Boltgun is the newest videogame in the Warhammer 40k universe and the latest in the boomer shooter genre. It’s a combination so agreeable, I’m not sure anyone’s going to object to it. Pixelated enemies gushing pixelated gore, meted out by the thundering might of a Space Marine? It's a match made in heaven.
So, why is Boltgun so damn vexing?
Auroch Digital’s game is a sequel to 2011’s Space Marine. We play as Malum Caedo, admirably voiced by Rahul Kohli, who’s dropped into the world of Graia to deal with yet another Chaos invasion. As the lone survivor, he thuds his way through the wrecked world to seal the Chaos rift, and slit the throat of the Chaos Sorcerer responsible. So far, so 40k.
And that's your plot, that's it. Maybe that’s not a problem; after all, it’s just a flimsy pretence upon which to hang a first-person shooter. The real meat of the game is in blasting, stomping, and hacking your way through the forces of Chaos and their demons. It’s here Boltgun elevates itself, and you feel every clunk of Caedo's armour, the grinding of the plates, the stomp of the boots. The violence is just as crunchy and visceral, and your kills, especially with the chainsword, are acts of satisfying brutality. For the God Emperor, and all that.
Of course, Boltgun's real selling point is its retro aesthetic, oozing industrial grunge that brings 40k's cursed cosmos to life. Every outpouring of guts and viscera reminds us what a holy blend 40k and the 90s throwback shooter really is. The coarse muzzle flare, the dark and foreboding cathedrals of chaos - it’s a stunning apocalypse.
But there’s a flipside. Sure, the shooty bits work a charm, but it’s the aesthetics that do the heavy lifting. Beyond that, there’s actually not a whole lot here.
Take the level design. Most settings are a sprawling mess of indistinguishable corridors, all in search of a key to move to the next area. The game doesn’t bother to help guide you along the path, resulting in far too much time wandering back and forth and, occasionally, getting lost. I get that it’s a retro shooter, but the overreliance on keys to progress is hardly a compelling gameplay feature.
These corridors invariably lead to huge arenas with a lot of vertical, but little thought has gone into their layouts. Once you get inside, you’re given the order to purge the enemy before you can move on, but given the scale of the arenas, there’s a lot of running around just finding someone to shoot. The arenas pull directly from the modern incarnation of Doom, but at least there the enemies sought you out. Too often did I find myself running around in endless loops, trying to find that last straggler so as to end the purge. It doesn’t bring me any joy to say it, but the level design is just poor; a chaotic mess of underused space and maddening layouts, offering little in the way of variety. I kept thinking of Dusk, another boomer shooter, but one that wasn't beholden to the past, setting out to immerse itself in the aesthetics of the era, but pushing new boundaries of its own.
Boltgun, despite a few modern flourishes, doesn't do any of that.
Perhaps the most ill-conceived addition is the servo-skull - something like a ghoulish drone - following you around. Its purpose is to relay mission objectives, but it’s done purely through text. The caption boxes carrying that text vanish far too quickly, a problem made worse when they pop up during combat. It’s blink-and-you-miss-it stuff, which is a real problem when that servo-skull is the only thing driving you forward.
I previously noted that Rahul Kohli provides the voice of our fascist protagonist, but only if you choose to taunt your enemies. Otherwise, he’s got nothing to say. Zip. That seems like a foolish decision; it's the servo-skull who needed a voice, if only so we could hear its instructions without having to speed read the caption boxes. And who knows? Maybe it would have helped develop some kind of bond between protagonist and drone, just to give us something to care about.
Having read all that, you might be thinking I hate Boltgun. I don't. The gunplay is brutal and satisfying, and the hellish look of the thing is gorgeous. But they aren’t enough to disguise the game’s overt failings. It’s an average game carried on the back of its looks, and while it earns the distinction of being one of the better 40k videogames, its place in that ever-growing pantheon isn't especially high.
Perhaps it's time to move on from Space Marines.
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