Let’s be honest here: I have absolutely no qualms with the fact that Epic is building hyper-intense games with solid bricks of digital testosterone. The developer only recently gained that reputation with the Gears of War games – produced exclusively for the Xbox 360 – which made a lot of money for them. So, it makes sense that their first major multi-platform, post-Gears franchise doesn’t deviate too much from that reputation, instead notching it to an even further extreme.
For those unfamiliar with Bulletstorm, the concept is simple: you’re playing a first-person shooter where creative kills (“Kill With Skill”, the tagline screams.) like lassoing enemies and flinging them into exposed rebar nets you gobs of points, while headshots (something that would be a special achievement in any other shooter) and repeatedly using the same killing methods register low on the spectrum. If you’ve played the Project Gotham Racing games, it’s the same idea, but with an absurd amount of killing instead of creatively sliding around corners in Italian supercars. (Bulletstorm is actually very similar in concept to The Club, which Gotham creators Bizarre Creations produced a few years ago to mixed reviews.) All of this creative killing is mixed together with a super-campy stew of meat-headed dialogue and super-manliness so extreme that I’m sure the retail release will feature a Man Card for unconfirmed males and women looking for a free trial. The point-based killing mechanic was always the selling point of the game for me, making it a Day One purchase.
So now we get to the demo, which recently released to PS3 and Xbox 360 owners. The first sin here is an introductory video that covers virtually every facet of the game, running about as long as the playable demo does, which is roughly eight minutes. Yes, for the half hour it took to download the 1.1GB demo, it only offers about eight minutes of gameplay. This is a bit misleading though, because like other point-based games, the whole concept is to play a level over and over to try and best your score, which propagates across a series of leaderboards. In the game, a major tool in your arsenal is a lasso which allows you to fling enemies toward you in slow motion, then use melees and other weapons to finish them off with comical results. The demo level has you murdering through a series of amazing set pieces (an Epic specialty) in a collapsed building set amongst a beautiful blue and gold skyline; the art direction here is nothing short of amazing.
The problem is that the truly special kills were achieved by scripting in the level (using your lasso to bring down a chunk of debris on a group of enemies) or by other random means that I felt I had little control over. Despite the game’s emphasis on them, there was no compelling reason to get specialty kills. You can play Bulletstorm like any other shooter – although in my runs it took about twice as long to do so – but the game doesn’t seem to indicate any penalty for it. In fact, I only managed to score a few more points by playing it as intended instead of playing it like Call of Duty. There’s a whole lotta lassoing and kicking here with the high-scoring kills being a ton of work.
Ultimately, killing with skill in Bulletstorm is an unfulfilling experience. While it appears the game’s campaign will be filled with amazing levels and hilarious dialogue, I just can’t wrap my head around Bulletstorm as a sixty dollar purchase.