This pitiable cry comes from a green-skinned mutant-man, who’s tugging in vain at the flail grenades you wrapped around his neck. The grenades beep—they’ll detonate in a second or so—but out comes your boot, kicking the mutant off the catwalk to plummet to his death on the rocks far below. Or will the grenades turn him into blooming red fireworks first?
Does it really matter? This poor green lizard-guy drifts over the ravine in a slow-motion sentence; he’s f*cked either way. But yes, it does matter here, in this game, so you pull out your pistol and shoot him in the face with a fiery flare. Gratuitously, the flare explodes.
ENLIGHTENMENT +250. SADIST +50.
The Skillshot names are darkly appropriate, but more important in the moment is the gameplay outcome: Now you have enough points to buy some more flares, so you can get on with the killing. And this is Bulletstorm.
Kill Them All
Everyone must die: lizard-mutants, special operations soldiers, crazed bandits wielding pipes, ogre-like monstrosities—everybody. They’ll get blasted in two by your four-barreled shotgun (TOPLESS). They’ll be incinerated, en masse, by one hundred bullets all fired at once (X-RAY). They’ll be grabbed with an energy leash and hurled into impaling spikes (VOODOO DOLL). Bulletstorm requires inventiveness—become stale in your approach and the points trickle rather than flood. If you’re especially lame, one of your dick-quipping sidekicks will finish the job for you (no points).
Enormous and visually stunning set-pieces of mass destruction punctuate the core gameplay, and these scenes are better experienced than read about. The campaign plays a bit like an MGM Studios ride if, say, the riders were asked at regular intervals to get off the train to murder each other using conveniently placed items such as turbine fans and electrical wiring.
Surely There’s Some Context Here
Violence of such magnitude would be unsettling, but for the ludicrous and surreal glibness of Bulletstorm’s world and the characters who inhabit it. The main character, for example, is a drunken former-soldier-now-renegade type, an idiot hell-bent on revenge. One of the few choices he can make along the way is whether or not he continues to get drunk. In tone, Bulletstorm is thankfully far from the psychotic-driven and creeping Manhunt, a game the average human needs to chase with fifteen minutes of weeping in the shower.
To make downtime more interesting, the player is compelled to pay attention to Important Things—such as huge explosions in the distance—via quick time events. Correct button presses earn point rewards, so I suppose one might progress through the game using dull, routine (compassionate?) murders, so long as they possess the dogmatic obedience required to ‘win’ these cut scenes. But that would be missing the point.
There’s a story of sorts that pins up the premise, a narrative tentpole that delays the inevitable revenge and idly describes why it is that soldiers who shoot an enemy in the balls, then kick them in the face (MERCY) are more deserving of ammunition than those with a modicum of respect for their opponents (HEADSHOT). Once again I refer you to the MGM Studios allegory: The rider is thrown wildly from one experience to the next, following the predictably unpredictable train tracks. You will lose count of the times the protagonist does that ‘hazy, dazed, wake up off the ground to find out where he is now’ routine.
The fact that the game remains enjoyable is a testament to the power of the Epic polish that lovingly drenches the whole juvenile circus.
“Anarchy” Is Right
Anarchy, Bulletstorm’s multiplayer component, is cooperative, which is absolutely mystifying given that the core single-player premise is ‘I will be the one who kills them all’. If you play with pubbies, you will quickly understand the consequences of this behavioural dissonance.
False Allegations of Rape
Let me be very clear: Bulletstorm is not a game about rape or sexual assault, as certain “experts” like Carole Lieberman have suggested. It’s a game about straightforwardly horrific violence. Yes, there's a smattering of sexually suggestive wordplay interlaced with that violence, but these Skillshot descriptors are nothing we haven’t seen before (Quake: “Bl1nKI82 eats two loads of AC1DRE1GN’s buckshot”, circa 1996).
The game’s lone female character is a certified badass. “I will kill your dicks!” she threatens, cementing herself into the crass surrealism of Bulletstorm’s world. She’s a player, not a victim. The males, similar badass types, are also certainly in no danger of being raped. And really, who has time for sex when there’s so much high-octane killing to be done? Lieberman would’ve had better luck pursuing the more obvious angle—the complex influences of a reward structure that promotes diversity in committing violent acts—if she knew anything of video games at all.
Still, the core of Lieberman's misguided argument holds true: The confluence of violence and sex is never a neutral or trivial thing.
Never Stop Killing
Within a framework as parodic as Bulletstorm's, the violence is so frequent and flamboyantly over-the-top that it approaches the level of insignificance accorded to 1980s Saturday-morning cartoons. As the importance of score-chasing is reinforced, the shocking thrill of dicing enemies in new ways recedes. Soon, slaying is rote-mechanically employed—kill those guys with these weapons in this place, and do it in the 'best' possible way. In other words, the bloody, visceral spectacle is no longer the foreground of the experience, but rather automated execution in service of a grander creative plan. A plan to kill everyone in your path.
If Jack Thompson hadn't been disbarred, I'm sure he'd be losing his sh*t right about now.