Today’s song of the day is the original version of the Crystal Method’s Trip Like I Do. I love driving to this song even though it’s been responsible for me getting pulled over a few times for speeding. (Luckily, I’m a girl and I know how to make myself cry.) This is also the song that, over the past few hours, has inspired me to leave a dozen or so “Oh my god, this is the best…” messages on my friend Evelyn’s voicemail.
On the surface, Allred’s Madman is a remix of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Frank Einstein (formerly Zane Townsend) aka Madman has more in common with the mythic heroes of legend and inhabits a world equally fantastic. The audience can see that Allred poured his heart into this series. The cast is eclectic and unique (ranging from a scientist with detachable heads, invisible assistants, villainous beatniks turned heroic mutate band, infernal g-men, a beatnik-alien hybrid, jungle themed heroes, an alien inventor, an adult Astroboy pastiche, unlikely celebrity cameos, and comic book guest stars). Allred took great steps to flesh out each character and grant a unique voice.
The thing that stood out most about Frank Einstein is his purity tempered humanity. He’s not an aloof alien judging us & looking down on us like Kal-El or a pinnacle of piety or perfection. He made mistakes, worked to fix them, and helped those in need around him. Madman didn’t perform heroics for attention, adoration, or reward; he just did what was right. His relationship with Josephine Lombard is so organic and beautiful free of the “will they won’t they” that plagued other iconic couples like Pete & MJ/Lois & Clark.
Madman embodies everything that made the 50′s and 60′s era of comic and science fiction great (down to its stylized artwork). If you are comic fan who misses the Golden Age where the focus was on telling an epic and captivating story (minus graphic violence and sadistic acts that emerged during the gritty 90’s) then this is the series for you!
I loved Gears of War. I just want to establish that before I begin a rant that no doubt is going to feel very much like some kind of savage attack at the heart of that game. My problem with Gears of Wars is simple. There’s just too much ultra-real-gritty-brown-and-gray in today’s media. It’s not confined to Gears. It’s everywhere. Films have taken a darker ultra-realism tone, video games seem to be obsessed with avoiding an artistic style in favour of an ultra-realistic one. I’m sure this trend was fueled by a hundred different factors – not the least of which being that people expect HD graphics to look like real life – and it’s not even wholly a bad thing. It’s just everywhere.
So imagine my surprise when Epic’s new first person shooter game isn’t gritty or ultra-realistic at all. Here’s the first and strongest thing I can say about Bulletstorm: It’s almost an anti-Gears of War. The setting is shiny and vibrant. There are colours everywhere. I don’t have trouble making out details of the setting because of the lack of contrast between surfaces. And it’s ridiculous over-the-top action. Now, of course, it’s also a traditional first person shooter rather than an over-the-shoulder affair and it isn’t cover-based, so it’s not in quite the same genre as Gears of War… but I’d say there are certainly some strong parallels in places. It’s just that Bulletstorm feels like a much livelier game.
Which is ironic, because the game is about a dwindling group of people trapped on the surface of a hostile alien world which is completely overrun with toxic mutants, carnivorous plant life, and five hundred foot tall monsters with a foul temper.
Bulletstorm is, at its heart, about over-the-top action. Throughout the game, you will acquire points by slaying enemies. The caveat is that the game doesn’t reward precision or efficiency, but creativity. Although a small point bonus is given for shooting an enemy with a devastating headshot, a much bigger one is given for kicking him off the side of a chasm into a swirling tornado which has become charged with lightning and presumably ending his day in a less-than-desireable way. These point bonuses are universally referred to as Skillshots, and there are a couple hundred of them, encompassing virtually every conceivable creative killing. Oh, at this point it might be worth mentioning that this isn’t a game for your young kids. Trust me. The language is strong, the violence is insane, and the themes of bitterness, revenge, and despair aren’t particularly accessible to the under-20 crowd. Of course anyone can appreciate a good action game… and this is definitely one of those, because you’ll be moving non-stop, even while you try to find creative ways to dispatch your hapless foes and occasionally take cover from the devastating fire being flung back at you.
Like Gears of War, Bulletstorm features a quick-switching weapon trio. We haven’t got any grenades, but we do have a supertech gadget called a Leash. This is the game’s outstanding feature, as it allows you to manipulate your environment in many ways, gripping objects, flinging them from place to place, and so on. Of course, it distinguishes itself from other physics-heavy weapons (like Half-Life 2’s famous gravity gun) in that it also directly manipulates your enemies themselves. You’ll use the Leash to draw enemies out from behind cover so they can be kicked onto some metal wreckage (for good bonus points!) or to maneuver an explosive container for a timely detonation. The Leash definitely offers the most potential for manipulation and fun, but of course there are some enemy types which are (mostly) immune to it except in special circumstances by virtue of being either too large or too fast… but you’ll be relieved to know that even at the end of the game’s single player mode most enemies are ready to be tossed around like rag dolls.
In addition to the Leash, Bulletstorm features a variety of weapons. We have the obligatory assault rifle, a high-caliber pistol, a sniper rifle with remote controlled bullets, a gun that launches drills, among other stand-outs. In addition to their basic firing mode, each weapon has an upgraded ‘charge’ mode which can be purchased (with those ever useful score points) that can be used in special circumstances. The ‘Peacemaker’ assault rifle, for example, can use its charge mode to fire a special hundred-shot clip instantly into a foe. This will literally disintegrate one or more opponents if you land it, with the accompanying visual effects. The Leash itself has an upgraded charge mode called the Thumper which will use a wide-area application of force to launch your enemies into the air and crash them into the ground. It has more applications than it sounds like, and can occasionally be used to dramatically clear an entire field of enemies.
The weapons are re-loaded, re-armed, and equipped at the discretion of the player who will use special containers called DropKits which will accept the currency of the player’s score (achieved, again, through killing enemies through the skillshots) in exchange for the player’s choice of weapons, charge ammo, regular ammo, Thumpers, and so on. This interface also features a handy database of skillshots. You know, just in case there was a weapon effect that you hadn’t considered.
Bulletstorm features a feature-length single player campaign of what to me felt like ‘appropriate length’. I didn’t time my run through it, but I can say that I was neither left wanting more nor lamenting the time spent on it. It tells the story of Grayson Hunt (voiced by Steve Blum, of anime dub fame), a bitter alcoholic space pirate and his squad. In the opening moments, Grayson makes a poor decision amidst an alcohol-induced haze which lands he and his remaining friends on a hostile alien world. Before all is said and done, Grayson is left with only his emergency-rebuilt pal Ishi, who is now half machine and partially in the grips of a psychotic AI. Recognizing that, despite Hunt’s mistakes, their best chance lies in cooperation, Hunt and Ishi take off across the hostile alien terrain. They discover the overgrown remains of what seems to be a giant tourist-friendly resort which has apparently been taken over by inhuman mutants, hostile plant life, and others.
It also features the Echoes mode, which is essentially a series of time trials that take you quickly through sequences from the single player game only without the story bits and dialogue, and with the bonus of a timer. As a result, these levels are completed quickly, and they heavily emphasize using the point-boosting skillshots in order to achieve a high score (in this case, rewarded by Stars, which are essential to completing a number of Achievements/Trophies).
Multiplayer is another outstanding feature as long as you have some fun folks to play with. The game mode, which is called Anarchy, is similar to a Hordes or Firefight mode from other FPS titles. However, the Bulletstorm twist (as you might expect) is that the game is based around racking up a high score through the use of skillshots. The environments in Anarchy mode provide some extra opportunities to earn some skillshots not seen in the single player mode, which is good, because the team’s aggregate score must pass a certain minimum in order to advance out of the current round. A premium higher than survival or the overall massacre of your enemies is on using the terrain features correctly in order to maximize player score. Although it’s certainly a great deal of fun (at least, initially), you may ultimately find that there’s not a ton of variety to be had in the Anarchy mode. The main variation is in the specific details of the maps, but there’s not a PvP aspect to it, and the AI is the same as it would have been in the single player campaign mode.
The Bottom Line
The single key word to Bulletstorm is: fun. It’s not thought-provoking (although the characters are oddly compelling), and it’s not breaking new ground all over the place, but it is a great deal of fun just to sit down and play. It’s worth re-emphasizing that this isn’t a game for younger kids… the characters swear like sailors.
The Big Question
Is it now required by law (as opposed to just by convention) that every game needs to set itself up for its own sequel?
The game plays pretty tightly. Occasionally you’ll find the hit tracking on the melee attack isn’t so good against enemies who are right up in your grill, but this is only a problem when trying to pull off specific skill shots and not an overall problem when playing the game. Despite having quite a few mechanics going for it, Bulletstorm’s control system is simple and intuitive. If you’ve mastered the controls of any first-person shooter in the past you’ll have no trouble with Bulletstorm. Despite its variety of game modes, Bulletstorm is ultimately a bit limited in terms of the variety of experiences that it provides. However, as long as you ration your exposure, you could very well find the game fun forever.
As we expect from Epic, the graphics in Bulletstorm are gorgeous. More importantly, we see some varieties in colour, with lush green foliage all over the place and a clear sky above. Now, of course, there are some areas of the game which are more breathtaking than others, but all of the sets were gorgeous in design, and some of the set pieces were very epic, and very cool. You’ll have such encounters as a hydroelectric dam which is coming to pieces around you (including its massive water-turning wheels), and trying to escape not only from enemies but also from terrain pieces aboard a fast-moving train. The character models are also very pretty, although some of the textures will sometimes break down in close-ups. The best character design in the game definitely has to go to Ishi and his newly-installed machine parts. You’ll also be treated to a number of interesting visuals directly tied to how you finish off your enemies, but those I’ll leave you to discover on your own.
The score is proficiently done and fits the settings pretty well. For the most part, the tracks are forgettable (although I do very much enjoy the main theme which plays on the menu and at places during the single player campaign). The voice acting is all very well done. I particularly like the voice acting for Ishi, which has been digitally modified to have a mechanical edge to it. His banter with Grayson is a little reminiscent of what you get between Dom and Marcus in Gears of War, but with a more genuinely hostile edge to it. The sound for the game’s effects, weapons and other features is tight and complete. Nothing to complain about in the sound department with this title.
The Anarchy mode is definitely a lot of fun, but it’s not something that most people are going to want to play every day. Given the style of the game it’s not insane that there isn’t a strong PvP multiplayer component to Bulletstorm, but by its nature PvE multiplayer is going to have some limitations that there are no ways to overcome – human enemies will think creatively, and want to hurt you. AI opponents just do whatever they’re programmed to do.