Best of 2015: Hurricane Epic

First Published: Sep 30, 2015
Voted For By: Keegan
Reason(s) For Vote:
“There’s really not much to say about this one. I’m not much of a shooter guy, but I grew up playing Timesplitters and that leaves a mark on a person. The sort of mark that Bulletstorm finds, and then uses to warm the cockles of your heart. It was easily my favourite shooter of the entire generation, and Tim waxes lyrical on all the reasons why.
” – Keegan

Innovation is a concept most would have been hard-pressed to associate with the FPS genre over the course of the last generation, except in the context of a distinct lack thereof, of course. The explosive rise and popularity of Call Of Duty led to many publishers jumping aboard the military shooter bandwagon in the hope of replicating the same money-spinning success story of 2007’s seminal Modern Warfare, resulting in an abundance of gruff shooters spilling out onto shop shelves quicker than anyone could conceivably play them and overcrowding a field of games which was already bursting at the seams. Today, you could argue the latest batch of shooters are at least attempting to explore new ground, the likes of Advanced Warfare and Titanfall adopting a sci-fi edge, Battlefield: Hardline swapping out Middle Eastern terrorists for American cops and robbers, and Homefront: The Revolution bringing guerrilla tactics to an open world.

But in 2011, Polish developer People Can Fly, of Painkiller fame, and their friends at Unreal Engine proprietors Epic Games over in North Carolina combined forces to create an FPS which dared to be different in more than just its setting, dared to defy expectation by not overtly holding your hand, and dared to make shooters fun once again with the mechanics and systems it allowed you to toy with. Even now, four years after it first burst onto the scene, and despite its demeanour, Bulletstorm remains one of the freshest, smartest and downright funniest shooters you can play.

Not to imply the myriad other shooters available on the market before, during, and after the time aren’t great, but there was an indisputably strong essence of genre stagnation and fatigue creeping over not only players but developers as well. Games were becoming too bogged down in military jargon and overly serious storylines, taking place in real-word locations, featuring real-world weapons, and fighting real-world conflicts. To repeat; there’s nothing wrong with that, but back then it seemed like all there was to offer.

To that end, Bulletstorm was a revitalising antidote and timely breath of fresh air, its colour palette of sumptuous orange and blue hues replacing the washed-out post-apocalyptic greys and browns we’d all but grown accustomed to, its comically juvenile attitude towards violence a sharp and positive contrast to its (allegedly) more classy and mature peers, and its cast of likable rogues almost refreshingly knowing of the bigger picture they’ve been drawn into, with dialogue turning Bulletstorm into a parody on multiple occasions – “Do I need to tell you, you need to crouch here?” an AI partner utters in the tutorial prologue, to which player character Grayson Hunt and leader of a motley crew of space pirates replies “It’d be nice. Show me you care.

Even in its marketing materials (more on those later), Bulletstorm never shied away from making a mockery of the industry at large, with the opening minutes also featuring a malfunctioning door flashing a formation of red lights which would look all too familiar to many Xbox 360 early adopters. But the intro as a whole, complete with an on-rails turret section and a small flashback sequence, underwhelms. And that’s precisely the point. It’s an intentional juxtaposition, a contrast between the formulaic tropes and well-worn clichés so many other shooters religiously adhere to, and the over-the-top cataclysmic carnage about to take place. Once you crash-land on holiday-resort-world gone to hell, Stygia, once you obtain the whip-like Energy Leash, and once you come across your first Dropkit and sync up to the Skillshot database, Bulletstorm begins proper.

Skillshots are Bulletstorm’s bread and butter. Without them, as the opening demonstrates, it would be little more than an above-average shooter. Sure, Grayson’s go-to weapon of choice, the Peacemaker Carbine, is a more than capable firearm, but pumping cannibalistic gangs and mutated freaks with bullets feels deliberately unfulfilling from a mechanical standpoint, and earns you the least in-game rewards too. Play Bulletstorm like you would any other ordinary shooter and you’re playing it drastically wrong.

Instead, the Skillshot system is all about imaginative kills and showering you with points to spend upon even more extravagant means of inventive death-dealing when you get creative. Unloading a few clips of ammo into a group of enemies and scoring a couple of headshots will net you only a meagre handful of points, whereas kicking a hapless goon off a cliff face, impaling them on a row of razor-sharp spikes, or igniting a good old fashioned red barrel amidst a crowd of mutants will inundate you with virtual currency, with the often humorously thought-out names of the respective Skillshots and their corresponding scores lighting up the screen. Send an enemy toppling to their doom for “Vertigo 50+”, introduce them to the receiving end of a sharp object for “Voodoo Doll 100+” (or a giant cactus for “Pricked 100+”), or blow them up with an explosive barrel for “Enviro-Mental 50+”, with multipliers added for multiple kills. And that’s merely the tip of the iceberg, and least creative at that.

In total, there are 131 Skillshots to uncover across Bulletstorm’s somewhat longer-than-most campaign. Some are assigned to individual locations with specific environmental hazards (watch out for the man-eating Venus Flytraps) or one-off special events such as boss battles while most come through natural play. It takes some brain rejigging to understand how Bulletstorm is meant to be played, a testament to the number of games which require very little more than spraying and praying, making it a game most will enjoy more on a second run-through, once you’ve got your head around the Skillshot system and learned the intricacies of the weapon-set and environments. Luckily, People Can Fly do ease you in, providing a generous dose of health and teaching you the very basics while sometimes serving up a few Skillshots for free in the early stages. But they also trust you enough to experiment with the rest for yourself, although a menu handily keeping track of your progress and holding the descriptions of any uncompleted Skillshots is only ever a button tap away.

Amidst all the bullet hell chaos, a concise-but-robust and tremendously fun-to-use arsenal of weapons are gradually folded into the fray, a selection which packs more personality than many other games’ rosters combined. Excluding the all-powerful Chaingun (with no recoil, of course), there are seven unique guns to get to grips with, each with an alternate fire mode and their own set of Skillshots. The aforementioned Peacemaker Carbine is an assault rifle which looks suspiciously similar to the Lancer from Epic’s own Gears Of War (minus the chainsaw bayonet), and when charged can inexplicably fire one hundred bullets at once, leaving nothing but a red-hot skeleton of its victims crumbling to the floor. The Flailgun fires two grenades tethered to a chain which wrap around any unfortunate ne’er-do-well who can then helplessly be booted into a mob of his mates for a group explosion (“Gang Bang 25+”), while a charged shot will heat up the chain to slice through flesh like butter. And then there’s quad-barrelled Boneduster shotgun, loaded with shells of volatile compressed air, perfect for blowing enemies off ledges or, if close enough, blasting them clean in half, although a charged shot will vaporize them entirely.

But the real star of the show is the Energy Leash. Capable of yanking enemies up from behind cover and flinging them towards you where, just like the results of Grayson’s slide and kick abilities, they momentarily float in the air defencelessly, the Leash is Bulletstorm’s essential piece to the Skillshot puzzle. Without it, everything else would likely descend into frustration, with Skillshots being harder to pull off and shootouts more drawn out. With the Leash, you can bring the fight directly to you, the pocket of stasis it traps opponents in providing an invaluable window to set up an elaborate shot. Meanwhile, its special, area-effect Thumper ability suspends multiple targets in the air for a few seconds, an opportune moment to fire the Screamer revolver’s flare-like charged shot for “Fireworks 50+”.

Bulletstorm’s capacity to entertain with its outrageous murder-charged mayhem and impress with its memorably absurd set-pieces, including a chase sequence involving a giant grind wheel and an encounter with Stygia’s resident Godzilla-alike Hekaton, was rarely in any doubt. However, in spite of setting out to make fun of other games’ often melodramatic stories and characters, it’s surprising how accomplished Bulletstorm can pull off the serious stuff. Grayson Hunt’s mission for revenge against the corrupt and unapologetically foulmouthed General Sarrano might be a laugh a minute joyride, but the gags and quips are interspersed with some well-judged bouts of character development between Hunt, his female equal Trishka and his temperamental cyborg sidekick Ishi, which, in lesser hands, might have come off as jarring as you’d probably expect it to. Some exchanges, particularly between Grayson and Ishi, who struggles to get to grips with and maintain control over his newfound robot parts, can be quite touching.

Still, as well-handled as these more serious interludes are, Bulletstorm never loses track of its vision, never letting the plot get in the way of having a rollicking good time. It knows you’ll come away with memories of when you first shot someone in the unmentionables and booted their head off as they knelt to the floor in pain clutching their non-existent genitals for “Mercy 500+”. It knows you’ll have a big, silly grin on your face when the opportunity arises to remotely control a Mechaton, a smaller robot version of Hekaton which shoots lasers from its eyes and squashes hostiles under its feet (R.I.P Waggleton P. Tallylicker – you will be remembered). And it knows you’ll love the sights and sounds of Stygia, appreciating the effort made to keep you in striking outdoor locales for as long as possible and keeping less lively interiors to a minimum.

Unfortunately, not everything hits its mark. For all the genre conventions and clichés it aims to subvert, Bulletstorm is guilty of falling victim to a few itself, while irksome (if infrequent) QTEs and a tacked on multiplayer hold the package back. Credit where it’s due, though, the four player co-op mode Anarchy isn’t completely worth skipping out on, nor are its servers entirely abandoned even after all this time, but it’s the campaign that’s desperately crying out for an extra player. Seemingly almost purpose built for co-op, its absence is a saddening and baffling oversight. Yet, on the whole, People Can Fly and Epic achieved their mission statement with flying colours, injecting a huge overdose of fun into a genre which had almost forgotten the meaning of the word and proving there’s still plenty of room for new ideas when the right minds come together. It’s just a shame so few ever experienced it.

Despite mass callouts for something new, something different, Bulletstorm sold fewer than a million units while its safer, more familiar (but less superior) rivals of the time stormed the charts. It’s debatable whether it was handled correctly, but few could attribute the lacklustre sales to stingy marketing support. EA released a steady stream of trailers, developer diaries, and demos all of which ably showcased the game’s unashamed penchant for explosions, profanities and crass sense of humour, if not the “cool sci-fi game” some would have preferred. Of notable mention are the Last Call trailer, an obvious spoof of Halo 3’s famous diorama ad, Believe, and Duty Calls, a free mickey-take of Call Of Duty for PC which features a gun that exclaims “boring” with each pull of the trigger and needlessly ranks you up every few kills from “Master Sergeant Shooter Person” all the way to “Sergeant of the Master Sergeants Most Important Person of Extreme Sergeants to the Max”.

Work did briefly commence on a sequel before Epic ultimately pulled the plug, instead handing People Can Fly charge of the underrated Gears Of War: Judgment, eventually buying the developer outright and rebranding them Epic Games Poland. Interestingly, on the same day of the announcement, studio co-owner and creative director Adrian Chmielarz, along with associates Andrzej Poznanski and Michal Kosieradzki, departed People Can Fly to form their own indie outfit, The Astronauts, who debuted last year with supernatural whodunit The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter. While worlds apart, both Judgment and Ethan Carter share certain strands of Bulletstorm’s DNA, the former adding a score mechanic which marks you on your combat prowess and the latter stripping back all patronizing handholding. So, while Bulletstorm was a risk that sadly didn’t pay off commercially, it’s reassuring to know that its creators remain undeterred in pushing against boundaries and striving for innovation. And now that Epic Games Poland have reverted back to the name of People Can Fly, after regaining independence from Epic, and the Bulletstorm IP still in their ownership, could we perhaps see more of Mr Hunt and co in the distant future? Leashes crossed.

Last five articles by Tim


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