Hands-On: Bulletstorm Demo (in 3D)


The demo for Bulletstorm, the hyperkinetic shooter from Epic Games and People Can Fly, hits Xbox Live and PlayStation Network today. Given that Epic is right in our neck of the woods in North Carolina, The Escapist was invited to hop on down to Epic’s HQ and take an exclusive early look at the demo content. If there’s anything that I’ve learned from Bulletstorm, it’s this: I am not very good at shooting guys in the nuts.

When I say that, I don’t mean that I idly took aim and fired, or that I sprayed-and-prayed in the general direction of a dude’s groin. I mean, I actively tried to take out those enemy tallywhackers. I switched to a more accurate weapon for the sake of being able to aim more precisely at their junk. I took effort to set up elaborate balls-blasting opportunities, launching enemies into the air in slow-motion to try and unleash hot lead into their jimmyjangles. I’m just saying, don’t doubt my commitment to trying to shoot out someone’s General Johnson. Why? Because that’s the sort of mindset Bulletstorm puts you in. Can I do this? Yes, you can. Okay, but will I get points for it? Absolutely. Awesome, I’m there!

Bulletstorm is a game that hearkens back to old-school design philosophies in more ways than one. In the era of the modern “realistic” military shooter, Bulletstorm is unabashedly unrealistic and over-the-top, far more in line with games like Duke Nukem or Serious Sam, where it is you, your guns, and thousands of enemies to kill in progressively more ridiculous ways.

It’s also obsessed with points, which seems odd in this day and age. How often did we laugh at mainstream media describing GTA as a game where you killed hookers “for points?” Silly news writers, this isn’t Tetris or George Costanza’s high score on Frogger – we’ve moved beyond points! Except that Bulletstorm hasn’t – it embraces points and high scores wholeheartedly.

As with everything else, Bulletstorm approaches the idea of points with unchecked enthusiasm. Two game modes – the competitive single-player (no, it’s not an oxymoron) “Echo,” and the multiplayer “Anarchy” – revolve around points and high scores. PS3 and Xbox 360 owners around the world will get to check out a demo of Echo mode for themselves today.

Echo levels take short snippets of the single-player campaign, turning them into quick standalone missions. The one in today’s demo takes place about halfway through the game, says lead producer Tanya Jessen, as protagonist Grayson Hunt and his allies search for the evil general who serves as the game’s main villain. To get to the general, players will have to pass through a hotel which has fallen on its side and bridges a massive canyon. As with all of the Echo maps, it really is just a brief section of the full chapter in the single-player campaign that a determined gunfighter can blaze through in no time at all. Indeed, the “time to beat” on this mission was only 6 minutes, though I ended up finishing most times around 8-9 minutes or so.

But before gamers rise up and burn Cliff Bleszinski in effigy for releasing the shortest demo ever, remember it’s short because it’s meant to be played over and over again, competing against yourself and friends. In Bulletstorm, every single act will earn you points. You’ll earn a handful of points by killing an enemy, but more points by killing them creatively. In fact, that’s what Bulletstorm means with its motto: “Kill with skill.” What it’s really telling you is to “kill imaginatively (and executing said kills will take skill).”

The demo starts the player off with three weapons – an assault rifle, a revolver, and a grenade launcher, which throws two bombs linked by a cord that will wrap around any target they hit (whether alive or part of the environment), and can be detonated later. Every weapon also has a limited alternate fire mode that overcharges it, complete with a really neat glowing-red-hot effect. The revolver sets its targets on fire, and the grenade launcher (or “flingshot”) will slice through anything it touches like a buzz-saw.

Combine those with the player’s two abilities – a kick that sends an enemy flying in slow-motion, and a laser leash that can either pull enemies in or knock a whole group of them up into the air – and you have a recipe for havoc. Bulletstorm gives you this simple command, ‘kill creatively’, and leaves you to figure out just what that means. In Echo mode, however, your objective is more laser-focused: Kill creatively and get the highest score.

Luckily, those two objectives go hand-in-hand. Repeating skill shots will lead to diminishing returns, but combining them will combine the scores, too. So sure, you might get points for setting an enemy on fire and then killing him. You might get points for wrapping an enemy in the flingshot and detonating him in a group of his friends. But you’ll get more points for setting him on fire, wrapping him in the flingshot, pulling him towards you with the laser leash and then kicking him into his friends, switching weaponry to shoot him in the throat before you detonate the grenades.

Bulletstorm gleefully encourages that sort of experimentation, particularly in environmental kills. Say you yank an opponent towards you, but you don’t notice you’re standing next to exposed rebar, which impales him. Or you kick him into dangling power cords, electrocuting him. You can pull that supply cabinet on the ceiling open with a leash, dropping lethal hardware on your opponents, or you can activate one of the defunct now-sideways elevators to squash a group of unlucky enemies (try setting them on fire first for the point bonus).

Since Echo mode has you replaying levels over and over to try and best your high score – and that of your friends – discovering these tricks is really rewarding, because it means you can work them into your delicious combos of death. There are mutant-like enemies that wear strange facemasks, for instance. When shooting the body of one I’d already killed to see if I’d get points for corpse desecration (you don’t, but you do get points for wrapping an enemy in a bomb, killing him and then detonating it), I shot the mask, flooding the area with green gas. It made the screen wavy and unclear, as my character was temporarily intoxicated – but killing an enemy while you’re intoxicated is another point boost. So that encouraged me to shoot every facemask I could, to try and get that extra bonus.

Discovering these cool tricks is rewarding in itself but executing them is another thing entirely. “Kill with skill” is the motto, after all, and there are times when I found myself looking at the aftermath of a particularly amazing combination and swearing I’d never pull it off again unless it was by luck.

But maybe I’d discover something better. That’s part of the fun, after all.

Though the Bulletstorm demo won’t be coming to PC – it was a question of time, said Jessen – I was able to play the Echo level in question with the newly-announced Nvidia 3D graphics support. It took some time to get used to the 3D effect in contrast with the 2D HUD, though dialing down the strength of the effect helped. If you haven’t been a proponent of 3D gaming before, Bulletstorm probably won’t win you over, though there’s no denying that the technology does seem exceptionally well suited to a fast, vibrant, over-the-top game like this one. It definitely helps add a sense of depth to fights, and it was incredibly entertaining to take one enemy and keep kicking him into the air and pulling him back with the laser leash (in order to kick him again), but I doubt it’ll be a deal-maker or a deal-breaker for anyone.

Besides, it isn’t like including the 3D made me any better at shooting guys in the nuts. And if I can’t do that, what’s the point?

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