Who knew that shooting bad guys up the bumhole was exactly what the FPS genre needed? Other than People Can Fly, I'm not sure. As the rest of the industry scrambles to follow in the dusty combat boots of Call of Duty, the Poland-based developers have been plotting an altogether different route. Seemingly inconsequential when announced at E3 2009, the results have been wowing preview audiences ever since.
Before we get stuck into the specifics, indulge me a short anecdote. This preview is based on some hands-on time I got at EA's recent Winter Showcase. A suitably glitzy affair, the event took place inside the 02 arena, in a cavernous club stuffed to the gills with dozens of upcoming games.
Stretched across an entire day, it allowed journos to demo the biggest and best of EA's upcoming content. As such, we squeezed in as much as we could. But as the day wore on and everyone finished with the titles they were obliged to play, they tended to gravitate back towards the ones they wanted to play. By the end of proceedings some booths sat worryingly unoccupied. But Bulletstorm's was still crammed.
There's a very simple reason for this. Bulletstorm is fun. It doesn't want to teach you anything about war, it doesn't want to challenge your morality, it doesn't want to pretend it's not a game. It just wants you to shoot the crap out everything in the most stylishly ridiculous and enjoyable way possible. This isn't a game content with a double-barrelled shotgun. Oh no. Bulletstorm gives you a quadruple-barrelled shotgun.
There were a couple of multiplayer modes available to play at the showcase; a stripped back, leaderboard equipped version of the campaign, called Echo, and a Horde-esque waves mode called Anarchy. While both offer a fairly familiar set-up, they do a fantastic job of showcasing the game's unique qualities. With the distracting gumph cleared away, they allow Bulletstorm to do what it does best: create absolute havoc.
If you missed our Gamescom introduction to Bulletstorm's charms, allow me to recap. In this game you'll get no joy from merely popping boring old headshots. Instead a Skill Shot system encourages you to earn huge, multiplying bonus points for doing everything from shooting bad guys in the throat, to blasting them in the balls, to launching them into environmental objects like man-eating plants or electricity pylons.
Pull off any of these stylish executions and the screen flashes with their name and points attribution. Gag Reflex, Mercy Kill, Fire in the Hole! - the screen is alive with body parts, bonus points and innumerable skill shot awards. As I played I managed by blind luck not to pull off a move that eviscerated about 5 enemies, sending them flying in all directions as a series of skill shot messages flashed up across the screen. The People Can Fly rep guiding me through the demo said, Woah, I haven't seen that one before. That's testament to the sheer volume of ridicu-kills Bulletstorm allows.
Equipped with an electric leash capable of wrenching enemies into the air, a physics-defying slide kick and a satisfyingly silly arsenal of weapons, you'll soon be racking up the points too. Bulletstorm gives you all the tools you'll ever need for some uproariously entertaining mayhem.
While the single-player campaign offers characters and cut-scenes and story and all that other nonsense, Echo throws all of it out of the window. Designed by People Can Fly to distil the fun of Bulletstorm to its very essence, it does just that. Echo allows you to pick any map from the campaign but blows away the fluff, streamlining it into concentrated run and gun craziness.
It also puts even more of an emphasis on points accumulation. Assisted by online leaderboards, the point of Echo is to climb above your friends by notching up ever more creative kills in each of the campaign's maps. Here, high-scores are a necessity, not just fancy dressing.
This is taken even further by Anarchy. Ostensibly a version of Gears of War II's Horde mode (though various incarnations of it existed long before Epic's meatfest), Anarchy again puts a spin on the norm by adding its own points-based goals and a unique co-operative angle.
Joining with up to three friends, you are tasked with seeing off wave after wave of enemies. The difference here is that you can only progress to the next wave by satisfying a set points target. In early rounds, against fairly weak, stupid opposition, this can be achieved relatively easily. You'll still fail by just pumping bullets into their chests, of course, but getting creative and hitting that total is a straight-forward affair. It's as you move forward that things get tricky.
To survive past the first few waves, you'll have to execute co-op skill shots within a set window of time. This is essential to achieve that all-important points total. The announcer makes sure you know exactly what is expected of you, while an on-screen timer ticks away towards a cut-off point. Fail to pull-off the move before it runs out, and you are out of luck.
These co-op skill shots, unsurprisingly, are immensely fun. There are a plethora of different flavours, but most involve either lassoing or slide-kicking an enemy up into the air, in order for a team mate to slice them into little chunks, set them on fire or otherwise reducing them to a sticky pulp. It's a cliche to say that a multiplayer mode requires real teamwork, but unless you're communicating properly with your team, you just won't last long in Anarchy, despite its name.
All of this takes place on a tiny map that ensures that the action is relentlessly intense. Enemy after enemy after enemy piles in, getting stuck in choke points while you do your best to keep up with the thrillingly frenetic pace. It's wonderful; a testosterone and adrenaline-fueled riot of bullets, blood and bonus points. Something deadly is always be breathing down your neck.
With such a fresh take on combat, some nicely-focused online modes and an unswervingly dedication to entertainment, Bulletstorm is firmly entrenched at the top of my most anticipated list. As much fun as I've had with sand-speckled military shooters of late, I'm ready for a change of pace. Shooting bad guys up the bum hole is exactly what I need right now. No pun intended. Can we make February hurry up please?
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- Steam Controller launches in October, Steam Machines arrive in November
- Gears Of War devs Black Tusk change their name to The Coalition ahead of E3