Ah violence. Long have you been gaming’s dirtly little muse. The fire that lit the bright lights of a thousand arcade marquees. From the earliest days of Space Invaders, Asteroids and Pac-Man, the central dynamic of video games has always been this; kill or be killed. We’ve smashed through wave after wave of enemy aircraft in 1942, witnessed the world perish in nuclear fire in Missile Command and – as the heavy metal heroes of 80s cinema birthed their inevitable digital offspring – we’ve kicked, machine-gunned and dragon-punched our way through countless thousand enemies in shoot-, beat- and hack-’em-up form.
It’s telling that the beyond the joystick, trackball and steering wheel the next most abundant arcade controller is the gun. The taboo thrill of ending another life is part of the central fantasy of most gaming experiences. We kill in games because we know, and hope, we never will in real life. But also because we all secretly wonder what it would be like.
As with anything popular, that concept has inevitably been taken to excess. In the eighties and nineties we saw ever more bruising one-on-one fighters and beat-’em-ups. When Mortal Kombat arrived with its torrents of blood and its newspaper-baiting fatalaties it wasn’t a terrifying aberration, just the natural evolution of an industry that’s always had a slightly unhealthy fondness for the psychopathic. If video games let us live out our fantasies, what does a game where it’s possible to brutally beat a woman then rip off her head and hold it aloft in victory say about those who chose to play it?
Since then, each generation has had its controversies. A game or franchise seeking to make headlines and appeal to our baser instincts by offering blood-letting on a new and unprecedented scale. Killer Instinct, Madworld, Grand Theft Auto. All have taken the idea of ending another life (or several hundred) and celebrated it with deranged glee. So now it’s time to add another game to the canon of gore-soaked murder-fests; People Can Fly’s Bulletstorm.
Not content to be simply as violent as it can, Bulletstorm aims to bring a degree of finesse to the hyper-gruesome sub-genre of the videogame nasty. “Kill with skill” it urges. It’s not merely enough to pump hundreds of bullets into an enemy’s skull – you’ve got to get creative.
In truth videogame hyper-violence has become such a cliche that it no longer really has the capacity to shock. What was novel and exciting at the dawn of the era of realistic graphics is now a well worn furrow of excess that’s ripe for parody. And parody is what Bulletsorm does best. It’s perhaps the first post modern gaming gore-fest. A knowing wink to the audience before bad guys start exploding in torrents of blood. Bad Taste as opposed to other violent-games’ Exorcist. Tropic thunder rather than Rambo.
The deaths here are visceral and exaggerated, but they’re played for schlocky laughs as much as they are for pornographic thrill. This is violence as send-up, self-knowing and aware of it’s own intellectual limitations. A deliberately overblown homage to the Duke Nukems and Bionic Commandos of gaming’s adolescence.
Still, for all its attempts to gently mock its violent forbears, Bulletsorm is still, at heart, a game about killing things, and one that has to stand on its own two blood-soaked feet as a worthwhile experience. That’s something it does with unique aplomb thanks to a brilliant design innovation, lifted from another corner of arcade gaming’s halcyon past; the score attack. Every kill earns you points, which form the game’s central currency. Ammo, power ups, new weapons. All can only be earned be exchanging points – points that reward the most innovative murderers.
Each life extinguished garners some reward. Gunning down an enemy grunt nets a mere ten points, but bonuses are handed out for spicing things up by using creative combos and the environment to inflict more gruesome endings. Skewer an enemy on a cactus and you’ll earn a 100 point spike bonus, fire a foot long drill bit through his abdomen and into the guy behind him – sending them both spinning into a ceiling fan – and the points will really start to rack up.
Your primary assistance in this creative blood-letting comes in the form of the game’s ever more creative arsenal, and a skillset that includes a time-distorting leash that whips enemies from across the map and leaves them hanging in slow motion ahead of you, a slide move that’s great at helping you cover huge distances in the blink of an eye, and a “mighty boot” lifted straight from Duke Nukem 3D.
Combining these is the key to big bonuses, and the game actively encourages you to tee up ever more interesting kills. This may notionally be a shooter, but in truth shooting – in the sense of spraying forth bullets – is one of the least satisfying things you can do. You’ll find yourself getting up close and personal with enemies wherever possible, sending them arcing through the air with a well-placed kick and pondering the environmental possibilities as you scan around for the most interesting piece of scenery on which to skewer them. Being rushed by half a dozen mutated monsters? Why pick them off one by one when you can slo-mo leash their leader and, while he’s turning slowly in mid-air, wrap two grenades connecting by a chain around his neck and kick him into his allies, before remote detonating the explosives, sending his head skywards and his cohorts straight to hell?
It’s a very satisfying way to play through the game’s main story mode. The challenge coming less from increasingly tricky foes than from your own attempts to nail each of the dozens of possible skillshots, each of which are laid out in a handy, always accessible database, with each being ticked off as you succeed. As you go, you’ll unlock new weapons, from a cannonball launcher with bouncing ammunition to a sniper rifle where bullets can be steered is slow-motion then remote detonated once they’ve penetrated their victims.
So what of the game’s single player story? You play Grayson Hunt, an alcoholic space pirate who’s betrayed by his former commanding officer and leads a squad of mercenaries of a revenge mission. Things being what they are in the life of an alcoholic space pirate, events don’t go entirely to plan and you end up on a mutant-infested resort planet fighting your way through wave after wave of ever more groteque canon fodder in a desperate bid to escape. It’s deliberately standard fare action sci-fi stuff, elevated above the run of the mill by the fact that its tongue is wedged firmly in its cheek.
The story is ridicilous, and laced with the kind of casual profanity that would make Gordon Ramsay blush. It does though gel fairly nicely with the ludicrous gameplay and honestly, after a few hours of play, t’he solo campaigns narrative will have you hooked. Sure, it makes Halo look like Shakespeare, but the often genuinely humorous asides from Grayson are more likely to engender fondness than irritation.
Away from the solo campaign, Bulletstorm offers a couple of modes to keep you interested. Echoes ramps up the emphasis on the game’s score attack element. It breaks parts of the single-player campaign into chunks, sets a time limit and tasks you with racking up as many unique kill types as possible. It’s compelling, and a great way to force even advanced players into exploring the furthest reaches of the skillshot database.
Online is a disappointment. Matches are of the squad-versus-waves-of-enemies Left for Dead co-op variety rather than deathmatch style. Points are earned by creative teamwork, with simple kills rarely being enough to garner the requisite total to proceed to the next stage. It’s a fun diversion for a couple of hours, but with no direct competition and the repetitive nature of the waves, it feels like a missed opportunity. Perhaps People Can Fly just couldn’t figure out a way to make the game’s central time dilation kick-and-leash mechanic translate into player verus player matches.
The limited nature of the online mode isn’t the only poor design choice though. Many of the campaign’s more exciting moments are reduced to simple quicktime button presses or, even worse, in some cases just cut scenes. Late in the campaign there’s a moment when a genuinely impressive boss glimpsed early on makes a rampaging comeback. Sadly your interactions with it are truncated by a sequence of FMV that recounts an escape you’d much rather have made yourself, and a disappointing on-rails shooter segment. It’s a far cry from earlier encounters with a plant-based boss and a giant robot that stand out as true highlights.
Odder still is the decision to (literally) render many cut scenes in FMV rather than in the game’s own more-than-capable engine. On a few occasions the spectacular vistas realised in-game by the Unreal engine inexplicably give way to badly compressed pre-rendered video that looks terrible in quality, and doesn’t appear to offer any visual complexity that the 360 couldn’t handle in real time.
These moments seem like the hallmarks of a game that’s been slightly rushed to meet a release date. A decision which also seems to have meant that a planned, and surely brilliant, co-op campaign option had to be omited.
EA has already announced downloadable content for Bullestorm that will add welcome new new features. Sadly though it doesn’t go beyond some new weapon enhancements and a handful of new maps. The fundamentals are all there, but it almost feels like it will take a sequel to iron out some of the title’s kinks.
That’s not to say that Bulletstorm isn’t genuinely brilliant. The central mechanic is wonderfully executed, and massively compelling. It doesn’t quite reinvent the FPS, but it takes it into arcade gaming territory it hasn’t seen before, and will doubtless see it’s style, and score-focussed killing sprees aped in future releases for years to come.