May 23, 2023
I’ve made the joke more than once that there’s no genre of video game that the Warhammer 40K licence won’t jam its barbed claws into and take for a ride. We’ve had first person shooters like Necromunda: Hired Gun, the Left-4-Dead-alike Darktide, tactical offerings such as Mechanicus, a side-scrolling ork-em-up in Shootaz, Blood & Teef, and even a full-bodied ARPG in the excellent Inquisitor – Martyr. But now, we’ve got what is probably the most simple and honest translation of Games Workshop’s hyperviolent war-torn hellscape: Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun.
It casts you as a space marine of the Ultramarines chapter sent on a mission to investigate corrupt Adeptus Mechanicus on the forgeworld of Graia. After your dropship crash-lands on the Chaos-infested planet, your mission is fairly simple: kill the ever-loving shit out of every xeno, heretic, and slathering Chaos beast that so much as looks at you funny. Actually, scratch “funny”. Hell, scratch “looks at you”, too. Just kill them all. If there’s time, maybe gather that intel for the Inquisitors while you’re there.
Armed with a chainsword on the left trigger and a selection of weapons from the titular Boltgun to a powerful plasma rifle, and equipped with a spread of devastating grenades, your only real mission is to get out alive while making sure everything even slightly non-human looking has a really bad day.
I’ve been getting genuinely fatigued with the constant wave of “old school boomer shooters” that think the best way to take Doom’s crown is to dress up like Doom, break into Doom’s dressing room, and hope no one notices the new “king” is looking a bit anaemic and not walking right. Boltgun doesn’t do this. Boltgun takes the crown right off original Doom’s head and promises to return it in a few days, thanks.
Whatever alchemy Auroch Digital have worked here, it’s potent. Boltgun feels frantic and exciting, violent and cathartic, but so straightforward that it never feels like work. There are no gimmicks, no attempts to innovate on a tried and tested formula, and yet somehow it doesn’t feel trite. The 360-degree shooting has a modern bent, with auto-aim locking to leaping, jumping targets and making your life easier. But beyond that, everything is so superbly old school.
You can alter the graphics if you like to be less pixelated and much smoother, but it has no effect on the gameplay. Either way there’s an impressive level of detail in the environments, and the enemy design is great. It’s easy to tell exactly what you’re shooting at in just a glance. Of course, this being a Warhammer 40K game there are skulls everywhere; in the decor, on your guns. I feel like furry dice in this universe would just be little dangling skulls.
Strafing and dodging bullets, grenades, fireballs, and acid spit is the order of the day. If anything, there are moments when it becomes a little too frantic. Surprisingly, the default difficulty is Easy (though there’s also an accessibility mode that lets you turn off death), and I had to up it to Medium early on because it felt a bit too much of a cake-walk.
Boss fights in Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun are presented without too much fanfare. You’ll suddenly run into an enemy with an usually long health bar, often with a few extra skulls on it, natch, and after you kill them they often become regular enemies in the following stages. Most levels will have you “purge” an area, and the screen will go a shade of red and you’ll be required to obliterate everything until the screen goes back to normal. This is where the game ramps up in difficulty for a few minutes, and you can’t hoover up health and Contempt (that’s Armor, to you and me) as fast as you lose it.
Often during these sections you’ll be given one of several power-ups such as a one-hit-kill buff that lasts 30 seconds or a damage boost to your boltgun. It’s not quite the same as the berserk mode in Doom as you can still get flattened if you stand still too long. This is the big issue though: it’s very easy to get turned around due to vast sections of each level looking the same, and you’ll backtrack a lot through very similar environments.
More than once I started to feel just a little motion-sick charging around the missions looking for a colour-coded key or corresponding door, and although the missions are fairly linear, it’s not always easy to tell which direction you should be heading in. You have a servo-skull floating around with you that will often tell you if you’re going the right way, or if there’s a pick-up or secret nearby, but who’s got time to read when they’re dodging nurglings and pink horrors all over the shop? One day boomer shooters will come up with a different progression system to coloured key cards, but today is not that day.
Boltgun is a frantic old-school shooter that puts all its emphasis on cathartic fun. As such, the mindless violence can sometimes come into direct conflict with the not-so-intuitive level design, and it’s easy to get turned around and lost during hectic gunfights. Add this to the forced backtracking and key-finding, and the dopamine can take a serious knock now and then. Although, there’s something to be said for the sheer sense of weight and power you exude. Your marine feels like an 8-foot armour-clad man-tank and who could really ask for more.
Despite that, though, Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun is a game that knows exactly what it wants to be. It sets out its stall early and rarely deviates from the plan, but what could be considered just another also-ran Doom-alike is saved by awesome shooting and a healthy regard for squibbing Chaos Terminators. Is it new and fresh? Not really, but it’s great fun all the same.
Good accessibility options
Environments are a little samey
Occasionally too hectic
Doesn't do anything new
Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun is a game that knows exactly what it wants to be. It sets out its stall early and rarely deviates from the plan.