Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun review
Boltgun is the first truly exceptional Warhammer 40,000 game since Dawn of War 19 years ago. An intense, retro-themed FPS in the stylings of Doom and Quake, Boltgun follows the "Sternguard Veteran," a nameless, faceless soldier of the Ultramarines requisitioned by the conniving Inquisition and let loose on the traitorous Black Legion and their daemons. For the uninitiated, a Space Marine is a violently hateful silverback gorilla with the brain of a 14-year-old. What separates them from the average gym goer is the 10 tons of nuclear-powered armor they're entombed within. Walking is a bit sluggish, but turn on auto-run in the accessibility menu and the Veteran becomes a bounding hulk of metal and flesh, a bunnyhopping tornado of pure carnage and zealotry. It's one of the few instances where a licensed Warhammer game appropriately conveys the overwhelming power of a single Space Marine.
What is it? Warhammer 40,000 retro FPS
Release date: May 23, 2023
Expect to pay: $22 / £19
Developer: Auroch Digital
Publisher: Focus Entertainment
Reviewed on: Windows 10, Ryzen R7 5700g, 16gb DDR4 RAM, Radeon RX 5700
Link: Steam page
As both a 40K fan with a deep love of the older source material and boomer shooter veteran, I was thrilled to find that Boltgun excels as a tribute to the insanity of the 41st millennium and stands on equal footing with recent classics Dusk, Ultrakill, and Amid Evil.
Boltgun's maps are typically linear corridors flooded with cultists and lesser daemons, funneling the Veteran into larger combat arenas where powerful champions and ascendant daemons lie in wait. Doom-style keycard hunting is kept to a minimum, but there's some clever level design that'll see you looping back through the grimdark industrial zones you've already purged.
The scale of these levels can be beyond belief. A collapsing cliffside bastion early on boasts an array of mammoth gun emplacements held aloft by great wrought iron girders, the picked-clean corpses of the titanic warmachines that once carried them to battle slouched over in the distance. A discombobulating setpiece towards the end of chapter 1 threw me through a warp portal, where my ever-present servo-skull dutifully informed me that "geometry has now become non-euclidian." I was caught in an endlessly looping blender of gothic arch bridges until I began to follow the patterns of candles, sigils, and sacrificial plinths that guided me towards an exit.
Both the occasionally haunting atmosphere and breakneck combat are reinforced by an incredible arrangement of sludgy guitars, thumping industrial beats, and monastic chants and harpsichords.
What really impressed me is how organic it sounds—it's like the beating industrial heart of the fascist Imperium of Man is being given musical shape. At its best Boltgun's score sounds like Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine being played live at the Vatican.
Clash at daemonhead
The foes you stare down as one of the Emperor's Angels are wonderfully varied. There's a lot beyond the common Chaos Space Marines and Terminators, like the Aspiring Champion—a tanky melee fighter that'll charge at you with a high-damage chainaxe. Sometimes death isn't the end for these bruisers: after you put them down they can be brought back to life as a "Chosen of Chaos," an enraged berserker able to deal near-instant death. Hilariously, this whole ritual can be bypassed entirely if you just dump your magazine into his corpse until there's nothing left for the gods to resurrect.
The real stars of the roster are the daemons of Chaos Undivided—these guys are like classic '80s horror mooks pulled from a never-released Sam Raimi film. Lasgun to my head, my favorite are the Pink Horrors, which spawn two blue copies of themselves on death, which constantly managed to catch me off guard. Boltgun's intense, frenetic combat was always pulling my attention somewhere else before I could finish the job proper.
Boltgun's arsenal incorporates tabletop Warhammer's "strength vs toughness" check, where a weapon's strength value must equal or surpass the target's toughness value in order to do meaningful damage. It's simpler in practice—if a combatant boasts a high toughness value, shoot them with a big gun. The emphasis on weapon-switching echoes some of Doom Eternal's pattern-recall based gunplay, with the only way to reliably penetrate the psychic field of a Tzeentchian Lord of Change being to rearrange their atoms with a strength 7 plasma gun.
Still, It can be a little fiddly in the heat of battle to remember that the Vengeance Launcher (despite looking like it could tear through the hull of an aircraft carrier) is strength 3 and is best relegated to chaff-clearing duty.
I found it all became second nature after a few levels with each weapon, though. One thing I wished Boltgun's too-minimal HUD would communicate better is the ammunition in your inventory. You scream through levels at such a blistering pace, and over so many pickups that more than once I boastfully stared down a Chaos Terminator, assuming the pickups I spent the last 45 seconds clambering over included plasma ammo, only to be painfully chunked into gory gibs by a petty swatting of their power fist.
Grenade information is poorly conveyed as well, with a single icon on the HUD indicating both grenade type and quantity. With battles this intense, the difference between a frag grenade and a krak grenade can literally be life or death. It felt like some of the battles where I was on the razor's edge of victory could have been overcome with a HUD that cleanly conveyed all the tools at my disposal.
Weapons mostly feel like they should, just going off of tabletop vibes. The boltgun, a fully automatic rocket launcher literally "bolted" inside a rifle casing, lobs out general purpose high explosive death, reliable against mortals and Chaos Marines alike. The shotgun throws out so much lead that entire rooms become painted with the viscera of both cultists and daemons. The melee system is fantastic, too—right-clicking on an enemy will send you flying towards them, chainsword outstretched. Mashing the right mouse button will rev the chainsword—it's great against cultists and lesser daemons, but following up with a quick shotgun blast will typically humble any Chaos Space Marine arrogant enough to linger in the presence of the Emperor's Finest.
Slashing with the chainsword can be done in mid-air, dash included, which allows for some gory free mobility as long as there's something heretical nearby. It's a really flavorful mechanic, and adds a lot to what would otherwise be a very simple shoot-and-slash loop. Cultists transform from laughably pathetic foes barely worth paying attention to a finite mobility resource, and using them as blood-filled grapple points to tactically resposition kept me riveted throughout.
The heavy bolter deserves special mention—this relentless torrent of explosive havoc makes short work of most everything it's pointed at, with its cap on movement speed adequately reflecting the tabletop counterpart's "heavy" weapon type. Wielding this transhuman-portable death machine made me all the more eager to finish painting the heavy bolter support squad for my Iron Warriors army. Boltgun is so good that it got me excited about free-handing hazard stripes.
New age of Chaos
It's always cool to mow down cultists with a heavy bolter, but as a huge fan of the older Games Workshop Chaos Space Marine miniature range, I was struck by how this game's use of newer Chaos designs holds Boltgun back from feeling like an authentic '90s FPS. It leapt out at me as a real missed opportunity to commit to the bit and photoscan some of the hideously ugly 2nd edition Chaos miniatures. Flipping through a mid-'90s Games Workshop catalog showcases a range of minis that enthusiastically pillage the tombs of sci-fi legends Clark, Asimov, Herbert, Heinlein, and Giger. Maybe that's a copyright minefield to pull from, but missing out on photo scanned representations of classic Perry-brothers sculpts in favor of cheap-looking pixel art can occasionally make Boltgun feel like it reached into a too-recent past and grabbed the wrong references.
Still, Warhammer fans of all stripes will appreciate the attention to detail Boltgun manages to pack into its low-poly models. More than once I bounded past a blown-out wall or dashed through ruins that looked like 1:1 copies of the unpainted terrain languishing in my "to-do" bin. Entering the reliquary under the civilian "habitation block" (what a normal government would call a "city") prompts the ever-present Inquisitorial servo-skull to gently remind you your every action and movement is being monitored, and that failure to perform the proper rituals will result in punishment. There's even a dedicated taunt button that prompts the Veteran to snarl the kind of quotes you see on shirts while waiting in line at the hardware store.
These little bits of detail and flourishes of stagnation, hate, and repression are all quintessentially 40K, and help to give Boltgun a sense of identity distinct from other Warhammer games.
Boltgun had won me over early on with an arena battle in a wide-open loading bay surrounded by gothic spires, the words "PURGE!" flashing across the screen in blood red. With full health and little ammo, I had to face down the mutant mob ahead with only my chainsword and shotgun. I died more than a few times, but the final gouging of my blade into a Chosen of Chaos really did bring back two of my favorite gaming memories—my first time clearing "Dead Simple" on Nightmare difficulty in Doom 2, and wiping my friend Adam's left flank off the table at my local gaming store.