One of the most inexplicable flops of the modern gaming age, Bulletstorm was ahead of the curve when it was first released. As such, developers People Can Fly and Epic Games only needed to do the bare minimum to bring the game up to modern standards. Indeed, Bulletstorm gets to enjoy all the expected niceties of the current age by getting bumped up to a 4K resolution, and while a few hectic moments cause the engine to struggle a bit, the game maintains a beautifully solid 60 frames per second. But neither studio has done a blessed thing to its gameplay, and didn’t ever need to.
Ironically, Bulletstorm is a much worthier direct descendant of the Duke Nukem legacy than Duke Nukem Forever ever could be, and the new DLC available here, which allows Bulletstorm’s mutton-chopped protagonist, Gray, to be reskinned with the Duke himself, proves this definitively. Duke is a stiff relic of the days where just hearing a voice in a video game was a novelty, let alone hearing that voice quote Army of Darkness and swear at the player. Bulletstorm’s Gray, however, is designed with layers, if not nuance, that Duke could never evince. Gray is basically what would happen if you fed Sterling Archer a steady diet of creatine for five years, then sent him to space. Epic Games’s greatest influence over the game can be felt the most here with the design: Gray and his merry men are all hulking meatslabs with guns that dwarf most tanks. It’s when Gray opens his mouth that the game pushes itself far away from cringing jingoism that plagues the Gears of War series.
Bulletstorm’s dialogue is deeply, wildly, unabashedly blue. The game paints Jackson Pollack-like with its profanities, offering up new permutations of swears along with delirious turns of phrase unmined by even the most seasoned comedians. The script is so obsessed with the art of the swear that it would almost certainly rise to a level of poetry if the whole thing wasn’t so unapologetically juvenile. That sense of pubescent glee doesn’t necessarily help the storyline, which essentially boils down to a boring mercenary revenge story strapped onto a Mad Max-inspired tale of survival among bloodthirsty, mohawk-sporting cannibals. However, Bulletstorm is working in a genre that habitually attempts military pathos, and—with very few exceptions—comes off as laughably childish. What else can a game in a fundamentally immature niche do to transcend or transgress except lean way, way in?
The game’s big gimmick has Gray obtaining a device early on that isn’t only able to produce an electromagnetic leash that allows him to grab and whip enemies toward him at will, but connects to a special military network that awards the player currency for stylish, off-the-wall kills. This isn’t the plain-jane feats of skill of other games (headshots, long-distance sniping, and the like, though, yes, you get a modicum of points for accomplishing those things as well), but complete R-rated Termite Terrace moments of mayhem, like impaling enemies on a cactus, killing enemies by shooting them in the rear end, causing an explosion by shooting an inexplicably flammable hot dog cart, impaling three enemies on a hyper-powered drill like a shish kebab, and sniping an enemy in his privates from about a football field away.
The possibilities are endless throughout, and with very few exceptions, just about any sadistic idea that pops into the player’s head on how to deal with an enemy or group of enemies in the game has been thought of by the developers, and there’s a point value associated with it. Bulletstorm craves, nurtures, and rewards sick imagination in a way no shooter before or since ever has, to the point that even the most freewheeling of modern first-person shooters—which, at this point, is probably 2016’s Doom reboot—feels disappointingly vanilla by comparison. Combined with the raucous profanity of our heroes, People Can Fly creates a perfect cathartic storm of elements that should’ve made the game an instant classic.
Or rather, it would if Bulletstorm didn’t so sourly ruin its initial high. The game’s apex involves Gray taking down a massive Godzilla-sized mutant from inside a helicopter, which would have made for a short but satisfying climax, and yet the game staggers on, breathless and saddled with an albatross: General Serrano, the game’s main villain and, through circumstance, the only person who can help Gray out of his predicament. If there’s a contrast to show the artful nature of how Gray interacts with the world and his crew, it’s in Serrano, who takes Bulletstorm’s humor from juvenile to just plain malicious, a shift that takes the wind out of the remainder of the game.
Prior to Serrano’s entrance, the game already exhibits the bad habit of skidding too close to seriousness, as in Gray being confronted with the guilt over his actions but bouncing back. Once Serrano is in, the game never recovers. But if you pretend he never entered the picture and Bulletstorm remains a wide, cackling grin of a game, operating in the nexus of low brow and high concept, that doesn’t so much beg to be played but indulged in.