes of destruction result in a cinematic component, making all the more riveting the central gameplay, providing a pervasive sense of tension.           

Ultimately, greatest emphasis is placed upon the gameplay, which is deceptively complex, richly rewarding, particularly once relative mastery of the controls and systems is achieved. In many dramatic ways, Bulletstorm seeks to break from the conventions of the typical modern FPS, embracing creativity and imagination in destruction, rather than focusing solely upon destruction. As illustration, consider even the most trivial of enemies. Such a foe may pose no active threat, their damage output being slight, though their overall health value is impossibly high, such opponents capable of enduring an entire assault rifle magazine or two before finally collapsing to the ground, the end result being a discouraging and disincentivizing of more traditional shooting, for in this title such shooting is painfully inefficient – exploiting the environments, employing the various combat tools at Grayson’s disposal; these are central to overall success, and their centrality again morphs the game into something totally unique: the gameplay here is remarkable, greatly elevating the genre. Environments are oftentimes abounding in various hazards – cliffs with precarious drops, explosive barrels, spiky surfaces, all have their presence; the manipulation of these objects is, again, crucial to success, and result in giddy excitement and joy, owing to the visceral nature of the violence, so intense as to be almost comedic, as when some unfortunate foe is literally impaled upon a conveniently positioned obstacle, the blood spray greatly exaggerated. Central to this gameplay are the various progression systems, points being distributed correlative to the advanced nature of the kill, more creative instances of slaughter naturally resulting in more generous currency distribution. “Skill shots” are abundant, and their fulfilment rewards a staggering amount of currency. A subtle grinding system is in place when regarding the skill shots, in that each challenge is observable at any one moment; the completionist could have a great deal of fun aspiring to fulfill all such challenges, though for the typical player, such appeal is likely lacking. And while this moment to moment gameplay is excellent, the progression systems are surprisingly barebones, weapon customization almost totally absent – mostly, currency will be expended strictly upon ammunition, rather than expanding upon the functions and capabilities of a weapon.

Bulletstorm’s guns are mostly – though not always – unimaginative, the armory featuring the expected assault rifle, pistol, and shotgun, which function as expected, though a clever alternate ammunition system is in place, which does increase the strengths and flexibilities of these weapons – the pistol can shoot an erratic magnetic flare of sorts, while the shotgun can fire incendiary rounds. Still, matters are mostly traditional and mundane, and when the more creative, potentially devastating weapons are made wieldable, they fast prove themselves to be highly situational, oftentimes unintuitive. One such weapon shoots a chain which wraps around the targeted enemy, a chain which can then be detonated at will. It can be brutally effective, but ideal opportunities for the weapon are oftentimes lacking. Something similar could be set of a bouncing explosive weapon, possessive of similarly damaging attributes, though even more situational – when the game experiments with its weapons, tragically it meets with failure. A drill like weapon unlocked in the late game, however, is accurate and very effective, while something similar could be said of the sniper rifle, whose bullets can be guided at will, oftentimes allowing for pinpoint precision, even as the antagonists can impossibly react to the bullet’s curvature, moving away from its intended path. Despite these failings, gunplay generally is exciting and rewarding, the very fast health regeneration enabling a certain freneticism. But a more substantial failing centers around the weapon limit – only three guns can be wielded at any one time. This is common in the genre, and would typically go unacknowledged. But given the highly arcadey nature of this game, it is very bizarre that such a weapon limit should be in place, while the effects of this limit can be damning, as potential flexibility is lessened greatly.

The gameplay, with the inclusion of such clever tools as a leash which can pull an attached enemy to Grayson’s location, and with the inclusion of a devastating kick which can sent a victim sprawling backwards with great force, manages to thrive despite the restrictiveness that the weapon cap imposes. Still, further complaints can be leveraged at the gameplay, the greatest failings centered around rigid mobility options, Grayson incapable of even jumping at will, this decision resulting in a terrible groundedness, a destruction of potential verticality, which oftentimes has the potential to elevate gameplay by providing greater player flexibility and options for strategy and tactical planning. This groundedness also contributes to the game’s hyperlinearity, Grayson essentially travelling in one straight direction for the entirety of the campaign; the environments may be different, the atmospheres may be different, but the ultimate objective, the way in which it is achieved, is the same from beginning to end. Linearity is not some damnable offense – linear games can be excellent experiences; but Bulletstorm would have benefitted from some greater gameplay open-endedness. As matters stand, it is practically impossible to veer off the beaten path, to explore in the slightest. Once open combat breaks out, these locomotion failings are even more discernible. A slide feature is in place, seeing Grayson dart forth with considerable haste, but a dodging feature, or any other method of avoiding enemy gunfire, is noticeably and painfully absent – the controls generally can seem clunky and slow. The leash counteracts these failings somewhat, opening up gameplay flexibility, but the groundedness is a major failing, enfeebling rather than empowering, a damning offense when considering that in all other aspects of its design, Bulletstorm desperately seeks player empowerment. Oftentimes succeeding in this ambition, the gameplay, with its chaotic intensity, does triumph over that found in a conventional shooter, becoming an almost symphonic ballet of violence and destruction – here Bulletstorm meets with greatness, though not universal greatness.   

Bulletstorm is certainly a divisive title, featuring a narrative which is rather compelling despite its dearth of any real ambition, its indifference towards making some poignant statement; indeed, poignancy is woefully discarded, displaced by the excessively humorous and the crass, though in this precise instance that crassness results in charm, in novelty – it results in originality, so central to any art work’s success. Further displays of such originality are of course observable in the gameplay, many different tools provided the player, such as an exhaustive arsenal of guns, each one possessive of alternate firing modes, traditionally very devastating, though rarely necessary for success – even on the hard difficulty, the game was rarely challenging, perhaps owing to the rapidity of health regeneration, which destroys challenge, though a notable difficulty spike arises towards the narrative’s conclusion. Retreating to cover and allowing health to regenerate seems anathema to everything the designers sought, the fast-paced intensity they aspired for. In efforts to this end, the inclusion of medkits or other such objects for health regeneration would enhance the gameplay by requiring further tactical considerations, preserving also that fiercely sought frenetic intensity; resource management would be welcome, would not overcomplicate the gameplay systems, but would instead enrich them. But whereas in so many ways Bulletstorm rejects genre convention, it clings to this regenerative model, depriving the game of more strategic aspects. An injection of more narrative and emotional heft, meanwhile, would also elevate the experience. It would be unfair and unwise to erase what makes the game’s narrative so unique – its many comedic flourishes – so such mature somberness should serve a more supplementary role; the inclusion of seriousness would only make more impactful the moments of humorousness, just as the inclusion of greater exploration would make more impactful the chaotic moments of open combat: environmental diversity abounds, certainly, but not enough diversity is present in gameplay and narrative. As an experience, meanwhile, it is very brief, the central campaign completable in six or so hours, an ideal length owing to the title’s intense, over the top nature. Secondary modes are present for the completionist or those engrossed in the gameplay systems, but their appeal is likely not widespread. Still, despite its many failings, Bulletstorm is a sheer thrill to play through, abounding in great, almost unrivalled, potentials for enjoyability.

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