Thursday, 27 February 2014

Bulletstorm (PC)

Today on Super Adventures in Games Beginning with 'B', I'm taking a quick look at Bulletstorm made by Painkiller developer Epic Games Poland back when they were still called People Can Fly.

The game is part of the small but growing 'post-apocalyptic sci-fi craphole first person shooter' genre, along with games like Fallout 3/New Vegas and Rage, so it's in good company at least. It came out for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows, but I'll be playing the PC version, as it is superior for two very important reasons: I own a copy and it's easier to take screenshots of it.

First though I'm going to link to the theme music as it's surprisingly epic: youtube link. Stick that on while you read to make the next few paragraphs seem even more intense.

(Clicking pictures will likely show you a clear higher res version.)

Oh right, I need a Games for Windows Live profile first before I can play the game. This is a single player game though, so if Epic had any sense at all I should be able to get it working just fine with an offline profile and not have to bother with all the online crap.

Nope, I had to go and create a new ONLINE account to play this single player offline game and now I have to wait for it to be downloaded.

Aside from the annoyance, this is kind of a big problem as Games for Windows Live is getting shut down on July 1st this year, and no GFWL means no GFWL online account. Unless this DRM crap gets patched out, in a few months I will no longer be able to play my copy of Bulletstorm ever again.

Oh c'mon, just let me play my game already! I can't really complain too much about this, as game download clients gotta update sometimes, but considering that its only purpose in my life is to eventually steal my own game from me, I'm a little resentful of every second it refuses to piss off and let me play.

Can you guess what came next?

And I'm back to downloading my profile again. Tell you what, fuck it. I'll play the game some other time, I've got so many other things I need to be doing.

This is my first experience using an online account on this service and I already get why people hate GFWL so much.


WEEKS LATER (SERIOUSLY, I STARTED THIS AT THE BEGINNING OF JANUARY).


Alright the game begins on a pirate starship with Wolverine aka. Grayson Hunt (center) and his merry crew of interstellar buccaneers finishing off the business of torturing and then spacing a bounty hunter sent by General Serrano to kill them all. Gray's voice is played by voice actor legend Steve Blum (aka. Wolverine) and the part of him that runs down hallways and shoots people will be played by myself. Eventually.

The heroes are a little drunk though so they make a tiny mistake during the interrogation that ends up blowing a rather large hole in the side of their vessel, but other than that it goes pretty well. Plus all this new wreckage in between them and the door gives me an excellent opportunity to relearn how walk and duck under beams (okay Gray is very drunk right now).

Oh hey, it turns out that their most hated enemy General Serrano is parked outside right now in the Ulysses, the Confederation's prize warbird. It doesn't seem like either ship expected to run into each other like this, but now that they have bad things are going to happen unless we escape right this second.

Gray has literally just finished off every last drop of alcohol on board ship however, and he's thinking that he can win this fight through sheer ballsiness. Though he does give his crew a fair chance to mutiny before ordering them to open fire.

Bulletstorm Grayson Hunt pirate ship
Actually Grey has a surprisingly massive ship there, so he might actually be in with a chance of winning this fight.

Bulletstorm Ulysses
Oh.

See that tiny blue light about two thirds of the way across from the left, then halfway down? That's actually the engine glow from Gray's ship.

Our heroes are basically screwed.

But before we can get on with the business of exploding, first we need to go through the motions of trying to cripple the enemy battleship by firing at its gun turrets. Because why not start your FPS game with a turret sequence? Well I guess this is technically first person shooting, even if someone else is flying the ship.

There's a bar at the top and a bar on the bottom left and I honestly don't know which of them is my health, but they both seems to be emptying at roughly the same rate so I'm not sure it matters.

As things get desperate and the pirate ship suffers catastrophic damage, Gray crawls over to the controls, quotes a few lines from a classic novel (Treasure Island, not Moby Dick for once), and sets ramming speed for a bit of mutually assured destruction in the name of revenge.


AN INDETERMINATE NUMBER OF YEARS AGO.


A few years earlier, Gray and his crew were each living the carefree life of a Confederation special forces assassin, which is deftly established by their friendly antagonistic banter as they stroll down the side of a skyscraper.

They're wearing gravity boots by the way, in case you're wondering how they can stick to the wall like this. If you're wondering how they can stand upright at 90 degrees to the ground... well I guess that's the gravity boots too. Or maybe they just have really strong ankles. Either way it was worth doing just for the view.

Well there's my first kill of the game, got him while hanging upside from my legs outside the window. Pretty good shot I reckon, though Gray himself did all of the aiming part for me, I just clicked the mouse button. I guess that the game's easing me into the gameplay gently. We've had walking, aiming, and shooting a gun now, just not all at the same time.

All I know about the target is that he's called Bryce Novak, but the fact that the military sent their top assassins to kill him gives me the impression that he's probably a grade-A asshole with his dirty fingers in some very evil pies.

...or maybe he's entirely innocent.

It turns out that Gray's elite team has actually been an illegal murder squad tasked with killing anyone that gets on General Serrano's shitlist. He's not entirely happy about finding this out and they decide to call the General up then and there to confront him about it.

General Serrano may have the galaxy's most awesome coat, but he's also got the mouth of a sailor and the personalty of an unhinged drill instructor. He's very good at yelling, but his 'you'll kill innocent people and you'll LIKE it' speech doesn't go over so well with the crowd and Gray finally ends the conversation by announcing that he's going to kill him.

The others aren't quite so impressed with how Gray just made a massive group decision for them, but there's no time to argue about as soldiers burst in and he dives over to take a bullet for his buddy Ishi.


PRESENT DAY: THE FUTURE.


We've cut back to the present day now, just after Gray's wrecked ship smashed down into the nearby planet. Miraculously everyone on the ship survived it ramming straight through the Ulysses and falling 300 miles onto solid rock, though some are less intact than others. Ishi is going to die very soon unless Gray goes out into the wilderness and finds a fusion cell to power up the med lab.

But I can't help but notice something now that I have a bit of freedom to move around... I do not have a jump button; there is no jumping whatsoever in this first person shooter. It's a bit ironic for a developer called People Can Fly to make a game where you can't lift your feet off the ground perhaps, but I don't think it's a cause for concern. If it's good enough for Doom it's good enough for this.

Oh shit, I guess they finished that thing off after all!

The Ulysses didn't end up crashing anywhere near here, but the ship's escape pods did and we soon found one which contained the battery we need. Well that was fast, I guess we go back to the ship now. Man there's a lot of story in this before I'm allowed to start playing.

GET OVER HERE!

This planet is occupied by intelligent life, but unfortunately for us they're all first person shooter enemies, so communication is out of the question. They wont stop coming until they get what they want and all they want is to kill us.

Fortunately I picked up an energy leash around the same pod that I found the power cell, and this thing is really handy for dragging anti-social crazy people out from cover and into these metal bars. As soon as they touch the spikes they're dead, instantly.


SOON, BACK AT THE PILE OF DEBRIS I'M STILL CALLING THE SHIP.


Oh crap, how can Doc not hear me yelling to turn around? The poor bastard lives just long enough to set the newly powered-up medical equipment to automatically deal with Ishi's wounds. That just leaves Rell and I outside the med lab to guard him until the procedure is complete.

Man they'd better not kill Rell off; the guy's got an awesome beard, a dry sense of humour, and most of the good lines so far. What is it with stories that set up likeable characters only to kill them off at the start? At least Ishi's probably safe.


SOME DRAMA LATER.


Yep, Ishi's doing just fine. The guy is in constant agony after the surgery to save his life and isn't coping with it well. Plus he's having to battle with the robot CPU installed to take over certain brain functions, with the robot side wanting to choke Gray to death because there's no logical reason to let him live, and the human side wanting to strangle him for being a drunk semi-suicidal fuckup who got all his friends killed (poor, poor Rell).

Luckily for Gray he gets a last second reprieve as they pick up a distress signal from a Ulysses crash survivor. If they can get to her, they can find a way off this planet. "If I expire you have failed your last bid for redemption," CyberIshi concludes.

The story was written by acclaimed comic book author Rick Remender, around the same time he was writing up the Frankencastle arc of The Punisher, so I guess he was in a 'hero gets blown up and rebuilt with pipes sticking out of them' kind of mood at that point. I'm not rolling my eyes at it this time though, which is a good sign.

Alright, now I can get down to some good old fashioned shooting! I gotta admit though, the old fashioned shooting ain't all that great in this so far, as this gun might as well be firing rubber darts. It sure is useful for detonating these red barrels that are lying all over the place though.

Really what I should've done here is either leash them out of cover one by one, or kick a barrel over and shoot it. Running right up to enemies may be something I can get away with, but the game rewards me when I use a bit more ingenuity than that.

Hey it's some kind of drop pod. Ishi-of-Nine tells me that it's from a Confederation military operation that took place here a year ago, and the game's not allowing me any further until I've leashed it.

Using my stolen Confederate leash on one of these Confederate dropkits uploads my combat data into the thing so that it can grade me on my performance.

Whoa, it really does literally reward more creative kills with skill points, which I can then spend on ammo and weapon upgrades. So these dropkits are basically like post-level shops, with my score being the currency.

Man I never thought I'd see 'shoot an enemy in the balls and kick his head off' in a game as a bonus objective. Video games have come a long way.

Awesome, I've finally got my HUD activated now, showing my remaining ammo and more importantly my skill point reward for shooting a psycho in the balls and kicking him into a cactus.

Yep it's taken a while, but I have finally reached... the actual game! I don't blame the developers for having a slow start though, as they've both set up the characters and thoroughly drilled into me the importance of kicking and leashing instead of shooting from cover. The game has regenerating health instead of health kits, but that's no excuse to be cowering behind walls. It's just a shame that there's no indicator to let me know which direction I'm taking damage from.

You know what the trouble with fast paced first person shooters is? The bloody enemies never want to show up clearly on screenshots! They're either a blurry close up mess or they're a tiny dot in the distance. But with views like this, who even needs enemies?

It really does remind me a lot of id's Rage, released later the same year, except without the tedious dialogue scenes between levels. The cutscenes in this get to the point and then they get out of my way, and they are all skippable.

Once people are sent airborne they tend to hang around a bit and drift in slow motion because... let's just say it's the gravity boots again. This means I can actually kick an enemy, then run around and kick them again from another angle to send them where I want them. Or I can just shoot them in the head while they're helpless (I think that's actually in my list of skillshots to earn).

Kicking them into spikes is a unique skillshot, kicking them into a cactus is a unique skillshot, kicking them off the level is a unique skillshot...

...kicking them into electrical cables: unique skillshot!

It's a combat system that rewards screwing around and trying something new over playing it safe, and while 'kick enemy into a thing' is often my ultimate goal, I find that achieving this often presents opportunities for improvisation.

RoboIshi runs over to the generator to charge his power cell up, there's a bit of drama, and then ten seconds later I'm back into the game. By the way the guy is always right next to me, but he's more of a straight man for Gray's jokes than a sidekick. Sure he helps out in fights, but it seems that I do most of the work and he's immune to death, so he may as well be a voice on the radio as far as I'm concerned. This is not a complaint.

Aww, a miniboss? But that means I have to rely on shooting for once and his gun is so much bigger than mine! Ishi, get your ass over here and take out this boss for me! Please.

This guy wasn't so bad in the end, though he was a bit of a grind. I popped out of cover, shot him a bit, ran behind a wall to heal etc. I've been in much more frustrating fights before so I can't complain. Plus I got a gun out of it!

There's something very rewarding about getting rewards, I find. The better I do, the more ammo I get from the drop box at the end, though there's plenty lying around on the level as well. The game doesn't exactly have much scope to explore (each level is pretty much a narrow linear corridor), but they sometimes hide an ammo box or two off the path for when I'm struggling.

By the way, there are enemies in this shot if you look carefully. They're a lot easier to see in motion, I promise. Also the game occasionally gives them a bit of a blue glow if they're in shadow, which is a nice touch.

Oh c'mon, a turret sequence? With vehicle and character health? Man I've grown to hate these kinds of levels so much over the years... and yet I don't seem to be hating this one. I blame that giant wheel chasing my train, I'm transfixed by the thing. It doesn't look all that in a still screenshot, but man it's impressive in motion as it smashes through cliffs along the way.

Spectacle is one of the game's strong points and that definitely helps when the gameplay goes and leaves me on a train for a minute or two so it can sneak off and take a break. I'll just keep shooting trucks then shall I? Okay then.


LATER.


Hey, I've picked up a new gun! It's... a revolver.

Okay I admit, I just wanted to show off the view. It seems that we've left the desert behind now and we're moving towards the city. Though that does remind me about how the game actually bribes me with skill points to look at certain things at times, like set piece or a miniboss showing up. I can see how this could annoy people, but I appreciate how it's still my choice on what I want to focus on, instead of it automatically yanking my head around.

Hey it's that survivor from the crashed Ulysses that we've been looking for... and it's Jennifer Hale! I'm loving this mature, highbrow dialogue by the way. It's just a shame that Gray's witty response of "I'll kill YOUR dick!" wasn't enough to charm her into sticking around.

I'd say she seems like she's basically the female version of Gray: all swagger, hostility and violence, but that's not entirely true now that I think about it. Gray has actually lightened up a lot since the intro and has been joking around almost constantly to try to keep morale up and save Ishi from going full-robot.


LATER.


And then we fought mecha-Godzilla inside a miniature city! Because why not?


EVEN LATER STILL.


But it's cool, we made friends in the end, and now the Mechaton is working for me! I point, he shoots. It's a welcome change of pace rather than a sudden interruption in gameplay.

Man, Steve Blum sounds like he was having the time of his life in the recording booth for this. This would be half the game it is without Gray constantly coming out with dumb comments. In fact I think I've actually played that game... and it was called Rage.

Don't get the wrong impression though, these are definitely the self-aware variety of dumb comments. The game's macho-bullshit dudebro exterior hides a more sensitive core. The characters may yell about their dicks every other line, but only to get a laugh.

Oh wow, the joke in the elevator was actually to set up mood-whiplash for this shocking reveal of mutilated victims. Only it's not really much of a shock, considering that this is what every room looks like when I'm done with it.

By the way this room gets a lot more amusing with the gore turned off:

The horror, the sheer horror!

The game also has a language filter to turn off all the swearing, so it is possible to remove all the of the 'dicks' if that's a concern. Sadly they just cut out the offending words instead of dubbing over the lines like in an action thriller on afternoon television. Yippee ki-yay... Mister Falcon.

Man, the enemies on this level are slippery bastards, they always evade my leash. Actually I accidentally hit the wrong button here, I was supposed to be kicking them, but that doesn't work on them either! Now I have to rethink my tactics.

Well I can't yank them out of cover any more, though I could kick over an explosive barrel if I see one of them around. The explosives don't seem to harm me by the way, which is an interesting (and probably wise) choice.

It's risky, but I could also try a running slide right into the group of enemies. My slide's got a massive range on it, so I could probably catch that guy on the left with it from here and send him flying with one hit. The risky part of this is that it puts me right in the middle of the enemies, and the game really doesn't like it when I move too far ahead too fast. Several times I've ran through a group of enemies, only to instantly keel over because 'you were shot in the back'. Suuure I was. I'm just glad the checkpoints are so fair, considering that there's no quick saves.

Aha, shooting a grenade flail around their waist seems to get the job done. They can't dodge a bomb when it's strapped to them.

The game has a fairly standard arsenal including the machine gun, pistol, sniper-rifle, shotgun etc. but they often have a twist to them. The shotgun has four barrels, the sniper-rifle fires bullets I can steer etc.

I can also buy expensive secondary ammo for them that open up additional options to earn some skillpoints. For instance the leash can be given an emergency slam move that knocks all enemies into the air, where they then hang around for a bit waiting for me to finish them off. I can only carry three shots though so I find that I never end up using them.

Speaking of only carrying three... I can only carry three guns at once! That might make sense for a military shooter filled with near-identical assault rifles, but when the guns are different I should be allow to bring all my tools out into the battlefield.

Anyway, Gray and Ishi eventually caught up with the survivor and then everyone lived happily ever after. Possibly, I dunno; I'm still I'm less than halfway through the game.


CONCLUSION

Bulletstorm provides a disturbing glimpse into a dark possible future... where digital download services have shut down and we've lost our library of games forever. I mean seriously Epic, announce that you're going to patch the DRM out already so I can relax. I don't want to sound like I'm against companies protecting their product from piracy, as long as it's through sensible non-intrusive means, but when the DRM leads to a situation where piracy is the only way to play a game we've paid for... well it's not encouraging me to buy their next game that's for sure.

But what about the actual game? Well it's basically a straightforward action game, where the only choice comes from how you want to engage each group of enemies. There's no alternate paths, there's no decisions to make, there's no dialogue choices, there's no exploring the levels, there's no feet when you look down, there's no puzzles or problem solving, no illusion of freedom... you just kick and shoot at everyone until they're dead. To be honest though, they've made that work for me. The focus is on getting a high score by doing things that are fun, and the more interesting you make combat for yourself, the more bullets and upgrades you're given to play with in the next level.

There's even another mode called Echoes that lets you play through levels without cutscenes or dialogue, just pure score-attack gameplay. Oh by the way, did I mention that the game has a level select? There's no deathmatch multiplayer but there is a separate co-op arena where you can team up with other players against waves of enemies.

It's got a slow start for sure, but I think that's been justified by how much I care about the characters now. Gray is a drunk who makes everyone around him suffer from his mistakes and Ishi is a pissed off cybernetic robot man who mostly just threatens and berates him, but I care about them so much more than the average FPS protagonist because the game took the time to give me a reason to. The story gets right everything Rage got wrong, focusing on the protagonist, giving him a strong antagonist, and keeping the plot moving instead of dragging it down with endless mission briefings and side quests. The story hasn't spent much time dwelling on the mystery of the fallen utopia that the heroes are trapped on so far, but there's been enough hints thrown around to make it seem like there'll be a pay off to it as well.

Basically the game's very close to being the best at what it does, so I'm compelled to recommend it.
    

Just don't get the PC version until Epic have assured people that it'll still exist in four months.


If you have anything you'd like to add about Bulletstorm, my painfully longwinded article, my site, DRM, GFWL, etc. then you are officially invited to leave a comment in the message box underneath.

4 comments:

  1. Bulletstorm wins points from me for its wonderful parody of Call of Duty: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZyH320R0bI

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  2. I played this awhile back. Got to where you did. Exactly where you did. Then, I stopped and never played it again. I thought it was pretty enjoyable, and I agree about the characters: they're interesting. And all of the dick jokes remind me of work, in a good way. Because that's all we ever did at work: told dick jokes around people who were uncomfortable hearing dick jokes.

    If it still exists in November or whatever random time I decide to play it, I might finish it. I'm guessing it is a 6-8 hour game.

    Did you get a new graphics card? It doesn't look quite as bad as the Xbox version.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah I got around to finishing it eventually and it's really not a long game, but personally I'm not seeing that as a bad thing as it ends before it has a chance to drag on and wear out its welcome. Not that I was all that happy on how they wrapped it up with a dumb cliffhanger.

      Also no I didn't get a new graphics card, the game just seems to like my ancient computer. I was able to throw all those setting right up and still get a decent frame rate. I tip my hat to the people who worked on optimising the PC port, as they apparently did a great job of it.

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  3. I love it when spaceships have wings AND keels.
    Also, my favourite censored line is from Coppola's Scarface: "Where'd you get that beauty scar, tough guy? Eating pineapple?" I'll let you figure out what the pineapple originally was.

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