There’s going to come a point when a genre simply can’t take it anymore. It’s not exhaustion; that comes much sooner. This is different, and while there’s no fantastic word that I can come up with, the closest I can hit is ‘implode’. After a while it’s like the genre couldn’t handle it, like older role-playing games, where you just get these infinite mirror reflections and what used to be traditions, then tropes, become these malicious and kind of snarky bad habits. It’s not offensive or annoying, it’s just like the elves, knights and archers are constantly winking at the screen as if you’re ‘in on it’. Shooters are going to hit that wall. Maybe Duke Nukem Forever will be the guiding hand, but shooters are going to collide with this unfathomable heap, where there is so little unexploited reasons for guns to shoot people left that the entire concept will just collapse in on itself.
So what is Bulletstorm? Originally hyped up due to the presence of developers Epic and People Can Fly, many folks expected a heinously cheeky, violent slaughterhouse that only a name like Bulletstorm could suggest. But as time went on, evidence started to mount that there was going to be something special about Bulletstorm, once again hard to pin, but unmistakably present. It’s angle and excuses for violence take clear cues and influence from previous shooters, but it’s the way these parts mix together that helps this quirky little thing present some real ingenuity. After all, even tried and true ingredients can be cooked together astonishingly by the right chefs. Beef. Chicken. Soy. Chunk. Mutant.
It’s always good to do something with a clear head. So when taking revenge on the warmonger who framed him and his team, Captain Grayson Hunt would soon regret not doing so while sober. Now his ship is wrecked, his friends mostly dead and the only other survivor is hacked together with a computer system in order to live. To make things a goofy brand of worse, the planet they crash land on is inhabited by crumbling cyber-deco and rabid pseudo-natives. Discourse between characters clearly has familiar bro/jerk origins, but they maul their selectively masculine language to the point of disassociation. Though all is not lost, if by some pinhole of a chance, they can get a hold of the very man they intended to kill, Grey and his now cyborg pal Ishi might be able to make it off this crazy weird world.
There are some obvious inspirations for the style of the game. Under a magnifying glass you can dissect and trace almost every classic FPS element, from something as sophisticated as Bioshock to as blunt as Serious Sam. The world feels massive, with many machines, buildings and monsters big enough to attack Ultraman, it becomes all the more spectacular when each comes a-tumblin’ down. Things you kaboom early in the game have surprising and generally charming repercussions. While the machoisms chucked out by Grayson aren’t too too distant from what you’d hear from any other grizzled space marine, the context that surrounds it, keeping Ishi more human than machine, makes it a touch more endearing. In general, Hunt seems to display emotions cold and unfamiliar to many FPS protagonists, often grieving over losses and mistakes in subtle ways.
What comes next to weird-up Hunt’s adventure and opening the gate for bloggers to unleash e-theses about the ‘genius of a meta-game’ is also the explanation why every screenshot you’ve seen has blazing slang quotes hovering about the gore: The leash. Early on Grayson nabs some new tech from the army of his enemy, discovering they wielded not only a plasma whip but aggressive encouragement. The leash tracks soldiers’ kill records, a sort of ‘game’, tallying up points which can be exchanged for ammo and upgrades from supply pods scattered about the planet, making sure only ‘the good die young’. But as always, killing isn’t enough, and your gun is only as good as you use it (or not use it). Getting creative with your casualties can unveil massive bundles of points and finding ways to merge your leash, your roster of guns, gun modes and ever powerful boot heel you’ll find a slight tug to ask yourself, “Yes, what would happen if I kicked this fanged pulsing pod on to that man’s head and then shot that angry glowing thing next to it whilst surrounded by suicide bombers and cacti?” Each gun has a secondary mode, which can sometimes make the difference between a revolver and a flare gun, though some classics are spruced up even in regular settings, like a sniper rifle that gives you direct control over the bullet. The kick is a titan all of its own, and if you’re strapped for ammunition there’s no shame in using the mighty gesture to launch enemies into spikes, magma, the open air or just into the wall over and over till they become nothing more than a red smear.
It’s strange how far a little push can go. While you’ve never really hesitated to test the variety of shooters that offer it, it’s a whole new experience to have it be the driving force. Bulletstorm is a game that resembles many games you’ve marched in before, and is difficult to call an homage, but it’s much more embracing of these elements. Things aren’t big, they’re titanic. Enemies aren’t violent, they’re rabid. These colours aren’t muddy, they pop radioactive like a sugar cereal box. Things don’t just blow up, they take the planet with them. But despite so many echoes, Bulletstorm isn’t afraid to blaze some new paths. Certain chapters shake with a creative headspace more inventive than ‘snow level’ and ‘fun fun carnival place’, these’ll stick. There’s a lot of legitimate pathos for these rag tag space pirates, and unlike so many other shooters it hits higher echelons than just simple martyrdom. You feel bad for Grayson and Ishi, and you feel bad for Grayson feeling bad about Ishi. With such great mood, setting and pacing, I really felt like I floated through Bulletstorm with a whimsical sense of glee. I don’t think of myself as a violent person, but Bulletstorm makes a great case for violence. Hooray for Violence!