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Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: Focus Entertainment
Developer: Auroch Digital
Release Date: May 23, 2023


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PC Review - 'Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun'

by Cody Medellin on May 23, 2023 @ 8:00 a.m. PDT

Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun is a single-player FPS that delivers a hardcore, sprite-based experience in the boots of the ultimate war machine: a Space Marine.

Real-time strategy. Side-scrolling run and gun. 3D dungeon-crawler. Turn-based strategy. Over the past few decades, the Warhammer 40,000 franchise has fit into a number of genres, and while the results have been hit and miss, no one can accuse it of staying in its comfort zone. Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun is another game in the series that attempts to try a new genre: the first-person shooter in a retro style. For fans, this means it does so with its signature bombast, and it's executed quite well.

As expected from a boomer shooter, the story is simple, but there is some real effort to give it a premise. Boltgun takes place shortly after the events of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. One of the Inquisitors feels that the nearby planet of Graia is being infected by a faction named Chaos, since it has been left unchecked due to the prolonged war with the Orcs. Instead of being given an army to investigate the scene, the Inquisitor is only given a handful of Space Marines to do the job. With a crash landing ensuring that only one marine survives, your goal is to single-handedly cleanse the planet of those who oppose the God Emperor.

Right away, the presentation shows that the team isn't aiming for a completely retro shooter. The soundtrack has the metal vibes of the classics but with a higher fidelity that makes it sound like it was one of those that came with Redbook audio instead of MIDI. There's also a mix of more gothic orchestral music, so there are a few moments of reprieve before the action begins anew. The sound effects are sharp, and while there isn't much voice acting, what's there is appropriately cheesy and on brand.

Graphically, Boltgun gives off the vibe of a new, old-shooter made using the BUILD engine from 3D Realms. There's plenty of detail in the environments, but it's all done with a heavy use of pixels. Character models and gowns are done in the same way, so things look chunky but well defined. Animations are purposefully stilted, and you'll see heavy use of flat models whenever you rotate things like ammo or corpses.

This game uses Unreal Engine 4, which gives it a few advantages. Movement may look stilted, but it is smooth otherwise. The number of creatures and firepower that can be placed on-screen at a time is large, and the amount of gore is abundant. It isn't surprising to see large swaths of a room painted with blood and bits of gore sticking to a wall until you go by it and nudge it to the floor. The lighting is also more elaborate, with things like muzzle flash and light pouring from stained glass windows. It would be a perfect marriage of classic and modern — but the frame rate isn't rock solid. Get to an area with good UE4-style lighting, and the frame rate can dip well below 60fps for brief moments. We experienced this using both a Radeon RX 580 with an Intel Core i5-7600K as well as a GeForce RTX 4090 with a Ryzen 7 5800X, so it can't be overtaken via brute force. This doesn't happen often, and it doesn't happen in the middle of fierce firefights, but it is a blemish on an otherwise outstanding neo-retro presentation.

The gameplay follows a similar path in that it takes those beloved classics as their base to work with. No aim-down-sights. No regenerative health. No XP or leveling system. No fall damage. Just straight-up run and gun. You will need to reload, but at least you can carry all of your guns and some grenades. As for other modern concessions, all enemies have a visible health bar, and you can vault up structures, which adds to the game's conscious use of verticality. Killing enemies almost always gives you ammo or health or armor, so it acts somewhat similarly to the 2016 iteration of Doom, where killing is rewarded. There are still plenty of pick-ups in case you're facing someone tough. For the hell of it, there's a dedicated taunt button that you can press. It gives you no buffs in a fight, but its presence is hilarious, nonetheless.

There are several elements that elevate the classic shooting formula. The first is enemy type and behavior. Every enemy is fearsome, with some like the fleshy cultists being easy to dispatch. The pink monsters that spawn blue ones can be an annoyance, and the Chaos Terminator is a real menace due to the firepower and the resolve of their armor. The game ensures that places have a good variety of foes to mix up your basic shooting approach, but it also messes with enemy behavior in a way that feels nice. A good number of foes will simply home in on you to attack, but others are content to hang back and retaliate once you make the first move. Others are good with using their comrades as meat shields, immediately attacking once their friend has exploded. Don't expect any revolutionary AI, but what we have is a step above other shooters that treat enemies like standing dummies or ones whose only tactic is rushing to their deaths.

The second element working in the game's favor is the titular boltgun. That might seem odd since that it is the first gun you get in the game, but those familiar with the series lore know that it is essentially a tiny rocket launcher. The game treats the gun with reverence, as it may act as a semi-automatic machine gun but delivers enough damage that most enemies explode from it instead of falling over. It doesn't diminish the importance of other guns, though. You'll still want to use the shotgun when you find one, gravity grenades are awesome, the heavy boltgun feels menacing, and the plasma gun is your best friend when dealing with those with large health bars. Still, the boltgun feels substantial instead of weak, so you might not switch to another weapon because it feels so good to use.

Finally, there's the chainsword, another signature weapon from the universe. It was a powerful weapon in Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, but melee weapons don't usually translate well to first-person shooters, despite being home to some iconic ones like Duke Nukem's boot or Doom II's chainsaw. It stands out in Boltgun because it lives up to its lore and can mow down any enemy. While it might not do so instantly, you are allowed some time to let it dig into a foe until they get ripped to shreds. What makes this work is the lock-on system. Hold down the melee button, aim at an enemy until it turns red, and time slows for a bit. Let go, and let the sword's teeth go to work. You get blocked from some incoming fire, so while you will still take damage, at least some of it gets mitigated as a block. The lock-on mimics the combat seen in Space Marine and makes the combat feel much faster when you're zipping around a room and dispatching enemies without firing a shot.

As for the level design, it also goes for that old-school philosophy. Levels are quite large and maze-like, even if their outward appearance seems to make sense in the industrial gothic grimdark world. Add to this the use of verticality, which involves elevators and large stairwells for different planes to fight on. They still follow the same structure as its predecessors in that you may have large firefights in monster closets, and there are times when it can feel like fights go on longer than expected. The tried-and-true method of roaming around levels to find specific keys to move forward and find the exit is still in effect, as are the presence of secret areas that usually lead to better goods, like different boltgun ammo or temporary power-ups for speed and damage.

One thing that the game could've used is a simple map. The classics like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom all had maps, and while they weren't very detailed and only gave provided a basic blueprint of the level, they helped in determining where you might need to go. There's nothing like that in Boltgun, and while the floating skull tries to act as a beacon to nudge you in certain directions, it often results in going around in circles.

Like the classics it emulates, the game's structure lends itself to a long campaign, and there are variable difficulty levels to boot. That's why the lack of multiplayer doesn't hurt. Despite the repetition on paper concerning level flow, each stage never felt bland because it featured exciting shooting and enemy variety, along with fast movement.

However, one element can be divisive, and that's your status when transitioning between levels. No matter which difficulty level you pick, you're always going to start a new level with a good deal of ammo for all guns, a healthy 150 units of health, and 100 shield units. That differs wildly from most retro shooters in that your previous health and armor and ammo status carried over to the next stage. If you ended a level low on everything, then this provides a bit of a reprieve. Conversely, if you maxed out everything at the end of one level, it stings to see it taken away. It evens the playing field a bit, but it also takes away some of the challenge.

Steam Deck fans may already be anticipating some good performance from the game on that device, and for the most part, they'd be right. Even when set to a mix of Ultra and High settings, the game easily hits 60fps with only a few drops where the UE4 powered lighting is abundant. As in most first-person shooters, the versatility of the system ensures that the game is easy to control for everyone. It isn't perfect, though. The game doesn't feature an abundant amount of cut scenes, but the ones that are present play on a video codec that isn't compatible with Proton, so you'll get a few seconds of the default test pattern video before it skips and goes to the next scene. While the game sports a pseudo-retro look, the battery life isn't indicative of that, as you'll squeeze a little over two hours on a full charge. You can do some tweaking to get a few more minutes out of it, but don't expect lengthy binges.

Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun is everything that retro first-person shooter fans can enjoy, even if they have no love for the grimdark space setting. The action is constant, and the gore is plentiful, but the game forces you to play smart, even at the lower difficulty levels. The gameplay loop doesn't deviate from the classic key-finding formula, but the levels are larger, which means more enemies to shoot and a higher chance of getting lost, whether or not you're trying to find secrets. The game is long enough that multiplayer isn't needed, but it also never feels tiring despite some things that may be irksome. Boltgun is a solid piece of work and one that we'd definitely recommend checking out.

Score: 8.0/10

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