Flashback: How 'Bulletstorm' Turned Shooting Into Showmanship

Flashback: How 'Bulletstorm' Turned Shooting Into Showmanship

The 2011 shooter, 'Bulletstorm', was a crazy arcade-style romp that took the standard FPS formula and dialed it up to eleven People Can Fly

With the remastered 'Full Clip Edition' on the horizon, it's time to reevaluate the murderously madcap shooter that still stands out from the crowd

With the remastered 'Full Clip Edition' on the horizon, it's time to reevaluate the murderously madcap shooter that still stands out from the crowd

Most garden variety first-person shooters adhere to the same core combat loop. Shoot. Crouch. Grenade. Repeat. Not Bulletstorm. Instead, People Can Fly's 2011 riotously R-Rated FPS goes a little something like this… Shoot. Knee slide. Crotch kick. Lasso enemy with leash... straight into the business end of cactus spines. With such an eccentric set of mechanics to fall back upon, the Polish-produced blaster was always going to stand apart from its po-faced contemporaries. Call Of Duty, this ain’t.

In the six years since Bulletstorm slid onto the scene, there’s yet to be another shooter that matches its unashamed audacity. "We never planned to offer a unique gameplay hook. We just wanted to evolve the genre a tiny bit," says the game's creative director, Adrian Chmielarz. Early in 2016, he wrote a belated post-mortem on video game site Gamasutra commemorating the cult shooter’s fifth anniversary. His insight is refreshingly candid. "Ten thousand things went right and ten thousand things went wrong during the production of Bulletstorm."

One element that proved divisive, both internally for the Warsaw-based studio and critics of the time, was Bulletstorm's truly spectacular potty mouth. This is a game that really loves an F-bomb. Lead character Grayson Hunt – an expletive-spouting black ops merc who looks like a declawed Wolverine – breaks out a dick joke every three minutes. If Bulletstorm was competing at the Olympics of Swearing, its podium place would be assured alongside Glengarry Glen Ross (take a bow, Alec Baldwin) and Goodfellas. "Being Polish, all the strong language in Bulletstorm was just exotic and fun to us," Chmielarz writes. "We did not feel its power."

Yet even if the vocabulary offended, the real language of Bulletstorm lay not in crass cuss words, but the seductiveness of it Skillshots. Imagine if early Tony Hawk developer Neversoft designed a first-person shooter at the peak of its powers, and the results may very well mimic the headline feature of Grayson's giddy gun gallery.

Skillshots reward you for observing the environment, then playing with your surroundings in wonderfully free-form fashion. In Bulletstorm, every seemingly vanilla piece of background scenery can be transformed into a vicious accomplice to Nathan’s brutal executions. See that dilapidated wall with the rusty pipes sticking out? Yank an enemy towards you using the Energy Leash, and a horrendous 'Voodoo Doll' demise awaits. Kick goons into a famished Flytrap – a deadringer for Little Shop of Horrors' Audrey II – and a 'Bad Digestion' kill flashes on-screen. Hoof a hotdog stand in the direction of a clutch of mutants, and the resultant explosion of cheap processed meat and flying cadavers earns you a 'Sausage Fest' shot.

Like all great sandbox games, Bulletstorm revels in a constant state of playfulness. It wants you to prod at it, test its limits, see what the mechanics will let you away with. "I am a big fan of games that offer multiple pseudo-independent systems. That is the core of any emergent gameplay," writes Chmielarz. What you shoot in Bulletstorm doesn't matter. Whether you're unloading on shirtless clowns, or futuristic punks rocking hairstyles even Johnny Rotten would blush at, the only thing that counts is how you take them out.

With the exception of Platinum Games' exquisite Vanquish, there’s perhaps no other shooter of the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 generation that captures such a stupendous joy of movement. As you sprint and slide around the exotic climes of Stygia (an alien resort world gone horribly wrong), there’s a constant pleasure in merely moving from A to B, let alone blasting a bad guy in their delicate derrière at C (that'd be the Rear Entry Skillshot, fact fans). Shooting in Bulletstorm is a means to an end. The real goal is to exterminate enemies in the most gleefully over-the-top manner possible.

There are around 130 unique Skillshots in Bulletstorm's campaign, ranging from bespoke environmental skills – like catapulting some poor schmoe into the propulsion burners of a colossal dam for 'Man-Toast – to kills that span each of the game's distinctly unique weapons. Call Of Duty and Battlefield may offer satisfying AK-47 fire, but do they let you murder multiple foes with a gun that spews hopping (let alone extremely explosive) cannonballs? Even all these years on, Grayson's Bouncer grenade launcher is still ludicrous fun to fire.

Anyone who’s ever been addicted to catching Pokémon should relate to the gnawing desire that comes from trying to tick off all of Bulletstorm's Skillshots. As individual showcases for the game's superbly fluid control scheme, each one is a treat to act out. When you try to complete every last one – some of which demand incredible precision – it morphs into full-blown obsession. This is a game that displays a flare for showmanship quite unlike any other shooter. Every alien enemy Grayson encounters is a blank canvas, and the brilliantly malleable skill system provides the goriest of paint.

It helps that Bulletstorm is immaculately paced. During the design process, People Can Fly was acutely aware of how important ebb and flow action is to a top-tier shooter. Creating a balanced campaign with breakneck action punctuated by reflective moments of respite was clearly at the forefront of the studio’s mind, something Chmielarz is proud of. "At a certain point we felt that every level had really great pacing: a good warm-up, varied encounters, and an interesting cliffhanger."

It's hard to imagine a better accompaniment to the gloriously gaudy theatre of those Skillshots than a level that sees Grayson ordering around a giant dinosaur sidekick – call him 'Waggleton P. Tallylicker.' Then there’s the extended scene where you flee a furiously spinning spiked wheel the height of the CN Tower. Bulletstorm repeatedly showcases a talent for showstopping set-piece spectacle that only the likes of Naughty Dog at the height of its Uncharted mastery can really match.

This is no nostalgia act. Play Bulletstorm through EA’s Origin platform on a decent PC, and the experience remains exhilarating. With its unapologetic, cartoonish aesthetic, brilliantly buttery controls, and a penchant for spectacular shooting that surpasses many 2017 games, this commercial flop – why did no one buy it?! – is absolutely worth your time.

Given its shabby sales figures – it failed to crack even a million copies – it's surprising Gearbox Software picked up the rights to Bulletstorm. The publishing might of EA couldn't peddle the game effectively back in 2011, so here's hoping Randy Pitchford's studio is more successful at promoting the remastered Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition when it launches this Friday on PC, PS4 and Xbox One. PS4 Pro owners and PC players with powerful rigs also get the chance to relive this intoxicating alien shoot ‘em up in 4K; a format where those Skillshots are bound to shine like never before.

So let's celebrate the brutally bizarre shooter that no one bought by giving its shiny new redux a second chance. Call of Duty may have its world-conquering online encounters, and Battlefield’s destructible delights are tough to top, but People Can Fly’s romp was bold enough to dance to the beat of its own demented drummer. Here's to Bulletstorm: the shooter where showmanship is king.