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Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun is a loud, obnoxious, and damned fun retro shooter

Enlarge / Not every screenshot from a developer properly explains what a game is really about or what about it is entertaining. There’s not a single screenshot from Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun I’ve seen that doesn’t give you the gist of it in a single frame.
Auroch Digital

What is that sound?” my wife yelled from the other room, 20 minutes into my first session of Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun.

I was playing the game on the Asus ROG Ally I had connected to the TV in our tiny, temporary rental. The handheld Ally was propped up on an inactive heating panel, and it was rumbling non-stop. Every thunderous step of my Space Marine Sternguard, every shot, every explosion, every chainsword dismemberment rattled the wall-mounted panel, and she could both hear and slightly feel that one room over. I explained what was happening, but I was smirking the whole time, struck by some distant memories.

Tearing through dumb-as-rocks soldiers and demons? Stomping around in armored boots that sound like a mid-’90s Nine Inch Nails rhythm track? Losing track of time in the depths of a catacomb? You can’t go home again, but Boltgun gave me the occasional sense that I was back in front of a CRT monitor and Creative Labs speakers, annoying everybody within earshot.

I had not previously indulged in the retro-shooter genre (alternately, unfortunately labeled “Boomer Shooters”), but I can’t imagine many hit their mark as well as Boltgun. The primary mechanic is “killing things,” and everything feeds that mechanic or tries not to distract from it. It’s a game with absolutely zero ludonarrative dissonance. If its genre and Warhammer trappings don’t turn you off entirely on sight, I wager you will enjoy it.

This game requires zero Warhammer knowledge (but does reward it)

Let’s get this out of the way: I knew next to nothing about Warhammer 40,000 before playing Boltgun. I knew people love collecting and painting miniatures and that the lore is about extremist factions in eternal conflict. I would occasionally invoke “Blood for the Blood God, skulls for the Skull Throne” when feeding a bad impulse (such as a purchase of Family Size Snyder’s Pretzel Pieces). That’s about it, but it needn’t matter.

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In fact, having almost no context about who and what I was killing, and why I was justified for killing them, gave me the proper mindset for being an elite Space Marine Sternguard, doing the work of the Imperial Inquisition. There’s a floating skull that follows you around and gives you bits of lore and direction. But really, it’s simple: If they’re on the screen, they gotta go. And making them go was loud, stupid, circle-strafing fun.

There’s not much to explain, gameplay-wise, if you’ve played anything resembling the original Doom—or, to a lesser extent, Doom (2016) or Doom Eternal. You have guns, slotted to your number keys, along with grenades and the chainsword melee weapon. You try to hit enemies, and when they hit you, you lose first armor (actually “Contempt”) and then health. Health and Contempt are scattered around, or sometimes enemies drop them. Some areas of the levels are closed off until you find the right key for them. Every so often, you’ll come across a really big enemy you’ll have to shoot a lot.

There are some tweaks to the formula. Enemies have a toughness level, shown in a badge on their health bar at the top of your UI. If your weapon’s strength level isn’t at or above that level, you’ll do little damage. This aspect is apparently pulled from the tabletop games; PC Gamer’s review has a lot more depth on what does and doesn’t line up with distinct eras and lines of Warhammer. In short, though: You’ll find lots of lore callouts and Easter eggs in Boltgun, but none of them does anything to slow down the action.

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1993 vibes with 2023 fluidity

Extended gameplay trailer for Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun.

Mainly, what feels tweaked from the sprite-based shooters of yore is how fluid and frenetic everything feels. In Boltgun, you are a deranged, heavy warrior hauling around heavy weapons, with a mindless zeal for killing things. Almost nothing in this game diminishes your acting in this role, minus some letdowns that are somewhat inherent to the genre Boltgun evokes (more on that in a moment).

The punchy sound effects and distorted music are properly built to be triggered and looped hundreds of times. Enemies look like they were drawn in the notebook margins of a kid wearing a Cannibal Corpse T-shirt, they’ve never heard of cover, and they die in explosive, id-rewarding fashion. What happens if you shoot their bloody remains? They explode again into even more disparate chunks. The way the guns feel, sound, and reload, and their range of spread, precision, and ammo rarity? On-point. I liked the heavily bloomed look of the game’s default graphics style, but you can pull them back a bit in the settings to get a clearer look at enemies and action.

Boltgun feels less like a game that tried to work forward from the original Doom than a game that knows what aspects of Doom 2016 could still be ported back to 1993. I can feel the inspiration somewhat in the movement, the arena/hallway/wide-open-outside pacing, and the enemies arranged in interesting spacing patterns. But I really feel it in the chainsword. When you press and hold your melee button for a moment, you can lock onto an enemy and then dash toward them to deliver the rip-and-tear. Having even just this one other verb besides “shoot,” and the mobility and strategy options it opens up, adds just enough to make Boltgun more interesting for a decent length of time.

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A few negative aspects of ’90s-era shooters are still present in Boltgun, some perhaps inextricably linked to the positives. While the levels offer some impressive architecture and fun arenas, they also tend toward the most basic design: “Door locked, get key on other side, then come back.” Sometimes you’re given a shortcut on the way back, and it’s usually not hard to tell where you’re headed (purple backlighting for a door needing a purple key), but there’s a good amount of quiet slogging through prior killing fields. The variety of new enemies, weapons, and hazards tapers off as you hit the mid-game; from what I’ve read in other reviews, it doesn’t really pick up again.

Good thing, then, that Boltgun isn’t all that long—maybe 8–10 hours, depending on your completionist tendencies and difficulty level—and it needn’t be. It costs roughly $20 at launch, and it’s hard to imagine anybody who knows what it’s going for not getting value out of it. I was initially hesitant to play it for review, but I had a blast. Boltgun makes for a nice little break from today’s far more complicated first-person games—or just from modern life itself.

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