The story goes something like this: Ultimate Universe Wolverine and an Asian version of the T-800 Terminator seek revenge on a well-dressed version of Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann from Full Metal Jacket. Along the way they meet a gal who's a potty-mouthed jailbait cross between Lara Croft and Zoey from Left 4 Dead. Together, they kill feral cousins of the Bloods and the Crips, man-eating plants, and mutants with explosive growths coming out of their butts, in a desperate attempt to get off a planet that's gone to hell.
It's hard to claim there's anything original or unpredictable about the plot or characters of Bulletstorm. But originality, as the gaming industry has proven time and again, doesn't sell. Giving players license to act like douchebags does, and Bulletstorm delivers delightful douchebaggery in spades. Forgive the unusual amount of creative profanity in the following review: I've been playing this game a lot, and it's caused me to fall off the verbal civility wagon.
What saves Bulletstorm from being another forgettable Gears of War/Halo wannabe are two things: great gameplay, and smart, hilarious writing. From their "Duty Calls" ad campaign onward, People Can Fly and Epic Games make it clear that they're not looking to create "realism" or "relevance". They're trying to make a game that's silly, fun catharsis, without the problematic amorality of Grand Theft Auto. On these counts, Bulletstorm scores like a nerd on a drunken cheerleader: it's bloody, stupid, and way over the top, but it maintains an internal morality that means you don't feel too dirty after you play.
From a sales perspective, it would likely have been unwise for Epic to reinvent the wheel while their fans are slavering for Gears of War 3, and Bulletstorm is as much COG methadone as a new IP. If you don't believe that's intentional, take this as proof: instead of Delta Squad from Gears, Bulletstorm features Huxleyesque little brother Echo Squad. But Echo Squad wouldn't be metal enough for Bulletstorm, so they're called DEAD Echo. Commence air guitar squeelies.
Many other elements of Bulletstorm also feel familiar. The game is set on yet another apocalypse-in-progress, with underground levels where radioactivity features prominently. The dudes are grizzled, the enemies inhuman... hell, the central space warship even looks like a giant lancer. Epic clearly knows that a large number of their customers are macho-wannabe spoogeheads who have a limited range of what they'll sample, and who love to proclaim things suck. So Bulletstorm doesn't challenge the player's preconceptions right out of the gate.
Be warned, however: while the two titles have many visual similarities, they play completely differently. Bulletstorm does not have the context-sensitive cover system of Gears. The goal here is to kill creatively and perform "skillshots" for points, which you use to buy ammo and upgrade your weapons. It's a sandbox-light experience within a linear story which can be radically different through multiple playthroughs.
Furthermore, you're armed with a "leash" an energy whip which pulls enemies toward you and manipulates certain things in the environment -- and the "thumper", which launches all enemies in range into the air. These tools, sometimes used alone, sometimes in combination, unlock such skill shots as:
Mercy: Shooting an enemy in the balls, then shooting or kicking their head off while they scream in pain.
Fire in the Hole: Kicking a stunned miniboss from behind, then shooting him in the butt.
Gag Reflex: Killing an enemy with a shot to the throat.
See a pattern forming here? Good. Pulling off skillshots rewards the player both with points and with funny, disgusting or impressively explosive animations. I admit, I'm partial to the way the Fire in the Hole skillshot results in the dying enemy's exposed ass farting flames and smoke. I also like the "Shocker" electrocution skillshot, and the "Voodoo doll". I'll let you imagine what that one is.
As inherently satisfying as these silly moves are, they're also critical to advancement in the game: if you just go through the maps gunning down enemies the boring, old fashioned, "you're that annoying guy who uses constant sploits on multiplayer maps" kind of way, you won't accumulate as many points, won't level up fast enough, and you'll run out of ammo. While technically it's possible to get through the game playing it like a regular FPS, it really defeats the purpose: Bulletstorm rewards creative solutions to dispatching enemies and frequently changing your technique -- you to earn five times the points for every new skillshot you discover. It's a complicated combat system, and it does require a fair bit of practice and finesse.
Due to this, Bulletstorm starts slow, with a large number of cautiously paced tutorials: the game wants to make absolutely sure you know where the all the buttons, triggers, and bumpers are before you try out the cool shit. It would be pretty boring if the characters weren't so giddy and stewed that you can't help but laugh at them.
The player steps into the drunken, likely piss-soaked, shoes of Grayson Hunt AKA Ultimate Universe Wolverine. "Gray" is a space pirate/disgraced marine who makes Star Trek's Captain Kirk seem like a cautious pansy. Furthermore, his drinking problem actually matters: you get more points if you locate and chug back a bottle of "nom juice" before killing enemies.
Grey's tortured soul wingman is Ishi Sato, who becomes a cyborg early in the game and spends the rest of the story in constant, near-unbearable pain while he struggles for dominance with the AI that has replaced a portion of his brain. This AI not only makes Ishi a violent rapid-cycling bi-polar, but it also causes him to lapse into moments of Nietzschean philosophy and possible homosexual urges.
I swear to God I am not making this up. This "one step forward, two steps back" approach to social sensitivity, mixed with a heavy dose of "I swear I've seen this character somewhere before" is an ongoing theme in Bulletstorm. The depth in the storytelling sneaks in the back door extremely quietly: like I inferred before, forcing anything progressive on a gamer is like trying to fistf**k an alligator.
Was that statement too much for you? Then don't play Bulletstorm. That's mild compared to the foul, witty assholery you will encounter within the game. Don't believe me? Here are some more characters:
The token woman who out-guys the guys, providing spank material for dudes while girl gamers practice their friendly fire skills, is Trishka Novak, yet another girl in gaming destined for porn mods. She likely pisses me off because she reminds me of myself in the third grade: she swears and postures so badly that she doesn't even make any sense.
Then there's villain of the story: The Full Metal Jacket drill sergeant for the next generation, General Victor Sarrano. Sarrano is one of the most thoroughly reprehensible characters ever to be coded into a video game. He's stricken by practically every ism known to humankind, and is especially prone to anti-Asian racist commentary. In Sarrano, Bulletstorm's subtly balanced excesses crystallize in a sublimely disgusting fountain of offensive catharsis.
While it's clearly not for everyone, the game is incredibly fun... provided you play the single player campaign. Multiplayer is extremely limited. There's currently only one play mode, and even though it's co-operative, there's no split-screen available (ditto for campaign. Boo!) What's there is fun, and there's some skillshots that are only available when you play with friends, but the 1P modes -- campaign, and a skill-testing timed mode called "Echoes" -- are really where the replay value comes in.
Normally I play through a game, write the review, then play it again if I really like it. This time, however, I was so pulled in that I played through two and a half times before finally forcing myself to review. The reviewer in me was able to give it a numeric score through a critical lens, but the gamer in me wanted to go higher, if only to reward the giddy euphoria I got out of the experience. So the "kill with skill" gameplay and the hilarious, raunchy dialogue more than make up for the game's shortcomings, and a murdery good time for mature gamers can be had without devoting eighty hours of your life.
One final note, Gears of War 3 Multiplayer beta access is available on the Xbox 360 version of Bulletstorm.