Epic Games has inserted itself into a unique role in its recent games. Since the release of internally developed Gears of War 2, Epic has taken smaller developers under its wing, not as a publisher, but as more of a development partner, likely sharing expertise in its current middleware, Unreal Engine 3. Following Chair Entertainment's releases of the fantastic Shadow Complex on Xbox Live Arcade and Infinity Blade on Apple's iOS, People Can Fly has teamed with Epic to develop Bulletstorm for the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 for Electronic Arts.
Like People Can Fly's prior claim to fame, the Painkiller franchise, Bulletstorm is an action-oriented first-person shooter. However, that genre description just doesn't do the game justice because of the depth of gameplay. As protagonist Grayson Hunt - with the dwindling number of members of his Dead Echo team - follows his path of revenge, speed matters, accuracy matters, and, perhaps most of all, style matters. These three factors, along with a healthy dose of "I wonder what this will do" make up Bulletstorm's "Skill Kills."
Each of the game's weapons has a dedicated page of Skill Kills . . . horrifically satisfying ways to put an end to an adversary.
Bulletstorm features eight unique weapons plus the Thumper, which is an extension of the Leash worn on Grayson's left hand. This Leash allows for enemies to be yanked toward the screen in a fashion not unlike Mortal Kombat's Scorpion and his "get over here!" And thus begin many of the Skill Kills. Each of the game's weapons has a dedicated page of Skill Kills, generally made up of killing enemies in a certain location, through a certain piece of anatomy, in a group, and with or without the weapon's charge ability enabled. In addition, there are environmental Skill Kills for electrocuting, exploding, grinding, and other horrifically satisfying ways to put an end to an adversary.
A lot of Bulletstorm's depth, including its offline Echoes and online cooperative Anarchy modes, are based upon combining and stringing together Skills Kills for maximum points and coveted spots on the online leaderboards. The points even play a part in the campaign's story. Apparently troops were intentionally put in a "sink or swim" situation where successful combatants were rewarded with additional guns and ammunition through using the points at dropkits, while those not cutting the mustard were left as defenseless exhibits of Darwinism. Sure it's contrived, but it's frankly representative of the story in general, which is not the game's strong suit.
The campaign, which is single-player only, despite always having a secondary character nearby, is made up of seven well-paced acts, each with multiple chapters of varying length. Adding variety are sections that take place on a train and in a helicopter as well. Though there is no built-in counter, players should be able to complete the story in the six-to-ten-hour range, depending on the difficulty chosen and the player's aptitude. Speaking of difficulties, Bulletstorm handles them correctly, avoiding one of this reviewer's pet peeves. There are five difficulties, from Very Easy to Very Hard, and all are immediately selectable. In other words, finishing Hard is not required to unlock Very Hard. Hopefully Epic will learn from People Can Fly and not screw this up in Gears of War for a third time.
Fans of single-player first-person shooters, those that get hooked on cooperative high score contests, or people who just need to see the best controllable reptilian sidekick since Yoshi in Waggleton P. Tallylicker should absolutely give Bulletstorm a whirl. Though admittedly crass, it is nowhere near as juvenile as some of the previews and trailers made it out to be. Rather, it's a solid entry in a rare combination of genres, and, if purchased new and soon, it grants access to the Gears of War 3 beta. Be forewarned of used copies however; the combination of Epic and EA means that the thrifty will be left out of the online component without further investment, since the Online Pass is a single-use code.