Bulletstorm preview: Just for kicks

Writing about games always comes with a peculiar kind of self-defeating dissonance. This morning, I might have grabbed a metaphorical megaphone and shoved it in some ebert's ear, right before laying out why Shadow of the Colossus is such a magnificent meditation on loss and sacrifice and etc. "Games involve and encourage and inspire!" I'd say. "It's for grownups, you know."

And then, just a few hours later, I'll write about a game that's awesome because it lets you kick people to death.
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In case it wasn't obvious in the title, Bulletstorm is a game that wears its heart on its sleeve. But even that's too subtle -- it's a literal, pulsating heart stapled to a mesh shirt from the '90s. It makes a great first impression, especially when it heralds the long-overdue return of first-person kickery. That's an industry-wide reboot I can get behind.

Bulletstorm feels like an addictive, 30-seconds-of-fun shooter that fits right alongside Epic's Unreal Tournament games.

It's a bit more functional now than it was in Wolfenstein Duke Nukem 3D, of course. In Bulletstorm, it's best to think of your enemies as piñatas filled with delicious, delicious points. A solid kick will send them into the air, where they'll hover haplessly for a few seconds while you decide the most brutal arrangement of attacks. Shoot them in the head for a skillshot bonus, tug them into spiky or exploding environmental hazards with your extendable energy leash, or simply kick them again. As I experimented on offing the level's army of hazmat punks, I felt consistently rewarded, as if I no longer needed to nudge the person next to me and say, "Hey, did you see what I just did?" The game itself is a captive audience to your stylish violence -- and it tips.

Points get funneled back into your arsenal as currency that can be used to purchase upgraded weapons and abilities. My trips to the upgrade menu, accessed by connecting the energy lasso to terminals spread throughout the level, yielded a powerful charged shot for my starting assault rifle. At the cost of several bullets, it could fire a super-heated shot that would reduce enemies to wobbling, charred skeletons. Blasting through two enemies at once nets you bonus points, denoted as the "Double Penetration" skillshot. Heart on sleeve, remember?

Firefights can degenerate into chaos pretty quickly, though I never felt like I was losing control of the situation. I could even manage the introduction of a flaming cannonball -- fired from "The Bouncer" gun -- as it rolled into a cluster of enemies. If it tried to escape, I'd just kick it back until my makeshift bowling pins resembled scattered body parts. With enemies flying in all directions, points pouring out of them, you get a very clear picture of Bulletstorm's intentions.

Heck, let's just examine a screenshot from the game:

Guy getting kicked to death. Gun-toting macho man on the verge of goose stepping to victory. Exploding helicopter. Man being exploded by helicopter. And ... is that a surprisingly tasteful statue in the corner?

You see, Bulletstorm's deliberately gruff demeanor doesn't necessarily deprive it of beauty. The fallen city of Elysium towers over you (and sometimes plunges beneath you), and reflects an influence from Epic's "destroyed beauty" concept art from Gears of War. I played the PC version at EA's Tokyo Game Show event, and was surprised at how spacious, colorful, and organic the time-hewn environments felt. They're designed with some function in mind, with plenty of decrepit walls serving as convenient cover, and never feel disconnected from your character.

All that death-kicking reminded me of something: the feeling of weight and tangibility is often overlooked in a first-person shooter (which is often reduced to the adventures of a floating gun). My favorite thing about Bulletstorm is, well, yes, the kicking, but also how the responsive movement and controls enabled me to accurately predict where my boot would be. I like the feeling of having a body, especially one that can slide into some cover with a double-tap of the A button. Even without all the goofy killing combos, I can tell that Bulletstorm feels like an addictive, 30-seconds-of-fun shooter that fits right alongside Epic's Unreal Tournament games.

There's a lot more to be said on how Bulletstorm's crass humor and primitive pleasures stack up to more sophisticated games, but today, I'm telling you one really important thing: This game is awesome because it lets you kick people to death.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.