At face value I shouldn't like Bulletstorm. It comes off as obnoxious and crass, full of toilet humor, emphasizing a sort of dickish boldness and attitude that's been driven into the ground by countless shooters over the last few years. The "kill with skill" tagline and profanity laced combo names seemed so hollow when free of any context. To coin a phrase, it seems like Bulletstorm is compensating for something.
So it's a surprise then that Bulletstorm is actually something kind of special. Sure, it's still brash, and it's still full of toilet humor, but with context, Bulletstorm is a violently charming popcorn shooter that plays well with some great design.
Bulletstorm's premise is original enough. Set in a space-faring future full of pirates and American Civil War cliches, Bulletstorm tells the story of Grayson Hunt, a former Confederate operative turned outlaw. Grayson has spent his post-Confederacy time harassing his former commander and keeping company with his also-outlawed squad, Dead Echo. When a random opportunity arises to strike directly against the heart of the Confederacy, Grayson sets his ship on a suicide run and maroons himself and his crew on the planet Stygia. It's up to him to get the survivors off the planet, and maybe find some of the revenge and redemption he so desperately wants in the process.
Soon enough, Grayson acquires a Leash, a Confederate energy weapon with an invasive artificial intelligence. The Leash allows Grayson to snag enemies and fling them into the air in slow motion, and its AI has been designed to evaluate combat performance – it rewards balls-out combat bravado in the form of points that can be redeemed at Confederate resupply pods scattered around the planet. By combining shots to specific appendages and/or bathing suit areas with standing and sliding kicks, the Leash, and various environmental hazards, you'll discover a variety of named kill combos that reward more points than standard shots.
Shoot the balls. You know, the ones in their mouths.
The idea of upgradeable weapons and skills isn't all that new or different, but Bulletstorm provides a welcome dose of functionality and suspension of disbelief to its combo system. The Leash AI takes all of Bulletstorm's unique and genre-defying mechanical elements and makes sense of them within its own particular reality. It's... smart. Who'd have thought, particularly given the throwback nature of Bulletstorm's first person shooting? There's no cover, enemies aren't especially smart, and levels are a straight shot from A to B, but Bullestorm still impresses. In tandem with shooting that feels responsive and meaty, with powerful, interesting weapons, the combo system makes Bulletstorm's combat a success.
Bulletstorm is also full of fantastic moments of spectacle in its well-paced story, from the collapse of entire sections of a city to more than one giant monster moment. Bulletstorm handles size and scale particularly effectively. There's never a sense of disconnect between "the things what are big" and human-sized characters. Ironically, People Can Fly makes everything feel grounded.
Some of that grounding is provided by the moment-to-moment beauty of Stygia. Stygia is full of colorful, vicious life that's taken over the remains of the pleasure capital of the Confederacy. Whether human gangs of cannibals, mutant tribes, or more horrifying wildlife, everything's a hazard. People Can Fly deftly dole out bits of backstory here and there through character conversation in-game and random environmental details, establishing Stygia as a place that existed before Grayson marooned himself and his crewmates there. It has history, and that makes tourist'ing there interesting.