Warhammer 40,000 has gone a surprising amount of time since it was last pivoted into a gore-soaked boomer shooter, but Boltgun has more than made up for it, as one of perhaps the most obvious adaptations of the universe, but also one of the best.
Warhammer is a strategy tabletop game, of course, but that doesn’t stop developers from branching out beyond the genre’s boundaries. Until now some of my favourite adaptations of the universe into video games have been strategy games too; Games like Dawn of War, Shadow of the Horned Rat, Dark Omen, Chaos Gate and pretty much any adaptation of Space Hulk. Aside from Vermintide, I don’t think I’ve massively enjoyed any of the forays into other genres that the IP has been taken in. That changes with Boltgun, which surpasses other shooter attempts with its brutal speed, weapon selection and… well, very cool chainsword.
From its very first scene, Boltgun establishes itself as what can be described as ‘GrimDoom’: 40k’s dark and hopeless universe fed through a sausage grinder with Doom’s run-and-blast mechanics, all with some modern conveniences used for seasoning. In this case, as it turns out, the sausage is great. It is a perfect fusion that fits together as though it was always meant to be.
Boltgun casts you in the role of a Space Marine Sternguard that’s been seconded to the Inquisition. Both the setting and your character are understandably grim and humourless. This fits the retro-shooter mechanisms perfectly fine — you won’t be conversing with the various heretics, cultists and demons that populate Graia. You’ll instead be stomping around and unloading an almost endless supply of ammo into an almost endless supply of enemies through Boltgun‘s three chapters.
Those three chapters make for a grand tour around the planet, from your mountainside deployment point through lava-soaked forges and labyrinthine chapels. It’ll take most people nine or ten hours to finish the journey, assuming you don’t get choked up too hard around the mid-point where it wheels out the last of its features and gimmicks at breakneck speed. After that, it’s only the order of things that change, which would perhaps quickly tire out if not for the toughness and strength system that is built into the weapons system.
Each enemy has a toughness level, a number that reduces any damage taken that’s lower than it. Thankfully, this is displayed clearly alongside their health bar when you target them, and your weapons each display their strength. By the end of the Boltgun, you’ll have long since memorised the enemy types, but it does make for a great extra wrinkle to purging your way across the planet. Oh — on that note — there are areas where you face an unending amount of enemies until you defeat major enemies within the area; These Purge situations are a really fun twist and give you a chance to kite, goad and jump your way around a space and experiment a little.
It’s fun. It’s the classic Doom formula but with loads of modern conveniences; things like extended draw distance, headshot damage, jumping, healthbars and modifiers. At times it feels like it doesn’t need to wear the Warhammer skin, but Auroch Digital have done a great job of bringing the setting to life. I did find it a little silly that, by default, Boltgun is pixelated for the retro effect (which can be adjusted away in the setting), but that the menu UI and text are all in modern, smooth visuals.
In a game where you’re blasting enemies almost constantly, the keypresses and buttons all need to mean something. Boltgun, does this great in most cases, however the way that grenades work is a little disappointing compared to everything else: There’s a change grenade button and a throw grenade button. Use of the mousewheel, or even different buttons for different grenades, could have solved this.
One thing that needs zero improvement though is the chainsword and dash features. There should, actually, be some sort of celebration. Your dash starts out feeling pretty silly, you surge forward a smidge more than your normal running speed and enough to make it through an earlier timed door, but otherwise, it fades into the background until you start playing around with Boltgun‘s chainsword.
The chainsword is great. Using it can pull you towards enemies, which is also something you can do while in mid-air, allowing you to zip between weaker enemies in moments. Combine that with a dash attack, your shotgun and some grenades and clearing a tightly packed room can be cleared in less than a dozen seconds of thrilling, chainsaw-revving bloodbath.
Boltgun is a game for the boomer shooter fans out there, a perfect fusion of retro shooter and the Warhammer franchise.