My notes made during the first hour of Bulletstorm are filled with ugly, horrible, judgmental cliches. They are not entirely my fault, though. Before being sent to our stations, we previewers are enjoying an introductory word or three from Cliff Bleszinski, the charismatic and effusive games director of Epic Games. Bleszinski, fairly enough I think, is asking us to put to one side what we'd heard about the game's language - things like 'dick-tits' - and just see what the game was like. That is all dandy. Then he closes with an ironic cheer of 'Dick-tits!'
Oh dear, I tell myself, this is just going to be Gears of War and Unreal with some of this skill-based malarkey isn't it? I absent-mindedly scrawled a question: The Club meets MadWorld meets Gears?
Thankfully, a slither of open-mindedness kicks in. And with it Bulletstorm will reveal itself to be more than a comparison to previous Epic games. Sure, the developer may have an inimitable chunkiness to their games' presentation, but Bulletstorm is not even close to being a 'Gears meets' game.
Let me underline why I'm not entirely at fault for my initial cynicism. For one, Bulletstorm is a tricky game to get acclimatised to. Playing as gruff ex-mercenary and Wolverine stunt double Grayson Hunt, I find the movement to be a little looser than expected for a first-person shooter. With no automatic cover button to press and the crouch button assigned to L3 on the Sixaxis (push down the analogue stick), but with plenty of cover to go around, staying out of sight is a dextrous affair.
Meanwhile, Bulletstorm is dispensing testosterone fuelled one-liners like an automatic script generator for Bad Boys 3. When I stumble across the metal pod containing the Leasher weapon, my colleague orders me to equip it by saying, "So pull up your skirt and strap that dildo on!" Charmed.
The Leasher, a whip of blue light you lash out using your left hand, is the core factor in Bulletstorm's USP: the skill shot system. It's easy enough to get used to as a sole entity. A quick tap of L2 in the general direction of an enemy will light-whip him towards me in slow mo - on a side note, all the enemies look like Mad Max extras, a prevailing returning theme in the modern video game. The goon stays airborne for a few seconds, allowing preparation time for the next part of my attack.
The next step, typically in this initial portion of the game, is to boot the bastard with my right size 11. A tap on the circle button kicks the dude away, still in bullet-time, and from there the combination fun can begin. Getting the direction of the booting right, however, is not easy. If I want to say, kick him towards a giant cactus to execute the self-explanatory Prickled skill shot, I need to move myself around him so that my kick is in line with the spiky plant. The enemies are not so accommodating, though. Some boomerang at me quite low, making the trajectory of a kick tough. Others only stay airborne for a flyspeck of time. Others are too quick to even be leash-whipped. The basics are all basic enough, but making them work the way I want them to for big old combos is not so easy.
All of that threw me at first. And yet all of it is what I think makes Bulletstorm genuinely click and become rather an engrossing, agreeable spot of carnage-based merriment. Making the skill shots work, especially in a more complicated combination and on a larger scale to reap the greatest number of skill points, is quite an unusual test. The worry is that it might be the automated, novelty-only affair of something like the Wii's MadWorld; kick guy into spiky things, sit back and laugh, kick another guy into spiky things, laugh at Greg Proops etc. As I play on my worries are more and more negated. The skill shots in Bulletstorm - the ones that reap big points - do actually involve some skill.
Take, for example, the Thumper attack with which I snap the Leasher against the ground to throw everything around it, enemies and handy explosive-looking jobbies included, into the air as if launched by some kind of metaphysical gusher. Say there are three Mad Max extras in the air.
I get a fair modicum of points for the Trap Shooting skill shot by pulling out the standard weapon, the Peacemaker Carbine rifle, and picking out each floating foe at my consummate leisure with just a few bullets. All that's missing is the chortling dog appearing from behind the bush.
I get even more points, though, by using the Boneduster, a meaty mother of a shotgun, and its incendiary secondary attack to burn all three of them mid-air to notch up the Acid Rain skill shot, their cadavers crumbling into ash and raining me on me like a black Christmas.
If I'm really looking for the big win, though, I do something like Acid Rain two of the enemies and then centre my shotgun on the last dude still flailing around mid-air. I hit him once, then once more, and then once more again, and I notch up a whole truckload of points with the Juggler skill shot. Or maybe I switch the assault rifle and try to pick him out with a head shot - or even a better a shot to his balls - or even better than better a shot up his fanny for the Rear Entry skill shot? Or maybe I quickly use the flail gun to wrap a bomb around one of the dude's necks, and just before he inevitably explodes I latch on to one of the other enemies with the Leasher and perform another Thumper Attack to rack up the numbers with a Slam Dunk skill shot?
Going for the more complicated attacks, especially the ones which involve you switching between the three weapons you can have equipped at any time using the d-pad, is difficult. I barely have time to pull off some of the real point-grabbers, especially with all the other enemies around me all sick of being leashed, tossed, and generally maimed and killed. But if I want the big points - well...
That's what makes the loose controls, the tricky kicking attack, and everything else that feels a bit different about Bulletstorm work. Whipping an enemy to you and then kicking him on to some jagged spikes is fun, but doing it with a flail bomb tied around his neck, all while you revel in your sadism by meanwhile throwing up a pile of enemies into the air and blowing them all up by shooting an airborne hot dog cart - and do not ask why the hot dog cart is explosive - is so much more fun.
What's the incentive beyond panache, though? Well, underlying the skill shot system is sensible design around how players use their accumulated skill points. From time to time you come across pods with which you can spend points to upgrade your weapons. You can endow them with special secondary attacks, buy more ammunition, increase the ammo capacities, and so on. So to get stronger through the game you have to try and pull in big points. Still, one criticism here is that there could be a little more variety in what you can purchase for each weapon - although the weapon unlocks are paced out well in the early portion of the game.
Underlying all of that as well is the decision to reward players who unlock new skill shots with great big bonuses for doing so. This is a genius touch not only because it drives you through the campaign to keep looking for new ways to kill, or because as you unlock all eight weapons you're driven to give each one a proper go so you can unlock all their individual skill shots, but because the same rules apply in the time trial mode, Echoes.
As the recent downloadable demo showed, in Echoes you get more points for using as many different attacks in these quick bursts of carnage - all of which come from the campaign. As evidenced by the amazing scores some players have been able to accumulate on leaderboards, there's plenty of leeway for creative license in the diversity of your artistic genocide.
If artistic genocide sounds like it's giving too much credit to a brutally bloody and juvenile game, then allow me to share something I appreciate about Bulletstorm that I did not think I would: the tone. I could speculate that Polish co-developer People Can Fly have added the whimsy that seemed lacking in games like Gears of War 2 and Unreal Tournament III, but it doesn't really matter. Whoever's responsible, it's great to see that Bulletstorm for the most part does not take itself seriously. The dialogue is ridiculous in the right aware, far more self-aware than any of the drivel spewing from the likes of Marcus and the Cole Train.
When Grayson first meets Trishka, a foul-mouthed, vicious queen bitch type, she threatens him to not come anywhere near her by warning: "I'll kill your dick!"
"What? What does that even mean?" You'll kill my dick?" Grayson responds exasperated, before narrowing his eyes and yelling, "Well, I'll kill your dick!"
Grayson's cyborg accomplice, Ishi, turns to Grayson and in a stone cold delivery Leanord Nimoy would've been proud of observes an incoming group of enemies, "Speaking of dick-killing parties..."
This sense of immature whimsy rather than, well, just plain immaturity runs throughout the game. Minutes before that exchange, you take on a group of enemies with a bevy of explosives on a disco dance floor, complete with 70s neon lights and to the backdrop of Trammps classic "Disco Inferno".
Sometimes it does go overboard, but for the most part it reflects a game that's just consistently trying to be entertaining. Is it always? It's tough to keep things entertaining throughout a campaign, but Bulletstorm mixes up locations, colours, and atmosphere, and it does so with a bunch of ridiculous expletives and bizarre putdowns to boot. It's hard not to be endeared by a game that at least knows itself. But not as hard as it is apparently to completely miss the point of the game, eh?
What might prove be the make-or-break component of Bulletstorm is the online co-operative mode, Anarchy. I got a brief look, hooking up with three other players to take down a series of bad guys, Horde-mode style. The crux of progress in this mode is killing co-operatively; one player leashes an enemy into the sky, another takes him out, for example. Each level you ascend brings more points to be obtained for progress, but between each level you can upgrade your weapons to help reach the target. The big points come by notching up indicated team kills; every so often a highlighted enemy will come along with a tag saying the skill shot required for bonus points. A 'Bullet Kick', for example, would require one player to kick the enemy into the air and another to shoot him down. As you ascend levels these generally become more complicated, and so teamwork becomes essential.
How well such a mode is going to work outside of playing with your friends will be interesting, as it will be to see how thriving the online will be without a strict deathmatch or competitive team mode. EA and People Can Fly have been pushing the Echoes mode as a form of competitive multiplayer, and I certainly understand the difficulties in incorporating play-stopping things like the Leasher and slow-mo into a crowded multiplayer arena, but the absence of such modes is still notable.
Still, all things look bright for Bulletstorm. It might not be the most intelligent game ever made, but it will stand out amongst the number of other big name shooters coming out this year. Whether or not people latch on to its unusual play and vulgar dialogue like a Leasher onto a Mad Max extra remains to be seen. Look out for a full review when the game releases on February 22.