Hands up who's sick to the back teeth of gritty realism in first-person shooters. Nod along if the idea of wading through bland and colourless game worlds leaves you cold. Moreover, if you've lost faith in a gaming category so increasingly defined by ongoing military conflicts and horrific wars of the past, chances are you crave a return to halcyon days when shooters were applauded for being fun rather than authentic.
But with Duke Nukem Forever evidently dead and buried as the genre's prime candidate for violent irreverence, is there anywhere else we can turn for cheap thrills? Luckily there is, thanks to Epic Games subsidiary People Can Fly (Painkiller), which is currently developing just the trigger-happy gameplay tonic necessary to alleviate any creeping sense of FPS boredom.
Eschewing moments of jarring realism in favour of laugh-out-loud comedy shocks, fast-paced sci-fi shooter Bulletstorm has emerged from Gamescom 2010 as possibly one of the most surprising games on our busy 'behind closed doors' appointment schedule. And it was certainly a refreshing and exhilarating change of pace after sampling the likes of Medal of Honor and SOCOM 4 U.S. Navy Seals. That's not to say there isn't plenty to admire in said AAA heavyweights, at least technically, but you wouldn't ordinarily associate any of them with vivid aesthetics, quirky one-liners, and a points-based kill system that openly rewards creative sadism. How very delicious.
In principle, the dark heart beating within Bulletstorm is not so far removed from Sega's The Club, a solid points-based FPS that was largely ignored by critics and consumers alike back in February of 2008. But, unlike The Club and its straight-faced delivery, it's quite obvious from the outset that Bulletstorm doesn't take itself anywhere near as seriously and its incessant killing is firmly grounded in the twin foundations of twisted humour and a wonderfully unhealthy infatuation with gore.
So what is Bulletstorm's unique selling point? Hmm, let's first deal with what it clearly isn't. It clearly isn't the generic storyline, which takes place on Stygia, an abandoned paradise that's rightly described as "a planet-sized Las Vegas." Here we find gruff-voiced generic hero Grayson Hunt, an aggressive ex-mercenary exiled from the Dead Echo outfit alongside generic cyborg Ishi Sato after both suffered an abrupt attack of conscience. A few years into his exile, and having descended into the role of a drunken space pirate, Hunt finds himself reunited with Sato after crash landing on Stygia - and (in)conveniently surrounded by mutant hordes and flesh-eating gangs aplenty. Factor in generic antagonist-cum-love-interest Trishka Novak and the ever-tightening grip of generic Nazi-themed bad guy General Serano and reading betwixt the lines might lead you to the conclusion that Bulletstorm isn't going to win any awards for its narrative.
Outside of appearing to be an otherwise fairly standard - albeit really rather pretty - first-person shooter wrapped up in a forgettable story, Bulletstorm's tent pole gameplay aspect is its Skill Shot system, a point-building feature that encourages players to combine different weapons, attacks and environmental objects in order to, quite literally, kill with style. For example, while regular head shots and specific torso impacts will always rack up a modest points tally, the true pleasure of Bulletstorm makes itself evident when players show a willingness to experiment. How about slamming four rounds from the BoneDuster quad-barrelled shotgun into a mutant's genitals, causing them to fall to their knees in agony, before then popping their head in the Mercy skill shot. Or why not try killing multiple enemies with a full clip of the PeaceMaker Carbine assault rifle without lifting off the trigger or reloading, which will secure the Full Throttle skill shot.
Offering even more variety, players can choose to charge their time displacement Leash while it's attached to a target, causing it to emit a resonance thump that thrusts all nearby enemies and unsecured objects into the air. Then, with time momentarily slowed, a Flail Gun grenade can be shot at a floating explosive barrel, killing numerous flying adversaries for multiple highly destructive Enviro-Mental skill shots. And, if it's sick laughs you're after, the Leash can also be used to whip an enemy around to face in the opposite direction, enabling the player to get in close, plant a kick up the arse, and unload a stream of hot lead that eventually ignites from the poor wretch's sphincter... for the chuckle-inducing Fire In The Hole skill shot.
Of course, chaining skill shots is the quickest way to achieve significant point gains should players, say, opt to use the Leash to haul enemies through the air towards them, firing a Flail Gun chain grenade around their middle on approach before simultaneously kicking them into a nearby ravenous giant flytrap and remotely detonating the chain - a truly vicious move that results in a whole host of different skill shot notifications flashing across the screen. Now, come on, if that doesn't sound like fun, you must be dead inside.
According to Poland-based People Can Fly, clapping eyes on enemies in other shooters tends to illicit the response "ah, fuck!" from the player, while in Bulletstorm every enemy should be viewed as an opportunity and each response thereafter should be "fuck yeah!" That gameplay explanation may sound a tad coarse, but it succeeds in perfectly encapsulating the sensation experienced after trading points for enhancements and then turning improved weaponry on enemies while entering new areas full of untapped skill shot possibilities for the very first time.
Given the seemingly shallow cyclical process of performing skill shots to amass points, upgrade weapons, unlock more elaborate skill shots, and then set about gathering yet more points, you'd be forgiven for thinking Bulletstorm's lack of depth would be to its detriment. However, while the current build's core run-and-gun gameplay looks like it may not distinguish itself from any other solid but unremarkable shooter, the skill shot mechanic carries so much genuine appeal that it should ably paper over any potentially worrying cracks.
And, if that weren't enough promise to justify Bulletstorm's place on your pre-release radar, then take note that the game has already scooped various E3 2010 awards from the likes of Electric Playground (Best of Show), VGChartz (Best Shooter), Game Informer (Best Shooter), and 1UP (Best Shooter). Take it from us, after playing through the Gamescom demo, every gaming journo left the presentation sporting a big stupid grin. That's all the endorsement you should need as Bulletstorm's February 22 release date creeps closer. It was certainly enough for us.