This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Bulletstorm, the combined effort from the two developers who brought us Painkiller and Gears of War.
About fifteen years ago, the biggest problem in shooters was a brazen lack of realism. "Look at the Doom Marine," gamers would yell, "he glides around at something approximating the land speed record. It's so unrealistic! My immersion is melting down and dribbling out of my ears. And he can carry fifteen heavy weapons on his person without herniating his entire spine - it's so unrealistic! And he has perfect aim without having to ram the butt of his gun up his fucking nostrils - it's so unrealistic! And it's fun - it's so unrealistic in this joyless, painful nightmare existence we share. Thank Christ for companies like Epic, for games like Gears of War that popularize fat space marines trundling between chest-high walls like they're in wheelchairs."
But in 2004, a company called People Can Fly shirked modern trends to create Painkiller, a fast, frantic, and shamingly fun evocation of the bygone age and one of my favorite shooters of all time. "Wow," said Epic, "you really showed us how it's done, People Can Fly. Why don't you step over here for a second? Come on, don't be shy, we're not going to hurt you - Now! Drop the net! Hit them with sticks! Phew, nipped that one in the bud." So now that People Can Fly have been roundly whipped into line, they and Epic Games can bring you Bulletstorm, a game about fat space marines.
A small shipful of the chunky bastards are out seeking revenge on the military leader who betrayed them and succeed in downing both him and themselves onto some future equivalent of Butlins that's been taken over by marauding gangs and mutants, and the challenge when analyzing the story of Bulletstorm is figuring out just how many liters of piss it's taking.
At times, the central space marines are strongly reminiscent of the Republican Space Rangers from GTA IV, all overtly bursting with homoerotic tension and deploying the word "dick" at every opportunity in a rather Freudian way. And the token matchstick-thin improbably strong, skimpy vest-wearing female character who lactates a steady stream of penis envy is probably meant to be a joke - or at least I fucking hope so. But at other times, the protagonist's unresolved guilt for the misfortunes of the men under his command is played oddly straight. It makes me wonder how deep the irony hole really goes and how many of the people involved in development were in on the joke.
Bulletstorm is best summarized as the spirit of classic psychotic fun shooters pushed through the filter of modern-style action gaming, which is like forcing a quick and sprightly fox to queue up with the sleepy badgers. So gameplay is a linear series of battlegrounds inspired by the architectural school of Sir Wally McChesthigh and health regenerates if you suck your thumb behind a tree for a few seconds. But the game creates an air of forced jollity with a lengthy library of fun novelty kills that you can execute to get points for buying guns and ammo. It's rather awkwardly tire-ironed into the plot; you're using a stolen military thing that resupplies soldiers based on their performance in the field, which doesn't explain why it give you points for killing insects, blowing up advertising robots, and getting drunk (unless the military organization was sponsored by Bacardi). It's not a complaint, but I do wonder why it feels the need to explain it, and I wonder if that isn't part of the problem, that we can't just cock around without feeling the need to give our cocks backstories.
If you cast your mind back to the middle portion of the last sentence, you'll note my use of the phrase "part of the problem," and a problem there certainly is. It stems from the game being torn like a flighty broad in a romance novel between the penniless but exciting, motorbike-riding Painkiller and the dull, suit-wearing accountant with guaranteed income Gears of War.
Like Painkiller, the weapons have all been rather gratifyingly designed to be basically viscerally fun to use. The shotgun sounds like God slamming his car door and is powerful enough to separate a fellow from his entire joy department, sniper rifle bullets can be carefully guided in slo-mo bullet-o-vision directly into an enemy's taint then exploded, there's a gun that basically attaches remotely-detonated suicide bomber vests to people, and you're armed with a lasso and a mighty boot to hurl enemies around the battlefield, into spikes, onto fires, and off cliffs. If you can convince yourself that the basic human enemies all resemble your co-workers, in-laws, and probation officers, then you have everything you need to stave off your workplace shooting rampage for another few, grim, tortuous days.
But the problem with Bulletstorm 's spree-killer activity playset is that it seems to have been designed for a different game, one more in line with the fast gameplay shooters had before they ate all the pies. The effectiveness of many of the weapons' specific special attacks rely on enemies being grouped closely together, but they never do that; they spread out and hide among cover the moment they arrive on the scene. In Painkiller, I would have circle-strafed around to wrangle them together, like a heavily-armed border collie, but as with every bloody-mindedly realistic shooter, stepping out from cover just results in getting handfuls of strawberry jam smeared all over your eyes.
There's one weapon that drops a bouncing bomb that explodes each time it lands, and you're supposed to run up and kick it at people, but how your lumbering thunder thighs are supposed to achieve that without a drastic sinus clearing is beyond me. There are some melee enemies that run towards you out of cover, and if you're lucky they'll form up into a nice convenient queue so that they can all be tidily relived of their top halves, but some spunkchump thought it would be a great idea to have to press the right shoulder button to activate the special attack, then right trigger to fire it. I cannot for the life of me think of a good reason why you couldn't just fire it by pressing the right shoulder button, because it adds another second or two of thinking time and that's exactly what you don't have when axe-wielding wazzocks are running up with designs on your man-salad.
Bulletstorm does make the effort to be cathartic. A couple of the dialogue lines made me laugh, and the environments look nice - or rather, the skyboxes look nice while the actual environments you play in are chest-high clutter. It is, at the end of the day, fun to kick your ex's new boyfriend into exposed wiring, but I don't think it's all on the same page. It's trying to have its cake and eat it, which might explain why all the space marines got so fat.
A concept for a good, fast-paced, runaroundy, chaotic shooter lies in here somewhere tantalizingly from beneath the infuriating chains and straightjackets of compromise with today's AAA conveyer-belt system. Perhaps I overidealize the old ways over the space marine angst brigade, but all I can say is I don't remember ever asking for this. I don't remember playing Doom and thinking "this game would be perfect if only I was wearing a fucking dust bin!"
More of a bullet drizzle really: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Yes I know the Doom character was technically a space marine but at least he kept his mouth shut
I lost my heart and various other things to a starship trooper