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People Can Fly and Epic's spleen-bursting FPS plays havoc with our innocence...
'GAG REFLEX +50'
The 26th century muscle mary you've just shot in the throat clutches his neck frantically, spewing glistening streams of claret onto the roof-tiles under the oppressive glare of Bulletstorm's dual suns. Booting a belligerent reptilian berserker into a ventilation fan, you cock your Screamer, and as the flailing lizard-man shreds into a fine green mist, you discharge your throbbing weapon into the encroaching horde, launching one into a spiralling, smoky ascent.
The remaining berserkers, now ablaze, stumble about impotently as chunks of charred lizard flesh rain down upon them. A flail gun round flings through the air and wraps itself around a figure in the centre of the group. You pull the trigger.
'GANG BANG +100, AFTERBURNER +100, SADIST +50'
Bulletstorm wears its silly adolescent heart on its blood-soaked neon sleeve. This isn't a game that tries to convince you that it's grown-up with gratuitous violence and adult language; instead, it revels in its base aesthetic excesses in a reassuringly juvenile way. This is a game in which you can stun an enemy with a quadruple-barrelled shotgun, leash off his armour, and launch a 'Penetrator' missile into his exposed arse.
'FIRE IN THE HOLE +150'
It's a far cry from the legions of staid military shooters currently populating the FPS genre. People Can Fly has crafted a vibrant sci-fi world filled with crumbling extraterrestrial cityscapes and screen-filling alien monsters. The single-player campaign lurches from one spectacular set-piece to another in an orgy of technicolour ultraviolence, running from stark industrial furnaces and 26th century starships, to decaying urban sprawls engulfed by lush alien fauna.
But as impressive as the distinctive visuals undoubtedly are, they're effortlessly outshone by the unique gameplay mechanics on offer. At the heart of the experience is a comprehensive skillshot system which rewards you for creatively dispatching your foes. Kick an enemy into a cactus and get 100 points for a 'Pricked' kill; shoot a running bad guy in the legs to trip him over - and finish him off on the ground - for the 50 point 'Trip Wire' accolade. While such systems might have the potential to constrain creative freedom in lesser games - limiting player expression to the boundaries of the development team's expectations - the possibilities have been so exhaustively enumerated in Bulletstorm's in-game skillshot database that it's almost certain that any ideas you come up with have already been catalogued. There are skillshots for juggling airborne enemies with your shotgun and for shooting off individual limbs with your handgun; there's even a skillshot for shooting an enemy in the 'nads and kicking his face in as he falls to his knees, screaming in agony.
Once you unlearn the staid head-shotting and quick-scoping habits ingrained by years of military shooters and open up to the creative possibilities in Bulletstorm it really begins to shine. Each of the game's outlandish weapons can be overcharged to access a powerful secondary function: the handgun shoots a rocket that turns enemies into humanoid fireworks, the shotgun fires a blast that can incinerate the occupants of an entire room; one weapon even launches a bouncing cannon ball that can be kicked around at will, exploding every time it ricochets off the ground.
'MONEY SHOT +50'
And these are relatively prosaic examples of the sort of carnage the game rewards. Kick an enemy, or yank him towards you with your electric leash, and he'll slow down for a few moments while flying past - as though temporarily trapped in your treacly orbit - allowing plenty of time to kick him into some nearby wall spikes, or off into a group of nearby grunts. You can also slide foot-first across arenas at speed, booting enemies into the air on impact, which lends a refreshing degree of fluidity and freedom to character movement.
In some ways however, Bulletstorm is a victim of its own success; the fundamental mechanics are so ground-breaking, that you sort of expect a similar standard of originality from its level design and campaign structure. The reality is something rather more familiar; for better or worse, the campaign follows the modern FPS formula fairly closely, progressing in a strictly linear fashion from one room of enemies to the next, with conveniently placed design detritus littered about to provide cover. Once in a while the action is broken up with a chase sequence, an on-rails section, or the odd obligatory QTE, but there's little that's original about the flow and structure of the campaign. While the game does its best to introduce new hazards as it progresses, and the levels are on the whole well constructed to offer up creative possibilities for carnage, there are occasions when the relentless pace of the action begins to feel a tad one-note, and the experience sometimes drags when confronted by yet another room of enemies featuring novel new environmental hazard x.
Overall however it's an extremely accomplished, and surprisingly well-polished ride, and the level design is still some of the most original to be found in what is often a deeply unoriginal genre. There's a substantial roller-coaster of a campaign on offer, running through 20 varied stages in roughly the usual time you've come to expect from a modern shooter. People Can Fly have tacked on a fairly predictable story about vengeance and retribution, but it has a reassuringly big-budget-blockbuster feel to it, and you'll almost certainly be too busy having fun with the exemplary game mechanics to care about the paper-thin plot and obvious story arc. Anyway, this isn't a game about sobbing into your hanky and forming deep empathetic bonds with its characters; this is a game about wrapping explosive flail gun bolas around an enemy's neck and kicking him into an electrical storm. References to classic sci-fi films and FPS games abound throughout, and with Bulletstorm unafraid to repeatedly poke fun at itself and the genre in general, it's tempting to believe that the rubbish plot is in fact just another in-joke on the part of the developers.
Echoes mode re-frames selected sequences from the single-player campaign as bite-sized score-attack challenges; there are fourteen levels in total, each of which lasts roughly five minutes. It initially seems merely like a shallow but satisfying arcadey remix of the main game, but repeated play reveals something more akin to a meticulous high-score puzzle challenge. Getting the highest scores requires creativity and persistence, and committed players will accrue significant mileage from trying to improve their performance here.
Bulletstorm lacks a competitive PvP multplayer mode, but the wave-based co-op Anarchy mode is a riot with 4 players. Progression is achieved by building up enough points from each wave of enemies and, with the biggest pay-outs reserved for team skillshots that require genuine co-operation between players, fluid communication amongst team-members is a must. Occasionally a high-scoring team challenge will flash up, such as 'team bullet kick', and one member will have to kick a flashing enemy into the air so that another can shoot him down; you only have one attempt to grab the points and the tension these events can generate amongst a team is palpable. Even if you're not that focussed on securing the highest possible score, it's great fun just juggling enemies about with your friends as you try to pass through the rounds. Much like the single-player campaign, your points are the currency you use to unlock weapons and upgrades between waves. The game ships with a generous selection of maps, although some are clearly stronger than others, with the excellent Dead Rock and Power Plant (which features a huge rotating hydro-electric dynamo) outshining the rather more lacklustre Grand Central Station level. The lack of any sort of split-screen mode feels like something of a missed opportunity - as this is exactly the sort of game that would really shine with a few mates crowded round a telly - but the consistently excellent visuals somewhat compensate for the omission.
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