The first thing we were told when we arrived at Epic Games' head quarters in North Carolina was that we were not going to see Gears of War 3. Of course, we already knew this, but it's naturally a game that's on every games journalists mind at the moment and Epic just wanted to make sure the wires in our brains hadn't somehow got things mixed up.
Bulletstorm took its first baby steps back in 2007 when Adrian Chmielarz, creative director at People Can Fly, pitched the concept to Epic Games. At the time it was merely an idea, but three years later Epic and People Can Fly along with publishing partner EA feel that the time is right to show Bulletstorm to the world.
Bulletstorm is set in the 26th century and People Can Fly have gotten assistance from noted comic book writer Rick Remender (Punisher, Fear Agent, The End League) on the story. Mankind have left they playpen known as planet Earth and taken giant strides into a greater universe. The player steps into the shoes of a hulking mercenary called Grayson "Gray" Hunt. He is the leader of a killing crew called Dead Echo and answers directly to General Serrano, who controls the universe with an iron fist. Dead Echo is a clean up crew who takes care of business without asking questions. At the beginning of the game we are thrown straight into a job where things aren't what they seemed and as a result Gray defies his orders. Things go downhill from there.
From being at the top of the food chain Gray is all of a sudden public enemy number one. Serrano doesn't take lightly to mutiny and sends all his resources after Gray, who is forced to take up life as a space pirate with his best friend Ichi Sato. Ichi is more of a thinker and balances out some of Gray's madness.
Ten years later we catch up with the two friends again. After securing a successful bounty they are looking for some time off in a quiet corner of the universe. Once again things don't go according to plan, and they bump into General Serrano's giant war ship Ulysses. Gray doesn't think twice about attacking and the prologue ends with an impressive display of fireworks as our friends crash into the control room of the Ulysses and both ships tumble to the ground.
They end up on a planet called Stygia. A planet that is overgrown by lush vegetation and a perfect showcase of the power available in Epic's Unreal Engine 3. Upgrades in the systems for lighting and shadows are what first catches our attention. The sun shines down in between shadows and reflects of the surface of the water, windows and small rocks on the ground. The work that has gone into the little details is very impressive.
The planet is also defined by its grandiose architecture with gold covered buildings and luxury. But nature has reclaimed what looks like it was once a flourishing planet of abundance. The producer Tanya Jessen tells us that the planet is filled with mysteries and that there are several layers to the story:
On one side we have the story of Gray and his fall from grace, but on the other hand we have the mysteries and secrets of the planet and that is a story in and of itself, Jessen explains.
It soon becomes apparent that the planet is not devoid of human life. The people who reside there have lost all traces of morale and humanity, and their only goal seems to be to put an end to Gray's existence. Oddly enough they are packing advanced and upgraded Confederation weaponry, and it doesn't take a genius to come to the conclusion that there is some kind of conspiracy at work here. But it's not just humans you have to look out for, the planet itself is gunning for you with everything from giant plants to deadly magnetic storms.
Cliff Bleszinski, game designer extraordinaire, explains how Bulletstorm is designed with the "Circle of Awesome" in mind. Simply put you're doing something fun, that leads to more fun stuff, that in turn leads to even more fun stuff. He puts it more elegantly put you get my drift.
Bulletstorm takes the concept of skill shots from Unreal Tournament III and evolves it. It's all about executing your enemy in the most gruesome and brutal fashion imaginable and perfecting the art of killing. Armed with an impressive arsenal you get awarded points based on just how skilfully you slaughter your enemies, and in turn your points can be used to upgrade both Gray and his arsenal.
One weapon that Epic and People Can Fly are banking on to become the signature gun of Bulletstorm, much like the Lancer is to the Gears of War series, is the Flail Gun. It's basically a handheld cannon that launches two grenades that are tied together with a chain. With it you can attach enemies to one another tie them to man eating plants, or do just about anything you want can think of. Great for that kill score.
At the core of the game is something the developers refer to as creative chaos. Producer Tanya Jessen tells us that they chose to implement kicking instead of a more traditional melee attack.
When you kick someone on the battlefield, it is humiliating. We want players to play with opponents and do everything possible to execute them in the coolest way possible. Sometimes the combat will be very static. You turn to a guy while he's standing still and grunts. We will have a slight pause where you see the effect of the kick, Bleszinski adds.
In addition to his kick Gray always carries his whip. Ideal for pulling enemies closer, knocking them away or through them in any direction you please. Kicking and whipping are the basics for setting up entertaining kills that score high. We witnessed a skill shot called "Bad Touch" worth 50 points that saw Gray kicking an enemy into a giant cactus. The developers were keen to tell us that the upgrades you earn won't just be generic stat upgrades like +5 strength or +5 endurance, but rather physical upgrades where you can immediately tell the difference.
While the kick and whip can be used for basic killings, adding your gun will increase your score. Kicking your enemy in the nuts and shooting him in the head as he kneels down is called "Mercy" and gives you 100 points. During the gameplay demonstration we got to see countless of combinations and even Cliff Bleszinski was surprised at some of the creative kills the testers had come up with. The idea is that the player should think "Fuck yeah!" not "Oh fuck!" when hordes of enemies comes running at him or her.
But it's not all about killing with style. In order to break up the pacing of the game People Can Fly have added bits of exploration for those with a taste for adventure games. If you want to learn more about the planet you are going to have to explore and keep your eyes open for clues. There won't be any cassette tapes handing you the backstory in bits and pieces, but the clues as to what happen will found in the environments themselves. It's left up to the player to decide how deep he wants to delve into the mysteries of the planet.
While the developers are keen to point out that humour is one of the most important parts of Bulletstorm it is hard to find anything amusing about the dry oneliners Gray spits out. It gets rather embarrassing to listen to after a while and I find it hard to identify with a character that appears this one dimensional. Hopefully this is something that will be less of an issue as I get to see more of the game, and as development progresses.
Next up in the avalanche of catchphrases thrown at us during the press event is "blockbuster moments". Epic boss fights, massive explosions, and brutal killings. At the end of the demo we get to witness one of these "blockbuster moments" as Gray faces of with a boss that is best described as a giant lump of snot. The big blob has smaller yellow boils along the base that Gray takes out with his rifle and grenades. Towards the end of the fight the lump explodes, and Gray gets a slime shower. Very visual in the first person view, but as it fitting for Gray, he just shrugs it off and grunts.
Bulletstorm gives off a great first impression. Stygia is a beautiful place, and the gameplay comes across addictive and entertaining. We won't be stepping into the shoes of Gray until next year, but from what we have seen it will be well worth waiting for.
(Adapted and translated by Bengt Lemne)