Reviewed on: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PC)
Reviewed by: Seth Robison
“That still only counts as one!”
- Gimli at Pelennor Fields, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)
The best thing that can be said about a largely new and original concept is that it feels instantly familiar, like it’s the latest entry in a prolific franchise. Bulletstorm, out now for PS3, Xbox 360 and Windows from People Can Fly and Epic Games, takes the classic gaming trope for rewarding players that skillfully target an enemy’s head with an instant kill to its illogical conclusion. This sci-fi first person shooter rewards players who can elaborately stage the deaths of their foes quantifying and qualifying them and rewarding the trigger puller with greater opportunities to do the same to others in the future.
Drunken space pirate Grayson Hunt, his comrades and their nemesis: their former General in the Confederation of Planets military, have all crashed landed on the supposedly abandoned resort planet of Stygia. Far from the idyllic paradise of its conception, Stygia is overrun with savage cannibal tribes, overgrown with mutated flora and fauna and is continually lashed with overdoses of deadly radiation from an unstable star. The only way off-world is the General’s approaching rescue craft, so a race begins as friends and enemies work together and against each other to escape the planet.
Layered over this plot of loyalty, honor and sacrifice is the ‘skillshot’ system. Set-up with a few lines of dialog and some hand-waved at technology during the single-player storyline, killing your foes in unique and creative ways earn Grayson points. For example, pinning someone to the ground with a weapon that fires spinning drills is called a ‘Breakdance,’ and you can create a ‘Homie Missile’ by kicking a flail-grenade wrapped foe into his comrades. These points, earned with diminishing returns to encourage you to mix it up a little, can then spent at frequently placed dropkit-stores in levels to buy more ammo, swap out or upgrade the available weapons with alternate fire charged shots that do more damage and kill more spectacularly.
To aid this action, shortly after crash-landing Grayson acquires the leash, an energy lasso that pulls objects and enemies towards him and imbues them with a force that slows their relationship to gravity and momentum. Also accessible by kicking foes with Grayson’s gravity boots, enemies suspended in the air give you plenty of time to line up a desired skillshot, or just to move to their side and booting them off a ledge. This localized time dilation, like Dead Space’s stasis field, is a fun application of the Bullet-Time mechanic that has saturated the FPS genre.
Mixing fast-paced FPS action with a Tony Hawk Pro Skater-esce scoring system and having them not get in each other’s way is perhaps Bulletstorm’s most impressive accomplishment. If desired, the game can be completed with a minimum amount of skillshot hi-jinks necessary, using the points you can get incidentally or accidentally to keep your ammo supplies up. The skillshot system wisely never slows down the action by requiring you to score a certain amount to advance or overtly punish a player for keeping the action simple. At the same time, the game’s very generous ‘walk-it-off’ style damage system means you, even at the higher difficulty levels, can absorb a lot of punishment if you must take some time in the open to line up the perfect high-scoring kill.
Bulletstorm, being Gears of War’s drunken uncle of a game, carries around with it a lot of comparisons to that triple-A franchise. For instance, its collection of unique weapons of varying utility. Beyond Bulletstorm’s retinue of assault rifle, shotgun, pistol and grenade launcher is the clumsy ‘cannon-ball’ gun, and a sniper rifle that is only useful in areas specifically designed for its use in this otherwise all close-to-medium range action game. Completely absent from Bulletstorm is a cover system, though this makes the barest amount sense in a title that is centered around frenetic arcade-style action, it will still have you occasionally fleeing from battle in a crouched position looking for an object that may or may not be tall enough to guard you from attack while you wait to recover. The controls are standard for an FPS, intuitive with no tricky button combinations, though the slide kick can veer off target frustratingly.
Special mention must be made of the game’s writing. [Click here for an interview with writer Rick Remender about the game] While the plot of the game is nothing remarkable, Bulletstorm boldly goes where none have gone before and into new frontiers of frequent and frequently riotous profanity. The vocal cast, lead by veteran voice actor Steven Blum (Cowboy Bebop), does a great job in conveying the classic military cliché of soldiers dealing with the horror around them with dissociative black humor. Non-vocally, compared to the game’s gory and often lowbrow action, the background music sets a slightly askew tone with its space-opera sensibilities, but when matched with the gorgeous background visuals it’s worth a moment of risk to sit, stare and listen. In action, the stage and character design to do a good job conveying the feel of the decaying of Stygia, placing skillshot-related environmental objects and the like without interfering with the action. Enemies are big and detailed allowing you pick them out and place your shots on their bodies (head, neck, limbs, ass or groin) even at medium range.
When you are through the 8-10 hour single player campaign, Echo mode will let you play through segments of the storyline mission in pursuit of a high score, and the multiplayer cooperative Anarchy mode. Here up to four online players join forces to reach a scoring goal using individual and mode-exclusive team skillshots against waves of enemies. Bulletstorm makes sport out of killing, something that gaming has incidentally been doing for decades, but now there’s finally a great way to keep score.
Quick Shots! Little Reviews of Big Games
Killzone 3, PS3, review by Lucas Siegel: This is a very literal sequel to Killzone 2, picking up seconds after the previous game, at least after a little glimpse at the future devastation that awaits you. The ISA and Helghast are still at war. You're still seeing the war through the eyes of generic-gritty-soldier-man. The game is gorgeous, looking better than most other games out there, clearly using the PS3's power in a real and visible way. The gameplay is strong, with a very visceral feeling to everything you do, whether you're sniping someone from across the map or doing them in up-close-and-personal in a vicious melee attack. Don't expect to get sucked into the story like Halo: Reach, or to get inside the minds of the characters like Call of Duty: Black Ops, but do expect to have fun shooting the stereotypically evil Helghast between the eyes with a variety of satisfying guns, have fun flying around with your jetpack, and watch pretty things blow up. Multiplayer has the obligatory modes, both new and old, and plays smooth and fast; if you're bored with Black Ops or want some slightly more personal-feeling combat, it's worth playing around with. The optional Move controls are surprisingly fun and responsive- it's like playing a Wii FPS with way better graphics and a little more reliable aiming. I didn't have one of the gun peripherals to try, but just holding the two controllers separately offered a fun and reliable experience. Overall, if you're a fan of the series, you'll love this game. If you just want a vapid but visually exciting game, check out Killzone 3 as well.
MLB 11: The Show, PS3, review by Lucas Siegel: This is one realistic baseball game. From the excellent commentary to the nuanced movement of the individual players between at-bats, plus the gorgeous graphics, varied fans in the stands, and fantastic atmospheric soundtrack, it would be very easy for someone watching you play to forget they were viewing a video game. This of course also means the game can plod on quite a bit for non-baseball fans. In addition to the atmosphere and standards like depth-of-roster, customization, and such, the game offers three different levels of control. Basic controls let it play nearly like a baseball game from yesteryear: hit X to swing, hold L2 and the corresponding button to run to that base, etc. Some movement controls, like tilting the controller to slide are integrated and work quite naturally. For advanced gamers, you can add up-to "total analog" control. For this, you're actually mimicking pitching and swinging motions using the analog sticks. It's an interesting novelty, but one I didn't feel like many would really be using. The Move-based homerun derby is similarly a fun novelty that is just that, a novelty; it's nothing we haven't all played before in countless similar titles. Regardless, MLB 11: The Show with it's ace presentation and attention to detail from the first pitch to the bottom of the ninth is definitely the game for the consummate baseball fan. Just don't expect it to somehow make your friend who can't make it to the seventh inning stretch into the next superfan.