It’s a crowded market out there for boomer shooters with retro aesthetics, and for Warhammer-based licensed games, and here comes Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun to launch a drop pod assault right into the middle of that particular Venn diagram. Josh and Bernhardt take a look at how it plays, and whether the iconic weapon lives up to its top billing in the game’s title (hint: it does).
Josh: Are you the type of crusty geezer who thinks Warhammer peaked five editions ago? Are you the grizzled lobster who thinks all media made after the year 1999 lacked that spark that made it special?
Well aren’t you in luck.
Boltgun is an homage to the boomer shooters of yesteryear, infused with modern twists that we’ve come to expect in the space. It’s fast-paced, precise, and over-the-top while still presenting a challenge to the player (should they wish it to). Its levels are packed tight with arenas littered with enemies for you to destroy for the Emperor (and for Ultramar, and for
Captain Lieutenant Titus, and a whole lot of other things that Rahul Kohli will shout if you press T or your console equivalent) with an array of weapons ranging from your humble, yet highly effective, boltgun, to the esoteric and advanced volkite caliver.
You’re immediately thrown into Boltgun with some classic Warhammer narrative, with gorgeously rendered cutscenes.
Something fucked up is happening on Graia and the Inquisition have gotten a handful of Space Marine Sternguard Veterans to deal with the problem. Thanks to an errant drop pod insertion that handful turns into just one Space Marine, which is you. You are the only one of your battle-brothers to make it to the planet, and you’ve lost your boltgun on the way, and boy, you are pissed about it.
You relieve this frustration by picking up your chainsword, revving it, and screaming ignorant shit as you launch yourself across the map towards the nearest Chaos Cultist whose only major crime was existing within the same postcode as you. And the whole worshipping Chaos thing.
I don’t want to downplay the plot, because there certainly is a plot, and it’s… there. It’s fine. You’re hunting a McGuffin (the McGuffin from Space Marine 1, I think) and you’re racing against the forces of Chaos to do it. The game is split up into three Chapters, with a half-dozen or so levels in each, covering your adventures and misadventures on Graia. At the end of every chapter, you get a cutscene, and the only other story you get between the cutscenes are the maps themselves and some flavour text from the Servo Skull that assists you throughout your rampage, pointing out your next route and the need for a red key to open a red door, and occasionally chiming in with humorous observations.
It’s cool. There’s environmental storytelling in regards to the failed defence against Chaos, and the seeping corruption in the form of Tzeentch Weirdness and Nurgle Smelliness.
But that’s not why you’re playing this game. You’re playing this game because you want to switch your brain off, enter the Gaming Zone, and absolutely fucking eviscerate the enemies of Mankind. And my friend, this game does that perfectly.
Combat is tight and frantic, feverish at times, as you shoulder-charge, chainsword dash, and sprint-jump across arenas whilst raining down bolt after bolt after bolt onto your enemies. It’s got all the hallmarks of modern boomer shooters while bringing its own Warhammer charm to the table, with solid enemy variety across the three strands of Black Legion Chaos Marines and their Cultist followers, Tzeentch Daemons, and Nurgle Daemons. Pink Horrors are particularly cute, as they split into two Blue Horrors on death – as the song goes, Horrors are pink, Horrors are blue, where there was one, now there are two!
What are you killing these various Chaotic enemies with? The iconic boltgun, of course, but a variety of other weapons too – Warhammer classics like the meltagun and plasma gun make appearances, as do more esoteric weapons like the grav-cannon and volkite culverin. Each one has a distinct role, and you’ll find yourself constantly switching weapons as new targets pop up. Accompanying the guns is your trusty chainsword, and a selection of frag, krak, and (occasionally) vortex grenades, for solving problems that won’t solve themselves.
It’s turn-your-brain off fun, but it isn’t mindless fun. If you want to play effectively, you have to match your weapon to the target – just like Warhammer, your weapons have a Strength value and your enemies have a Toughness value. Higher Toughness enemies will take less damage from low Strength weapons, and vice versa – it even preserves the extra effectiveness from having your Strength be double or higher your target’s Toughness. It makes juggling your weapons worth it, but trying to actually do that can be painful. I, and I’m sure many others, played Boltgun on a KBM. It’s my ideal way to play shooters of this type. Its controls for handling your weapons are pretty poor for a game that’s otherwise so tightly crafted. You can’t scroll through your weapons to get the one you want instantly, you have to go through one weapon at a time, pulling out, putting away, repeat until you get what you want. In tough fights it slows the game down to me bunny hopping around while I try and pull out my melta gun, soaking damage in the process… or accidentally shooting someone too close with my plasma gun and blowing us both into chunks.
If you don’t want to use the scroll wheel, you’re stuck using the number keys, and they’re not very convenient when the weapon you want is past 3. Switching grenades is just as much a chore – it’s G to change, Q to throw, and man, if I had a dollar for everytime I got sucked into my own Vortex Grenade when I thought I was throwing a krak grenade, I’d have 3 dollars. It’s not a lot, but it’s very annoying that it happened 3 times.
Controls are one of the most important things to get right in games, so I’m pretty harsh when they’re the issue. They need to be seamless to allow you to melt into the flow state, and really get immersed into the experience, especially in games like this where you don’t want to be wrestling the controls while you’re in that zen state of Righteous Ultraviolence.
It’s upsetting, and I hope they address it soon. It’d be a simple fix, I think – don’t force each pull out animation as you’re scrolling down the row. Let me just skip to the one I want.
I’ve no idea if on controller it’s this much of an issue – I didn’t try.
To drag us out of the complaints – all of the weapons feel fantastic to use, and they’re all complimented by the power-ups you can find in each level. Each weapon is unique, and they all have their strengths in regards to enemy type and situation. You’ll be using the boltgun to dispatch lower-level mooks, like Cultists, and deal reliable damage to tougher mooks like Chaos Space Marines. Shotguns fall off hard against anything T4 and above, but it’s still a shotgun, and is universally useful for blasting weaker enemies in the face. The plasma gun is very much the rocket launcher equivalent – it’s a slow moving projectile that’ll deal splash damage (especially to yourself), but it’ll deal hefty damage to just about anything, even something T8 & above. Where the game gets unique is with the weirder weapons of Warhammer. The volkite caliver is a beam weapon that’ll melt hallways of mooks and make them explode, while the meltagun preserves its pseudo-shotgun role from Space Marine, obliterating everything in its path.
Each weapon also has an upgrade you can find – you can find special ammunition for the boltgun to give it piercing, higher damage, etc, and the Machine Spirit which will give each weapon a unique special ability – either straightforward buffs like increasing the boltgun’s strength, or adding new effects. I can’t list them all, but they all rock, and you’ll quickly find a favourite.
Those upgrades are hidden away in the corners of the map, and they comprise the “secrets” you can find which call back to the games Boltgun is paying homage to. The maps are all infused with Warhammer flavour, with tons of incidental details and bits of terrain pulled in straight from the tabletop, and a few of them are fantastic visually (allowing for the stylistic choices in play). Most maps have some kind of ‘arena’ section where you’ll fight a swarm of enemies in a ‘purge’ event which finishes once you kill enough of them, or a key boss or mini-boss. These arena sections are fun and varied, varying from tight Space Hulk-style corridors to massive open spaces to bounce around in to your heart’s content, and sometimes come filled with traps and hazards to avoid, with the occasional mix of all of the above. Several have multiple levels to clamber around in – verticality in this game is utilized fully, and I’m here for it.
Where the maps can fall down is in their layouts, and their ease of navigation. I’ve found myself lost more than a few times on some, and not in a fun way. A pull-up map might’ve done well to help with the backtracking you have to do, or some more signposting to get you back to where you need to go next – often your route through a level will have a kind of hub and spokes thing going on, and you’re repeatedly dropped back into the same central area to find the next route, and the only real clue you have as to where you need to go is to look around and find which corridor or ravine is not already covered in the gory remnants of Cultists you killed earlier.
Outside the issue of getting lost (which you can claim is a Skill Issue:™), the only other complaint I can muster is that when the game locks you in an area for a PURGE, it tints the screen an ugly purply-red shade, which kills the cool colours in the map and kinda’ just annoys me. There isn’t an option to turn it off, and I wish there was.
Graphically – it’s a boomer shooter. It’s 2D sprites that are beautifully rendered, and faithfully done in the style of the older game but with a modern flare. It’s stylised to hell, and I’m in love with it. You’re probably going to read how much I love this style in every game article, so here it is again for mandatory inclusion.
You can even tweak how much ‘Retro’ you want in the menu, which just changes the pixelation effect to create something truly whacky and wonderful.
There’s a lot of gorgeous trickery done with some truly vibrant colours as well – Tzeentch daemons explode in vibrant, purple-hued colours and the corruption they spread creates this intense, otherworldly effect that made me stop and stare at it for a little while as I was playing. It owns. I don’t know what this effect is called technically, so here’s a cool picture to show what I mean.
Accessibility-wise (which is always super important) there’s some fun options – you can unlock all the levels and turn on Godmode from the start (great for game reviewers and people trying to practice speedrun strats). You can disable head bobbing for those who get nauseous (like myself) and some other things. Being able to customise how you play is great, and some things like head bobbing are a minimum must, so I’m always glad they’re included.
Unlike the graphics, the music isn’t true to the boomer times, and I’m glad for it. There’s no bitcrushed soundtrack here, just the mix of the type of music you’ve come to expect from a 40K licensed game, with some banging guitar riffs for added measure. There’s a lot of industrial dread mixed in with the ambience, which is then cut across by gnarly riffs featuring choir melodies, keyboards, and all the Good Stuff. My favourite is the sick guitar riff that just goes hard on the Main Menu. It didn’t have to go hard, but it did. It did that for us.
Wrapping things up with the technical side of things – the game runs well, and it doesn’t take much to do so. My aging 1060 laptop ran it perfectly smooth, aside the odd hiccup in the loading screens. On anything higher, you’re going to have no problems at all, and I suspect on anything lower it’ll run just as fine too.
Overall, do I recommend Boltgun?
You’re damn right I do. Even if you’re not a 40K fan, this is simply a fun game, which is the most important thing when it comes to licensed games like this. You don’t want a game to stand on the merit of its license alone.
It’s a well-crafted Boomer shooter with a few little problems that can be solved in no time. If you are a 40K fan, you’re just getting an extra fun time as you recognise all the pixelated and stylised renderings of miniatures you know and love, all while getting yourself killed because you chose to taunt rather than just kill the mooks in your way. (the true Imperium way.)
I also got my hands on this title and I’ll echo basically all of the above – I tried both keyboard/mouse and controller and ended up sticking with controller, because unlike most true boomer shooters there’s juuuuuust a little bit too much going on here for me to trust to my left hand alone, especially when it comes to switching grenade types or using powers. So putting all character and camera movement on my thumbs makes things play a lot simpler, at least for me. My main issue with the controls is also kind of a UI/UX issue — this game’s a boomer shooter with no map overlay? No map at all, it looks like? That doesn’t work for me, man. There’s even an unused button on the default controller mapping (Back/Select) where popping up the overlay could easily go. Of course, if the biggest complaint about a straight-forward level-based FPS is that it lacks a map, it’s doing a lot of things right.
There are other guns in this game besides the bolter, and I’ve used them on occasion, but they named this game after a specific gun for a very good reason: the basic, standard, trusty boltgun is the absolute star of this show. From its look to its sound to its feel, I think this is the first time a game has truly captured how satisfying and badass this weapon is in the lore. Every other gun in the game pales in comparison as far as I’m concerned – the shotgun especially suffers, because outside of “not having any ammo for the boltgun” there really isn’t any great use-case for it, which is why outside of very specific niche faction cases, Space Marines generally don’t run around with the things! The melta gun is good for specific situations but I’d still rather be emptying a powered up boltgun into something than using it. The later special weapons are even more into the “rocket launcher/BFG” tier of rare use, especially the grav-cannon, which is some kind of black hole weapon. Cool stuff! Very useful in specific circumstances! None of it approaches how cool the boltgun is, which is good, because you’ll be running rounds through that thing for something like eighty percent of the game. In fact I think this is the first Warhammer FPS I’ve played where they actually capture how bolter ammunition is a bunch of tiny (“tiny”) rocket-propelled explosives rather than just rounds of conventional ammo sized for an anti-aircraft gun; the way they sort of spear out into the air instead of hitscanning on enemies is maybe my favorite tiny aesthetic choice they made in the design of this game.
The boltgun itself is such an important part of the game – in some ways it basically is the main character, since your player avatar character sure isn’t doing much speaking – that I really can’t see this game being a success if you were playing a Tau fire team member or an Eldar ranger-type, or even a guardsman or an Inquisitor from the Imperium of Man. You need the boltgun specifically to make this title work. In a market that is crowded to the gills with pixelated low-poly 3D games and sprite enemies using the Doom and Quake fonts in their menus, your boomer shooter needs some kind of hook to stand out besides just having the Warhammer license, and it was a stroke of no small genius, I think, to make that hook the gun you get five minutes into the first level and carry around for the rest of the game. Call it the inverted pistol maneuver. A fantastic title, especially at a price point of around $20.