While the graphics behind the game are as strong as ever, though, Bulletstorm completely missed its mark for me. Although it still manages to have some enjoyable core action, I found myself constantly being pulled out of the experience. In this article, I'll be examining some of the many, many questionable design decisions in Bulletstorm, both ideas that could have been improved through better execution, and ones that should have simply been left on the cutting room floor.
Introductions Aren't My Strong Suit
The first, and most completely perplexing part of Bulletstorm for me, is the surprisingly heavy focus on storytelling. The opening hour or so of Bulletstorm has a ratio of cutscenes and quick-time-events to gameplay that I almost stopped playing outright. I think it's fair of me to, when I start up something called Bulletstorm, expect a game that gets right to the action, but Bulletstorm more than wears out its welcome
Out of the initial time spent with the game, approximately 30-40 minutes are spent watching cutscenes or "playing" heavily scripted sequences, and the bulk of gameplay involves performing quick-time events and going through standard tutorial motions. What purpose do all these cutscenes and flashbacks serve? This is a game about impaling mutants on gigantic cacti - why is it so necessary to spend so much time establishing a setting and characters? Most of those ideas are all eradicated by the plot about ten minutes into the game, anyway, so not only is the beginning boring (despite the pretty visuals), it's also completely irrelevant to anything going on in the rest of the game. Half-Life 2, a game with ten times the narrative weight and substance than Bulletstorm, accomplished more in its opening 5 minutes than this game can in an hour.
|You know a game's got issues when it starts with a quick-time-event. A tasteless one, too.|
Once the game actually gets into motion about an hour in, things generally improve, and the seriousness of the introduction completely evaporates as the bandit slaughter and explosions begin, but there is no excuse for how overblown, bloated, poorly paced, lengthy, and completely pointless Bulletstorm's opening act is. It's hard to imagine just how this segment came to be, what the rationale was. This game has the intellectual capability and grace of a drunk rhino - nobody is here to understand the twisted alcoholism-stained motives of grizzled protagonist Grey, or why he cares so deeply about his crew of cardboard cut-outs. I have the sneaking suspicion this was all intended to be ironic, but that's no excuse to force the player to endure such a poor intro sequence.
Skillshots, or Not
As I mentioned, the core gameplay of Bulletstorm revolves around "skillshots", which could adequately be described as gun combos - depending on your means of killing enemies, whether that's using the environment, melee-type actions, guns, or all in concert, you're rewarded with points. These points, in addition to tying into the game's online leaderboards (the only real "multiplayer" the game has), also feed into the game's upgrade system, which basically boils down to purchasing capacity increases and secondary fire options for the game's firearms.
On paper, all of this sounds great. The problem with the skillshot system is that, as executed, it isn't particularly fun or skillful, and is actually undermined by other mechanics in the game. It's a real shame, too, because it's one of the few original ideas the game has, and it isn't even able to use it to its full potential.
|The "kill with skill" tagline featured heavily in Bulletstorm's marketing, but the in-game manifestation isn't too much more exciting than a slot machine.|
- Killing an enemy by kicking him/her into an environmental hazard
- Killing an enemy by shooting an explosive object
- Killing an enemy by shooting him/her in a specific body part (usually the head or groin)
- Killing an enemy by using a gun's secondary fire
- Killing an enemy by combining melee attacks and gunfire
The two remaining categories, environmental hazards and melee combos, are a bit more interesting, but even these become stale once it becomes clear that these almost exclusively revolve around kicking an enemy at something or using the Leash, which is able to stun and throw enemies around. Moreover, the vast majority of skillshots are only compatible in very specific situations, and the things that differentiate them are basically aesthetic. Kicking an enemy into the water vs. off a cliff is functionally identical, which becomes apparent after about 10 seconds of gameplay
|Skillshots are fun to pull off, but many are so routine and standard that they rarely feel special or require creativity.|
Last, the final nail in the coffin - Bulletstorm's skillshots are all about risk and reward, about going in to do reckless things and coming out on top, covered in blood... yet the game sports a regenerating health system and a very heavy emphasis on using cover... yeah, uh-oh. Although the temptation to bunny-hop around Quake-style is always there, it's rarely possible because the game moves at a very slow pace. Shoot for 15-20 seconds, and you need to hide behind a chest-high wall for another 10 seconds as your health comes back. Playing a Vanguard in Mass Effect 2 felt more reckless and risky, and that was in a game with a formalized cover system! Fixing this would have been pretty easy, as well - giving the player a health bonus for a skillful kill would have made skillshots both rewarding and necessary for survival. As it stands, it's just a way to pretty up what is otherwise a very straightforward shooter.
Level Design? What's That?
One of the things that made Painkiller so much fun was its smart and semi-open level design. While the game was definitely linear, it had a ton of variety in its environments which directly impacted gameplay... situations with cover, without cover, where the environment was both a friend and enemy, multi-level areas with an emphasis on verticality, and so on. The unhingedness of it all was probably the key to its success, but even so the game was so much fun because it made each combat encounter feel different.
Bulletstorm feels like it was designed by a computer. That's not an understatement - I think it may have some of the most boring and by-the-numbers level design I have ever seen. It's beautiful, yes, and I think the game's artists deserve a huge amount of credit for what they did there - but graphics aside, there just isn't anything substantial or interesting to see or do (with very rare exceptions).
|Bulletstorm's levels sure are pretty. Too bad they're almost entirely non-interactive and rarely feature more than straight, narrow corridors and copy-paste arena fights.|
I think it goes without saying: this is not fun. But why is this? I think it comes down mostly to the way the game prompts and guides every single action that isn't giving someone .44 caliber brain surgery. Whereas games like Half-Life 2 are able to break up their action by giving the player some time to explore an environment at his or her own pace, and then find a solution on how to proceed, Bulletstorm flat-out tells you "KICK THIS THING" or "PULL THAT THING" in big, bright blue letters. Any illusion of freedom is completely sucked away, and what should be breaks in the combat to absorb, explore and appreciate the hyper-detailed world are instead turned into an opportunity to usher the player to the next combat sequence. Look, Bulletstorm - just because you are a stupid game does not mean you need to assume I am stupid.
|While I can understand highlighting things like explosive barrels and other interactive objects the first time around, Bulletstorm does this throughout its entire length, and ruins all sense of exploration and problem-solving as a result.|
There are a few times when Bulletstorm ever shows any real ingenuity or inventiveness in level design. One of the most memorable comes in a sequence about a third of the way through the game, where the player remote-controls a gigantic robot dinosaur with rocket launchers attached to it and tears through a villa (now we're talking!). Unlike most parts of the game, this sequence actually introduces a new play mechanic and challenges into both the narrative and the level design (there's some foreshadowing for it early on), and requires the player to change strategy for the duration. While the segment is extremely easy, this kind of change-up shows a degree of creativity that is almost entirely missing from the rest of the game. It's fun, and actually plays differently - whereas every level in the game should have been like this, refreshing, over the top, and ludicrous, in Bulletstorm it's a rare treat in between the rest of the monotony.
I know I'm nitpicking here, but here's another list of design sins that Bulletstorm committed that I can't fit anywhere else.
- Many unskippable cutscenes, even after you've finished the game. At least I can avoid the intro.
- Poor context-sensitive controls. Reload is mapped to the same key as interact. There were multiple times where I performed an action when I was trying to reload my gun, once or twice resulting in death.
- Poor checkpoint placement. If I die, don't make me waste a minute running down a corridor, kicking down doors, and re-collecting doodads.
- If you discover a tough skillshot and die, you don't retain knowledge of it in your database upon reloading... despite Bulletstorm being all about replaying for a higher score.
- Most ammo must be purchased with points, but guns must also be upgraded with points. Suffice to say, I almost never bought any ammo.
- Very hard mode is quite easy, except for quick-time-events, which made up 90% of my deaths.
- The game has regenerating health and a heavy emphasis on using cover, yet a lot of the cover in the game isn't tall enough to shield you fully, meaning your head gets blown off with surprising regularity even when you're ducked behind something.
- No hard saves, which means starting a new game (which I did to grab screenshots for this article) kills your existing checkpoint.
- Very limited ammo for most guns - like regenerating health, the game encourages you to avoid using the more exotic weapons and skillshots.
The regrettable thing about this is that Bulletstorm is, for the most part, a competent game. It's not extremely short unlike most other shooters, it's technically very competent, the guns are all fun to use and fairly distinct, it's got a reasonably unique look (even with Epic's artistry all over it), and it goes back to a time where shooters could have bright colors, cartoonish violence, aliens and monsters, and didn't take place in a nebulously defined portion of the Middle East. Heck, it's even got a couple of original mechanics - and that's saying something in this day and age.
And yet, it also succumbs to huge design flaws and oversights which probably could have been solved with more effort and care. Skillshots needed to be about skill and talent instead of a way of giving out disproportionately large XP rewards and feedback for mundane tasks. Enemies and levels needed to be built around the idea of using special skillshots with unique effects, instead of just creating aesthetic variations on the same repeating themes over and over. The quick-time-events should have been either turned into a legitimate and interesting game mechanic, or eliminated. And that introduction, along with all those story sequences and cutscenes, really, really needed to be cut.
Bulletstorm finds itself in the peculiar situation of nailing all the fundamentals, and then completely botching the landing. Here's hoping People Can Fly will be able to stretch their creative and design muscle a little bit more for their next game, whatever it might be.