I wrapped up Bulletstorm last week.
I sort of wish I hadn’t; the final few hours squelched my love for what started as a perfectly enjoyable blastsploitation game. I can’t in good conscience allow you to pay money for this thing. Rent, maybe? Borrow from your best bro? Frankly, I’m rubbish at product reviews. What’s really exciting about Bulletstorm is the feeling of nostalgia it fosters, one that bubbles up and overwhelms the PC Gamer Old Guard when we start waving miniguns around and kicking dudes into spike pits. It’s pretty clear that People Can Fly remember classic PC shoot-em-ups of the past twenty years fondly, and Bulletstorm is a spot of loving tribute to blastsploitation greats like Duke Nukem 3D, Serious Sam and Painkiller.
I think it’s great that games have been around long enough to boast cult classics worth lampooning. I’ve been burning through classic exploitation flicks lately after a friend introduced me to Black Dynamite — which you absolutely should purchase as soon as propriety permits — and I thought it might be more interesting to dig into some of the surprising similarities between Bulletstorm and a few classic bits of blaxploitation cinema.
Revenge is a popular theme in violent exploitation films. The protagonist is often misguided, naive or otherwise weak until a personal tragedy inspires the character to take up arms against the enemy. In Scott Sanders’ 2009 blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite, the eponymous war veteran and ex-CIA agent Black Dynamite kills his former partner, defeats a nunchaku-wielding President Nixon and turns on his government after discovering their illicit involvement in the murder of his younger brother and the widespread sterilization of African-Americans with a preference for malt liquor.
By the same token, Grayson Hunt and the heroes of Bulletstorm are utterly despicable spec ops soldiers turned unwitting assassins who go AWOL when they discover their Confederate handler has been lying to them about the innocence of their targets. Never mind that in taking revenge for the misguided murder of a few civilians our protagonist ends up slaughtering a few thousand people, including the families of Confederate servicemembers and nearly all of his fellow soldiers; the only thing that matters to Grayson Hunt is taking revenge on the honky-ass motherfucker who tricked him. Fuck dicktits, he may as well spend the whole game screaming “I’m gonna git you, sucka!”
Playing Bulletstorm is an extended exercise in pointing barrels, painting targets and pulling triggers. You shoot a ton of dudes. You will shoot them on a train.You will shoot them in the rain. You will shoot to kill, but you will also shoot to maim; the Skill Shot system encourages you to approach killing as an art form. The sultry pleasure planet of Stygia is a canvas to muck about on to your heart’s content, using a palette of mutated gangbangers and a box of brushes that go point-click-boom.
While playing I couldn’t help reminiscing about the classic click-booms of my youth: blasting baddies with the Boneduster and the Minigun felt like the good ol’ days of Doom II, sure, but when you start sniping dudes in slo-mo with the Headhunter (MDK 2, anyone?) or whipping out a ridiculously over-sized revolver (a la Serious Sam) it’s hard to keep from grinning like a prepubescent idiot. By the time you pick up the Penetrator and start pinning suckas to the scenery (shades of Painkiller’s stakegun) it’s clear that PCF has a deep and abiding appreciation for the outlandish array of armaments we’ve carried; even the humble Hunt boot hearkens back to Duke’s Mighty Boot.
Since most modern exploitation flicks are borne from a similar sense of nostalgia for ridiculously terrible things, they often include similar callbacks: Black Dynamite is famous for using classic cars from the 60’s and 70’s, paying tribute to the heyday of blaxploitation film. They stuck to their small-budget guns, too: watch carefully, and you’ll notice that the same half-dozen cars appear in every scene (including this classic 1976 Mercury Cougar.)
Have you ever seen Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS? How about Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! or Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, all classic exploitation films whose reprehensible protagonists were guaranteed to terrify and titillate; Ilsa stars a Nazi dominatrix who rapes, tortures and murders Allied prisoners, while Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a sordid tale of three bisexual homocidal go-go dancers who brutally murder deadbeat boyfriends after robbing them blind.
No matter how horrible these assholes are, we always root for them because they’re going up against even bigger assholes, assholes so ridiculously out of proportion they look like someone mooned a funhouse mirror. The same holds true for the ragtag band of space assholes who comprise Dead Echo, the spec ops team that Bulletstorm protagonist Grayson Hunt (get it?) dooms to death in his quest for revenge on General Sarrano, who tricked the team into murdering journalists instead of drug dealers.
I don’t have much in the way of praise for the writing in Bulletstorm, but I can say that I was impressed by how much I liked Grayson and Co. by the end of the game. Tensions between the cast wax and wane throughout, and though there’s nothing subtle about the dialogue it is fun to see interesting conversations occasionally break through the near-constant stream of profanity that accompanies the badass buttrock soundtrack like a vitriolic backbeat. After a few hours I found myself starting to really like these space assholes, but the anemic final act (which resolves absolutely nothing) squandered that attachment and soured my entire (admittedly short) experience with the game. I can’t help feeling that in trying to artificially extend this game into a franchise People Can Fly tried (and failed) to surpass the games they were spoofing, instead of just sticking to what made those games great in the first place. Which is too bad, because I really enjoyed Painkiller and was hoping for a similarly satisfying, self-contained experience. I guess once you go Black,you can never go back.