Thursday, March 24, 2011

Bulletstorm: overblown bravado or groundbreaking?

As your NPC ally mutters the enduring words “I’m not interested in quantifying how much abuse your ass is built for”, it becomes irrefutably clear that Bulletstorm (although undeniably violent) approaches the FPS with light-hearted imprudence.

However, with titles such as Homefront and Medal Of Honor attempting to star in their own Call of Duty inspired success stories, so called ‘gritty realism’ is now the predominant driving force behind many shooters. It’s a genre that takes itself more seriously than ever before. The military FPS - once only a small sub-section - now dominates the market, inherently influenced by Activision’s goldmine franchise.

Whilst the COD series itself continues to break sales records annually, recent incarnations have been accused of becoming somewhat stale, with very little new additions to the formula. With Call of Duty receiving it own criticism for lack of forward thinking, the ‘COD clones’ tend to repackage the experience in the hope of capitalizing on its popularity. Although this may be a slight generalisation, from personal experience, much of Call of Duty’s fan base is stubborn in regards to adopting another FPS title.

The result is one hugely successful franchise that minimally improvises from year to year, and an abundance of samey, less popular shooters desperate for a piece of the pie. In one other word - uninspired.

Cliff Bleszinski, far from the shy retiring type, has made no secret of his distaste for the generic, modern FPS. His involvement in the clever pre- Bulletstorm marketing campaign - the scathing Call Of Duty parody, Duty Calls - is testament to this.

Of course it’s all well and good for Bleszinski to unload on Call of Duty and its army of clones, but he needs some decent ammunition with which to do so. Enter the aforementioned Bulletstorm (reviewed after the jump).

A month after release and some probing questions surrounding the game can hopefully be answered. Is it a groundbreaking title that defies current FPS conventions, or an immature slug-fest that regresses the genre rather than advance it?

In terms of FPS gameplay mechanics, Bulletstorm certainly brings something new to the table. The score powered skillshot system is a breath of fresh air in comparison to the ‘tin-can shoot’ cover based approach of many other titles. It’s a game that encourages a degree of creativity (and importantly to have an immense amount fun), something that shooters notoriously lack. Rather than squeezing the trigger and wildly spamming grenades, dispatching of enemies in unique and spectacular fashions drastically effects how you approach combat. It’s a kaleidoscopic trip of outlandish make-believe weaponry and cartoon ultra-violence.

No military authenticity here - Bulletstorm revels in it’s own ridiculousness. It’s brash and over the top, but it’s actually an incredibly clever game masquerading as a big dumb shooter.

On the surface, granted, this seems like rather an indefensible point. Shooting mutants in the testicles, feeding them to killer plants, explosive guided sniper rifle bullets, unsubtly titled ‘drilldo’ skill shots - this is unbridled masculine bravado right? It is in a way, yes, but this is not simply in place solely for male titillation.

Bulletstorm is doing what other, more generic shooters are afraid to do. Openly ridicule itself - in this case with unashamed immaturity - yet it is simultaneously proving that it is actually a far more mature FPS than the rest of the bunch. It knowingly lowers the tone, yet heightens the FPS experience beyond the middle of the road standards that many modern shooters lump for out of fear of risk.

So why does it have to resort to going down such a route? Bioshock proved that it is possible to make both an innovative and serious first person shooter with a strong narrative. One thing is for sure though, Bulletstorm is a far cry from Bioshock (unintended use of three FPS titles in that sentence…) and obviously has absolutely no desire to be.

Whilst the latter heavily relies on its expertly crafted storyline and captivating environment, the former pulls out the stops and guns for the sheer entertainment factor. Whilst the narrative is such a key component of Bioshock’s success, in Bulletstorm it truly is surplus to requirements. It could operate, and receive practically as many plaudits without any story whatsoever.

The script is intentionally absurd. Constant ‘dick’ references and hilariously corny one-liners make up the majority of the dialogue. The now infamous “I’ll kill your dicks!” line perhaps summing up the depth of Bulletstorm’s discourse, or rather, the lack of it. I’ve heard people lamenting the game for this very reason; “well, the acting is complete rubbish and the script is awful”. They’re missing the point though, I feel.

Again, Bulletstorm is fully aware of itself, arguably even satirizing poor script writing in games that take themselves far too seriously. We should certainly be laughing with the game rather than at it. In this case, the entertainment value is derived from outrageous action and an innovative gameplay mechanic - nothing more.

Why potentially push the game into the realms of pretentiousness? A mistake that Modern Warfare 2 clumsily made (though by no means affected its success in any way) with its convoluted plot .

This is a title that firmly as good old fashioned fun at it’s heart. While it openly and knowingly sacrifices elements that it realises would detract from the core gameplay (ill conceived scripting for example), it excels in the very department that made videogames so enjoyable in the first place. In this respect Bulletstorm is a mixture of both old and new: pushing a genre in new directions, but with an old school reliance on addictive high-score gameplay and little need for a meaningful storyline.

However, Bulletstorm’s apparent bravado and nonchalant attitude towards violence can quite easily be taken out of context if misunderstood. For the right wing press and disparaging critics, at an uninformed glance, this is a shining example of everything that’s bad about videogames. And admittedly, on the surface, it doesn’t look good.

For the anti-videogame brigade, a title like Bulletstorm provides a veritable stockpile of ammunition. They see a crass hybrid of immature humour and comic violence (in Carole Lieberman’s eyes apparently such games even turn us into depraved rapists…), and as usual, the knives are out before even attempting to understand the wider context.

I posed the question in an article last month - ‘Will Bulletstorm venture into the realms of gratuitous violence?’ Having played it fairly relentlessly since then, I would have to say no, as it‘s not as simplistic or shallow as that. I can quite easily see how it could be misconstrued as being gratuitous, but, Bleszinski, Epic and People Can Fly Studios are certainly not idiots. They've constructed a game that is far more intelligent than it appears, and as a result, is easily misunderstood at a glance (or by those too stubborn to attempt to alter their perceptions).

Beneath the macho, trigger-happy attitude of Bulletstorm there is actually some well implemented satire, clever parody and intelligent game design. Plus, touching a nerve with purveyors of doom and gloom and stirring up a little controversy, is a nice way to get a little extra marketing behind your game. Epic will no doubt have been fully aware of that fact, again, making the naysayer’s look somewhat foolish.

Bulletstorm is not one of the greatest games ever, not by a long shot, but that doesn’t mean to say that it isn’t important. It’s breathed life into an increasingly stale genre, re-instated good old fashioned entertainment over incessant grittiness - and most importantly - there is so much more than initially meets the eye.

Don’t judge a book by its cover? Indeed, and don’t judge a videogame by its title. Although it may be hard to believe at first, there’s more to Bulletsorm than many will give it credit for.