Bulletstorm Is The Best Shooter You Didn’t Play

I adore Bulletstorm.

Released in 2011 (Has it really been five years? Shit), Bulletstorm was the last original IP game from People Can Fly before they pried Gears of War out of CliffyB’s cold Hot Topic metal fan embrace. It died an ignominious death on PC – dragged to hell by the bloated carcass that was Games For Windows Live – and faded away on console after about a year. You can find the original edition of it in bargain bins worldwide.

A quick rundown: Bulletstorm is about a guy who fights another guy for revenge and fucks over his friends due to his reckless stupidity. Everybody swears a lot, but the game is still relatively serious, despite bits of buddy comedy. The core mechanical conceit is you run around killing people in varied ways to get “skillshots”, which grant you points used to upgrade your weapons and character. The campaign is pretty short, there’s an arcade mode for score runs, and there’s a co-op wave survival mode.

What made Bulletstorm great was that it paradoxically didn’t really emphasize shooting so much as using and understanding your surroundings. Getting skillshots beyond “shoot a guy in the balls” involved finding areas where you could leash and kick (Oh yeah, you get a whip that pulls enemies to you and a kick to send them flying too) enemies around, positioning them for ridiculous kills. Spatial awareness was more important than accuracy, especially since most of the guns were perfectly accurate without aiming and a lot of them didn’t even use bullets.

You had a gun that fired an explosive bolo that you could use to wrap an enemy up, kick him into his friends, and then detonate. You had a cannon that fired explosive cannonballs you could kick around for mayhem purposes. You had a revolver that fired flares which would lift enemies into the sky before gibbing them. It was a game that encouraged you to try out every weapon, not because an enemy was immune or because it had great damage output, but because every single gun was just so fucking fun to use. And then when you got tired of shooting enemies, you could feed them to plants, kick them into spikes, electrocute them, explode them with sausage carts, and so on.

If anything, Bulletstorm is a puzzle game, a way for players to figure out “what is the coolest fucking way I can kill this hapless baddie.” The campaign was a litany of lovely set pieces, from fighting through a seaside resort to controlling a giant robotic dinosaur to weathering a massive tropical storm. It moved at breakneck pace, refusing to force you into long slogs without some new gun or enemy to work with. And when you really get into collecting the skillshots, the puzzles become actually hard; some skillshots require certain areas of the game to perform, which you only figure out by experimenting in arcade mode or by replaying the game over and over (not a bad thing).

The writing was great for what the game wanted – the commercials made it look like the dumbest shit ever but it was surprisingly thoughtful – and the game never just stopped for filler like most shooters. There was a surprising amount of pathos to the characters, even when they were yelling absurd obscenities at each other, and the story it tells, while not unique, is executed with grace you wouldn’t expect from all the nutshots and gibs.

It was a breath of fresh air, a singularly genius single-player game that pulled every one of its systems back towards a cohesive goal: to allow the player to cause as much mayhem as possible, and reward them for it. It encouraged player creativity in a way very few FPS games actually do. Future games would replicate some of this to good effect – notably Call of Juarez Gunslinger, whose arcade mode is eerily similar to Bulletstorm’s – but nobody managed to find the right mix of thoughtful gunning and variety that Bulletstorm offered. It really is a special game.

I gave it a glowing review back in 2011 when I reviewed it for (now defunct) Big Download, and if anything my love for it has only grown. Bulletstorm may be the perfect single-player FPS, and it flew under everybody’s radar. Don’t let the remake pass you by.

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