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.