Review: Bulletstorm (****)

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9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? 11 For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. 12 And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.

1 Corinthians 8

Ever get that feeling of total, utter satisfaction when beating a game? The pride of conquest, finding yourself the victor over all challenges and all the harsh, stiff challenges the developers threw in your path? Perhaps, you remember spending time on some stupid puzzle that required nothing short of bizarro game logic to solve. And, you did it all without a guide book! Congratulations!

Well, Bulletstorm doesn’t quite merit any association with puzzle games; rather, People Can Fly take the “bromance” cover-based mechanics of Gear of War and graft them onto a Call of Duty first person shooter mold. For those not familiar, Call of Duty never added much to the first person shooter genre except for exciting graphical setpieces and a multiplayer mode that appeals to the adolescent in all of us. Bulletstorm merely takes these elements to their furthest extremes, upping the violence, “hoo-rah” aesthetic (in both dialogue and visual style), and putting the player character into so many over-the-top setpieces that the single-player campaign feels like a giant set of Michael Bay movies.

Seriously, your character should die multiple times throughout the game, whether from falling a great height or being shot. Yet, like all good video games, Bulletstorm knows its own nature. It throws setpieces at you precisely because, through a combination of extremely vulgar yet endearing dialogue, you might actually care about the character just a teeny bit. Humor endears us to people like no other conversation topics, and I’m not sure how Bulletstorm’s rout and semi-serious revenge tale convinced me to keep playing, but it did. Everyone, seriously everyone, in the game made me laugh. Multiple times. I’ve never heard these cursing combinations before, and may never hear them again. Whether from People Can Fly’s foreign nature or not, it works.

Of course, I would say to many: stay away. If you find this sort of thing offensive, rather than shocking and in good fun, then stay away. Much as in the case of most humor, you are better off leaving things that will offend you alone. Bulletstorm really does not care who it offends, and simply tries to shock some laughter out of you on multiple occasions. I certainly don’t give it a wholehearted endorsement on that point, but know what you’re getting into here.

Getting to the game: again, Call of Duty. Unlike Call of Duty, though, Bulletstorm wants you to kill people, places, and things in the most creative ways possible. Yes, it plays just like Call of Duty with the aiming mode and the sprint, but does CoD let you kick enemies in the face, chest, or genitals? I think not. Nor does it let you slide at high velocities into a guy’s legs, pop him into the air, and whip out an explosive headshot as he careens off a cliff-face. Nor does CoD provide an electric whip that allows you to move around objects, both blunt and explosive, and people in front of your face to, what else, shoot someone in the butt (as the game calls it, “Rear Entry”). Frankly, the variety in this exaggerated version of billiards comes through as the game proceeds through its elaborate sets. In that sense, it shows a great deal of Painkiller influence (People Can Fly’s previous game series).

Still, each level comes down to a set of different play areas, each with a unique series of objects, deadly environment setpieces, and enemies that you mangle and murder in various ways. Throw an enemy into a cactus, or maybe kick a hotdog stand into his face (as you might note, there’s exactly one female in the game; everything else is a dude or a monster). Maybe you just want to attach an explosive to someone, kick him into the midst of his friends, and watch them all explode (I’m not going to relate the euphemism that the game uses for that one). Each little arena, predicated by obvious load times and a distinct layout, tells you when combat will arrive.

This isn’t to mention the Skillshot system. Justified as a small plot contrivance for a HUD, it encourages players to experiment with the different murdering methods mentioned above. Each one of the various set-ups, when discovered, earns you a point bonus. The more elaborate the kill, the more points you get. In the campaign, this translates to currency for ammo and weapon upgrades, giving you incentives to play creatively and well. Playing well felt a requirement on even Normal mode; if you play it straight like Call of Duty, most enemies exhibit a durability far beyond ordinary humans. Kick ’em in the nuts, though, and they’ll fly into the air, exudes a purple color, and suddenly become much easier to kill within a small time frame.

Not all enemies succumb so easily, though. Some will resist kickings or whips from afar, meaning you’ll need to use the environment to your advantage. Others you cannot kill except by targeting specific body parts…or just choosing to blow them up. Enemies continue to try new ways to kill you and avoid your best laid plans, so it requires constant adaptation to both enemy types and surroundings. In other words, all of this science fiction setting trapping actually makes Call of Duty much more exciting! The game doesn’t even provide a multiplayer mode (other than co-op), eschewing traditional deathmatch for Echoes, a score attack mode with a time limit and a score requirement. Bulletstorm’s focus on sheer carnage and creative destruction channels well into a linear shooting experience. Each little victory’s pretty satisfying!

With all this praise, you might ask “what’s the problem”? Well, the game stills reflects its roots as a Call of Duty clone. Regenerating health, for one, really kills the pacing on the high-octane combat sequences. Who wants to look for cover in the midst of an intense melee-based kicking session? Certainly not me! Because of the lack of realism, and the fact that your character can fall fifty stories multiple times and survive, the regeneration of health strikes me as a bit of a cop-out to a more fully-fleshed out health system. Perhaps creative killing could earn you health power ups through some plot contrivance, or maybe killing keeps you alive (like Shinobi’s PS2 incarnation). The current system doesn’t work with other core systems in the combat, and it reeks of laziness.

The enemy AI, though smart enough for this sort of game, sometimes displays that foolishness of always knowing where you are. This leads to stupid situations where 3-4 enemies continually fire explosives at your covered location in sequence, making it impossible to escape. You might say that one could prevent that situation by killing everything quickly, but it’s just strange to see enemies firing at me when two squadmates fire on them with no reprisal. Plus, you rarely avoid bullets and splash damage due to that modern trope of hitscanning weapons, forcing damage even onto skilled players.

So there’s that. Those issues force the score down immediately, but otherwise I fully recommend it for an audience with strong stomach and an ability to stand the constant curse-filled humor. This game will not work for every Christian, I admit. People Can Fly filled it to the brim with utterly offensive things, but the game underneath holds up to close scrutiny. On a website, of course, I can talk about these games freely, but I doubt many Christians I know would find this review interesting or helpful. That’s sorta the way of things; play it if it won’t become a stumbling block; otherwise, leave well enough alone. Paul told us this in 1 Corinthians 8 precisely for that reason.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.