The Emperor demands your life
I don’t know a whole lot about the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Space guys in ostentatious armor. Orcs dressed like orcs. It’s a lot to take in. However, I do know a lot about first-person shooters, especially those created in the ‘90s, and since Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun is designed to look like one of those, it’s the perfect crossover.
However, the indie and small-budget market is pretty saturated in retro-inspired shooters right now, so without being a fan of Warhammer 40,000, does Boltgun still do enough to stand out to me? No. But also very yes.
Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun (PC [Reviewed], PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Switch)
Developer: Auroch Digital
Publisher: Focus Entertainment
Release: May 23, 2023
Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun is the story of… something happening. You’re an inquisitor sent to a planet to quell the chaos there. That doesn’t mean much to me, but it does mean that there’s lots of squishy things to shoot.
You’re placed in a pair of stompy space boots and given a gun that is both entirely unremarkable and completely awesome at the same time. The titular boltgun is nothing more than an assault rifle, but it rips through smaller enemies and sounds like someone using a jackhammer on a bass drum. The first thing you should know about Boltgun is that it’s extremely explode-y. Everyone dies with enthusiasm, spraying blood and body parts everywhere, and it’s an awesome spectacle.
Boltgun lives for making you feel powerful. Beyond the eponymous boltgun, every weapon gives you the feeling of repeatedly slamming a car door on someone’s dick. There’s a taunt button, which is amazing because there is no multiplayer. The enemies have no feelings, so shouting at them is just something to do to feel awesome. Your space boots are constantly stomping around, and you can boost your health and armor up to 300%. Your melee attack is a chainsaw sword, and you bring down bigger enemies with it by revving it against their faces.
There are many first-person shooters out there with a philosophy built around making you feel powerful, but I don’t think any have nailed it quite like Boltgun.
Though Boltgun is visibly inspired by ‘90s FPS games, most of the aesthetic is achieved through a filter that reduces color depth and increases pixelation. It’s a reasonably effective technique that creates a vintage look without having to compromise level geometry or complexity.
It also does a few new things that I haven’t really seen in an FPS before. Many of the enemies take quite a few bullets to put down, but rather than just allowing them to be damage sponges, each one displays a health bar that lets you know how close you are to dropping them. It’s a small detail, and Boltgun gets a lot of the small details very right. Like when your boltgun’s clip is running dry, and it starts to let out a mechanical rattle to accompany every shot. There’s a lot of care taken to get the experience feeling great.
The might of the Imperium will crush you
Unfortunately, the level design doesn’t support all of this, and it’s actually somewhat baffling. The levels can get confusing. Walkways will criss-cross overhead, and there’s no map to help you out. However, that’s not the biggest issue.
The problem is that there’s a stunning lack of consistency. The first few levels seem to imply that Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun subscribes to a Doom Eternal formula where you’re largely entering small combat nodes that you clear before moving on, but it doesn’t stick to this. That’s fine because I prefer just wading through enemies the whole time, but it winds up trapped between these two approaches.
The issues that arise from this are twofold. First, it struggles with item placement. Second, it has problems with pacing.
The pacing is perhaps the strangest wrinkle. It’s not like perennial games such as Doom or Duke Nukem 3D didn’t have moments where you backtracked through empty rooms, it just feels extremely out of place with Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun. Stomping around, taunting the walls, and hoovering up supplies just feels horrible when placed next to exploding dudes left and right.
However, item placement is the biggest issue. Typically, Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun dumps ammunition and health on you. Little rotating models of crests and clips are everywhere. This makes it extremely noticeable when you’re trapped in an arena, and they’re nowhere to be found.
Your death is my glory
I remember a particular encounter late in the game where I actually came extremely close to running out of ammo and wound up taking down a Lord of Change with the chainsword. There were times when I got low on health and had to disengage entirely from combat in order to search for the smaller nooks and crannies where larger pick-ups were hidden.
Part of that problem is that Boltgun is absolutely terrible with communication. The levels are busy, noisy places where it’s easy to overlook a locked door. Sometimes I’d finish arena moments only to find that I had missed an entire section of the area because the grey corridor was hidden amongst all the grey walls. There are yellow splotches of paint and candles in some areas to draw your attention to the intended path, but I feel like these were late additions. There was one area where I missed a row of candles entirely because they were hidden among the debris and glowing portals.
The Emperor’s hand will touch you
It lends to this confused feeling I got playing Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun. For the first 20-or-so minutes after picking it up anew, I’d be having a blast. I’d feel like I was playing the best game ever. But after that initial blast of endorphins wore off I’d start feeling frustrated. I’d forge ahead until I reached a decent quitting point, put it down, then I never felt compelled to pick it up again. The only thing that really kept me going was the deadline for this review; otherwise, I think I probably would have stopped partway through and forgotten it at the bottom of my library.
That’s not to say Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun is bad. It’s definitely not. In fact, it nails so many things that other games tend to fall short on. It manages to be this extremely impressive and unrelenting spectacle for huge swaths of time. It’s just there are parts of it that are needed to support these high points, and they’re all a bit rickety.
It’s one of those moments where I may have my complaints about the game, and I feel it’s extremely necessary to voice them. However, I also think you should try Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun. This isn’t a lukewarm recommendation; it’s a hot one. Because despite all its problems, it’s something that needs to be seen and celebrated. There’s a chance that you won’t even notice the problems I outlined, and this will be a big hit with you. You might not even notice the same issues that I do. I think Boltgun deserves its chance, and you should definitely give it one, even if you have no connection with the license.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]