Bulletstorm is an astonishingly clever game folded up inside an exquisitely stupid one.
On the surface, People Can Fly has delivered a sustained rumination on what it feels like to really boot somebody in the nuts. Yet beneath all that is a design built on years of watching audiences play outside of the rules in other shooters. It's a lightning-fingered restructuring of the genre which borrows smartly from puzzle games, racers and even, in its score-attack modes, time-limited social games.
It's a game filled with tricks and gimmicks, but its best trick is this: it manages to combine both sides of itself – the brainless rollercoaster and the intricately course-tuned leaderboard-chaser – into one harmonious package. In the process, the developer mints gold from a single, shimmering contradiction. This is a shooter in which merely shooting somebody will leave you feeling like you're playing it wrong.
You're a swashbuckling space moron and you've crash-landed on a hostile alien planet. Your mission is to blast your way back to the man whose betrayal landed you here and put your boot neatly through his ears. This makes for a simple narrative filled with imaginative (often gynaecological) swearing; the biggest twist its plot can offer is that it's actually strangely involving.
The characters are larger-than-life and grimly charming in a 'cousins from the Randy Quaid side of the family' kind of way, while the quick-witted script hands everybody plenty of smart idiocy to spew out. You won't be quoting Bulletstorm on your deathbed (unless your deathbed involves someone trying to wrap a grenade around your legs before punching you into a giant cactus), but you won't regret the time you spend in the company of its cast as you race through the story mode.
Even if you just play it as a standard shooter, it's a campaign of relentless pace and inventiveness. The pleasantly stupid story curls itself around some ingenious set-pieces: a simple movement tutorial is disguised as an anti-grav trek down the side of a skyscraper, you're chased through sand-drifts by a giant bladed wheel and there are a few brilliantly over-sized bosses (and something we won't spoil that you initially expect to be a boss, but turns out to be something far cooler).
People Can Fly's artists have filled the game with gleaming details and beautiful vistas, while the level designers have a lot of fun with the fact that the planet you've crashed on was once a kind of intergalactic three-way between Venice, Las Vegas and Disneyland. Every shift in scenery, from craggy sci-fi-paperback-cover rocks to plush airport terminals and perspective-skewing amusement park rides, manages to transport you somewhere promisingly new and unexpectedly colourful. By the time you're kicking your way through a nest of giant monster eggs, you'll be so thoroughly acclimatised to the place that you'll barely spare a thought for who laid them in the first place. (Big mistake.)
On top of this hectic structure, Bulletstorm's Skillshot system works its deranged magic. Skillshot rewards you with points for offing enemies in a creative or surprising manner; much has already been made of the way it puts the accent on shooting people in the nuts or ripping them in two. Many commentators have been grimly dismissive of the fact that Bulletstorm's schlocky tendencies make it easy to characterise games as playthings for the disturbed, while Fox News, rarely missing a trick, has used Bulletstorm's schlocky tendencies to characterise games as playthings for the disturbed.
Regardless of whether you initially find the game's selection of skewerings, decapitations and other bodily traumas unpalatable, the truth is that after a few hours, you'll likely see Bulletstorm for what it really is: a very unlikely reworking of bar billiards. You position yourself, take aim, and then try to score the ultimate variation on a bank shot.
The Skillshot list is long and worryingly granular, but it largely breaks down into celebrations of environmental, enemy-type or weapon-based kills. Common-or-garden shooting will net you a paltry +10 points, but if you can knock your foe into an electrical object (Shocker) or kick them over a cliff (Vertigo) you'll be far more richly rewarded. Each stage has a handful of set-piece opportunities (giant fans, pneumatic meat grinders) and even in quieter moments there will always be a chance for you to express yourself.
The game is laudably attentive to murderous variety, distinguishing, for example, between impalement on metal poles (Voodoo Doll) and cactus spikes (Pricked). Whether you're yanking helicopters out of the sky before drilling the pilot (Parashoot) or squishing people behind lumps of metal that other games would merely use as cover (Pancake), you'll rarely come up with a form of brutality that the developer didn't get to first.
From basics like Bullet Kick and Headshot to oddities such as the Feeder and 4th of July manoeuvre, it's a dazzling and darkly imaginative checklist. It's unlikely you'll see more than 60 per cent of the available moves on your first play-through – and while you may wonder how much genuine creativity there is to be had in cartoon cruelty when there are games like LittleBigPlanet out there, Bulletstorm still knows how to put together an appealing sandbox.
Most of your creativity will hinge on the two central tools you're given: a sliding kick (great for starting juggles, while also allowing you to cover a great distance very quickly) and an electrical leash that lets you yank people or objects towards you. It's a delight to master the various combinations of these two simple elements. As soon as an enemy has been booted or leashed, they enter a period of slow-motion movement allowing you to line up your shot or move around to get a better aim; it soon becomes apparent that both attacks are really about repositioning for that one-in-a-million target shot.
And that, of course, is where Bulletstorm piles on the guns, from the standard Peacemaker Carbine through to the likes of the quad-barrelled Boneduster shotgun, the Head Hunter sniper rifle (with slow-motion after-steer bullets, obviously) and the bolo-grenade-expelling Flailgun. Each has an enviable sense of weight and consequence to it.
Towards the halfway point, you'll be unlocking the genuinely crazy stuff like the drill-headed Penetrator and the hilariously dangerous Bouncer, but even the simplest of weapons bristles with opportunities. Whether you're using the Flailgun to wrap enemies together before lobbing them into a crowd and chummily triggering the grenade-tipped Flailchain, or using your leash to turn people into human yo-yos, Bulletstorm's arsenal remains fiercely thought-provoking.
Each weapon has a one-kill Charge move which you can unlock and then upgrade ammo slots for. As you'll be swapping weapons in and out at regular Dropkit checkpoints, you'll get to experiment with everything you're offered well before the game is done. In a final bit of cleverness, your Skillshot points can be cashed in for more ammo or upgrades along the way, meaning that you're actively encouraged to use your best stuff to earn more cash to buy more of your best stuff. Hoarding doesn't pay off, which is great news, since hoarding also happens to be rubbish.
On top of the campaign, a duo of additional modes promises to extend Bulletsorm's lifespan, if you're obsessive-compulsive enough to embrace them.
Echoes is a score-attack offering that feels like the true heart of the game, breaking the story levels down into a series of high-action nuggets shorn of cut-scenes and other distractions. The pace of the action slowly moves from a carnival of experimentation to a kind of scientific hunt for the perfect racing line as geography, enemy placement and weapons pull you towards an optimum route. With the clock ticking, you're encouraged to inflict maximum carnage as quickly as possible, and it's fascinating to discover that certain rooms – which initially took a quarter-hour of mad attrition to clear – can be smartly short-circuited in seconds.
With most levels taking no longer than three minutes to complete, the leaderboard competition is as compelling as it is in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit – or Zuma Blitz, for that matter. It's a shame that the designers didn't go all the way and simply slap Criterion's Autolog system on top of it all.
Elsewhere, Anarchy Mode is a four-player Horde reinvention taking place in a series of punchy little arenas, the twist being that you need to reach a certain score during each wave to proceed to the next. Bulletstorm's arsenal of kicks, slides and leashes works surprisingly well with more than one player involved, and with new multi-person Skillshots available, it's a perfect place to both hone the techniques you've learnt in the core game and build upon them.
Bulletstorm didn't necessarily invent all of the things it gets so much mileage from. Alongside blood relatives Gears of War and Painkiller, there are large chunks of everything from The Club and Time Crisis to Duke Nukem and Vanquish floating around in its genome. Its peculiar magic, however, lies in the way that it manages to coat its sharp arcade ideas with a comforting big-budget campaign to help lure players of all types in.
This is a game that wants you to laugh so hard that you sneeze on yourself, but it's also a game that wants you to experiment as much as possible with the tools you've been given. Its cleverness is as lightly worn as it is unexpected. It's the best kind of guilty pleasure.
9 / 10