First off, let's get this out of the way: I love shooters' multiplayer modes. Love ’em. Not always great at ’em, but love ’em regardless. (That's why I rode so hard for Battlefield: Bad Company 2 last year.) So I was understandably geeked to get my hands on Bulletstorm—to see what madness the brains behind Unreal Tournament and Gears of War would help bring to the table.* Were my expectations met? Well, yes and no. Because what Bulletstorm brings to the multiplayer arena is a huge step away from the de rigeur level-up-your-supersoldier-fest that multiplayer has become.
*Sure, Epic didn't develop the game—that honor goes to People Can Fly—but you have to assume they lent some of their multiplayer expertise to the process.
There's two of ’em: Echoes and Anarchy. To be fair, the game's main menu lets you select "Campaign," "Echoes," or "Multiplayer," so they might not exactly definte Echoes as a multiplayer pursuit, but WE DON'T CARE.
In Echoes—which you're already familiar with if you played the game's demo that dropped in late January—you play through excerpts of the game's campaign levels, withe the express purpose of maximizing your score. You can do that by diversifying your bonds skillshot selection and by completing the level under the target time given for the level. Since you only get a skillshots maximum point reward (be it 100, 250, or 500) the first time you use a skillshot it's in your best interest to use as many as you can. And in the first couple of levels, when all you get is one weapon and a leash, that's as much a test of your environmental awareness as anything else. If there are spikes around, get your Voodoo Doll as soon you can (+500!); the same goes for cacti (Pricked!) or exposed wires (Shocker!).
Of course, as soon as you finish a level, the game shows you the leaderboard of all your Xbox Live or PSN friends, and that's where the real fun begins. There's something addictive about the blend of single-player focus and oneupmanship that leads to a replayability I honestly didn't expect. After I finished the first Echo, I immediately unlocked the next two levels, but I didn't think about playing them until I'd figured out a better way to play the first one. That meant figuring out the choreography that had best served me in my first playthrough, and improving on it each time I went. So by my fourth time through, I had the whole level plotted out: Start with an alternate-charge X-Ray (one bullet, two bad guys), then follow it up with a Voodoo Doll and kicking/shooting an explosive barrel (Enviro-Mental!), etc. etc. etc. It's social gaming at a distance, and also evokes memories of memorizing levels in old NES games—though in those old games, you did it to clear the levels, and in this, you do it for bragging rights with your friends. Sure, they're sad bragging rights, but they're bragging rights nonetheless.
And that's just the first level. There are 11 progressively unlockable Echoes to begin with (we imagine there will be more in DLC packs), with them roughly following the progression of the single-player campaign. Because of that, I'm taking my time through the Echoes so as not to spoil the events of the campaign (the game actually gives a spoiler alert before you being playing in Echoes mode), but judging from the first three alone, they're gonna see more than their fair share of action.
If you've played Horde mode on Halo, you'll be familiar with this—kinda. You play with a squad of friends (or strangers—there's a quick match option as well) to take out waves of enemies on small maps, each successive wave more difficult and requiring a higher number of points to pass the wave. Instead of playing to survive, though, you play to kill all enemies in the point-heaviest way possible. Since team skillshots get more points than solo ones, the game all but forces you to communicate as you play ("you leash him, then I'll kick him into the fence!").
At the beginning of each wave, you get to use the points you racked up on the previous wave to outfit and upgrade your arsenal for the carnage ahead. Each wave has Bonus Challenges as well, which award extra points for pulling off a specific team skillshot on the last enemy. There's also something called "Blood Symphony," which I still don't quite understand but seems to be a brief frenzy mode; I couldn't tell if I was invulnerable, or just getting extra points for the skillshots. (Not explaining that fully was one of the mode's chief drawbacks.) And as you level up in the general sense, the upgrades are chiefly aesthetic—armor colors, murdered-out helmets, etc.
The key concept here is teamwork. The first time I played, I was stuck with three other players who weren't talking at all, and we couldn't pass Level Nine to save our lives. The next time I played, it was with a friend, and with a little headset planning the two of us managed to far surpass the previous lone-wolf efforts (and level me up quite a bit in the process).
Other than the Blood Symphony confusion, there really wasn't much to find fault with. When the action gets crazy in Anarchy Modes, there's quite a bit of frame droppage, and it borders on lagginess—you might be surrounded by enemies and kick out at one of them, but they've already stuttered around to be behind you because there's so much shit that needs to be processed. I've heard that's more of an issue on the 360 than on PS3, but haven't played on the PS3 to confirm.
I'm a Team Deathmatch guy through and through. Bulletstorm doesn't change that. But next time I want to jump in a party and kick some ass, I'm gonna do it in Anarchy Mode. And Echoes? I'm going to be trying to outdo myself (and my friends) in Echoes for a long, long time. Bulletstorm's non-campaign modes might be unconventional, but they're certainly compelling, and they offer a longer, deeper experience than I expected.