Retro shooters have come back in a big way in the last few years. Some might argue that they came back a little too hard — and I say this as someone who happily devours each one the second they hit Early Access. Ever since DUSK, we’ve been positively inundated with new “Boomer Shooters” just about every month, and the latest, Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun, feels like a company chasing a trend without understanding it very well at all.
It was DUSK’s David Szymanski who explained to me that solid encounter design is one of the most fundamental pillars of a good retro shooter. It doesn’t matter how good the guns feel, how flashy the graphics are, or how many things there are to shoot if the layout of encounters is uninspired. And that is Warhammer 40K: Boltgun’s cardinal sin: it doesn’t understand encounter design at all.
We’ll loop back around to that. For now, let’s talk basics. You’re a spess marine, sent to a planet full of heretics to purge and maim and whatever other co-opted fascist language the fans of this series like to throw around for the memes. I jest. Mostly.
Things open up rather promisingly — you’re given a simple dash attack, a sick chainsword, and the titular boltgun, and are told to go to town. The chainsword can lock on to enemies to rip them to shreds with repeated inputs, and the charge is a good way of clearing through hoards that have you pinned down. The problem is, after a while, there are so many ranged and beefed-up units that I found neither of these options appealing in any way. Rather, they were a death sentence. There are no extra pickups for finishing a foe with a melee attack, and you’re still vulnerable while you hack away, so it’s often better to take things on from afar.
The visuals are well-designed and coherent. Everything is instantly readable with great color palettes and just the right amount of cronch. The visuals are probably the best thing about Boltgun, sans the samey-looking environmental color grading (something most Warhammer games can’t seem to get away from).
The music is… I think it’s okay(?). The problem is the sound design is so muddled and flat that everything becomes a cacophony amidst the chaos. There’s one early music sting that plays over and over… and over, and it’s just about the only one I noticed. It’s a shame because the other stuff I could hear sounded pretty promising, but it paled in comparison to, say, Darktide.
Now let’s address the elephant in the room: encounters. Basic combat in Warhammer 40K: Boltgun goes like this: you round a corner or enter a room, and there are dudes. Just, a smattering of dudes. Everywhere. So you kill those dudes, and you move on. But wait! This is a bigger, special-er room, and this time you have to purge the dudes.
Purge events are sort of like gore nests from DOOM if they sucked. These are big, extremely frequent, extremely annoying battles with waves of respawning enemies that seem to have been given almost no choreography besides “a lot, all the time.” Small enemies will spawn in your pocket, big enemies will spawn a little farther away, and this will keep happening until the game is satisfied. And these happen all… the… time. At the very least, twice per level. And they suck every time.
Nothing ruins the pacing or flow of a level like one of these events. I’ll finally be getting in the groove, see a big room full of pickups and audibly groan. They’re messy, and a serious black mark against this game as a whole.
This design philosophy culminates in what I am confidently going to call the worst boss fight I have ever experienced in a first-person video game. The first boss, the Lord of Change, is essentially an Archvile with 100,000 health that damages you using line-of-sight while you’re busy fighting a bajillion Enemies. It is the most maddening, insanely under-baked encounter I can possibly imagine.
The (almost) saving grace is that weapons feel really good to shoot. The boltgun is punchy, the shotgun hits like a truck, and the admittedly standard-faire arsenal all feel pretty good in the hands.
Enemy variety is also a highlight. From Nurglings to otherwordly flying beasts and beyond, there’s plenty of stuff to shoot at. A lack of any bespoke boss encounters — that don’t include yet more hordes of these enemies as padding — unfortunately hurts the experience a bit, but the introduction of new enemies throughout gives some needed variety.
What lack variety, however, are the levels. Level design is atrocious in Warhammer 40K: Boltgun — almost as if someone looked at Quake and DOOM, saw the building blocks, but could never quite figure out how they all fit together. Keys are sometimes found a few feet (seriously, I’m not joking) from their respective doors, making you wonder why they bothered at all. Many levels blend together and repeat rooms so often that I thought I was backtracking until I saw actual painted arrows on the floor telling me what direction to go. Not exactly a sign of confident level design.
Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun takes the idea of a “horde mode,” a pretty standard inclusion in retro shooters, and bases its entire design around it. Levels will often consist of mundane hallways punctuated by frustrating wave-based encounters that are either overwhelming or result in a protracted game of hide-and-seek with the last few enemies you’re meant to kill. No amount of good gun feel can make up for this complete lack of nuance in encounter design, and it really is an incredible example of how important it is in a game like this. It’s a shame, too, because the Warhammer universe and retro shooter genre seem like a match made in heaven. Unfortunately, this ill-advised outing feels like a team chasing a trend without fully understanding it.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A code was provided for review by Focus Entertainment.
Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun belongs in every game dev’s syllabus, filed under “why encounter design is a pillar of any retro shooter.”
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