Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun
Released: May 23, 2023
Developer: Auroch Digital
Publisher: Focus Entertainment
Systems: PC, PS5 (reviewed), Nintendo Switch, Xbox X/S
Let me tell you why Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun is good. There is a button that causes your Space Marine protagonist to shout fanatical threats, and this is all it does. You press the button, he yells about ripping traitors apart or how the God Emperor guides his hand, all the wacky indoctrinated hatred the Imperium of Man is so known for. It’s essentially “Press F to Show Contempt,” a mechanically negligible but deliciously flavorful feature.
Speaking of contempt, that’s what the game calls armor pickups. Y'know, because a Space Marine’s armor, as they often declare, is contempt. This detail is objectively perfect, and demonstrates just how much Boltgun is into its own nonsense.
On its face, “What if Warhammer 40K but Doom?” is a fantastic question for a game to ask. A 90s style, bloodthirsty, positively stupid first-person shooter ought to pair so well with Games Workshop’s audacious, grimdark, positively stupid tabletop war game. For the most part, this is indeed two big dumb tastes that go big, dumb, and great together. Faithful in style to both the fiction it portrays and the retro trappings it emulates, 40K Boltgun delivers on a simple yet delectable promise.
At least until the fatigue sets in.
Fundamentally, you get everything you’d expect from the concept, with core gameplay that doesn’t disappoint. It’s an immediately gratifying experience, the simplicity of which provides a welcome break from some of the more mechanically turgid games on the market. This clarity of purpose, however, serves as one of the overall game’s key setbacks - there’s just not quite enough going on to keep the experience engaging until the very end.
That said, god damn, this thing is wildly good fun until it hits the exhaustion point.
The story is irrelevant, amounting to “Chaos spunked Space Hell all over the place, kill it in the name of Space Fascism!" The fact it takes place on the same planet as Relic Entertainment’s Space Marine is cool though, making for a sweet little plot connection. A paper-thin narrative is all part of the production, because we're talking about 40K Doom - the entire point is to go ham on anything that moves and do so with very little motivation other than the fact it's doing the same to you.
For the most part, Boltgun does very little to deviate from the old school formula it so devoutly follows. Each level is filled with cultists, Chaos Space Marines, and assorted demons, while the player’s only real job is to amass a growing inventory of huge guns and make everything die in explosions of bloody chunks. The titular Boltgun serves as the player's reliable companion and it feels as hard-hitting and merciless as it should, capable of chewing low-ranking enemies to bits while remaining a serviceable standby even against hardier demonic opposition. Other guns culled from the Space Marine Codex make an appearance, including the explosive Plasma Gun and beam projecting Volkite Caliver.
Almost every weapon is useful and feels satisfyingly brutal, with the heavy hitting sense of overkill you’d expect from Warhammer 40K’s ludicrous arsenal. The only weapon that falls somewhat short is the shotgun, which has its situational uses but fails to match any other gun’s vicious utility with its short range and slow rate of fire. All this weaponry is helped out by some temporary powerups, all of which are called “Secrets” despite many being quite unhidden, and they offer a standard litany of buffs like bonus armor or increased damage output - you know the sort of thing if you've ever before played what the world insists on calling "boomer shooters."
The real star of the show, easily upstaging the game’s own namesake, is the Chainsword.
Equipped from the beginning and crucial until the end, Boltgun’s single melee option is ruthlessly fun for both its indulgent gore factor and cute implementation. Rather than simply swing the buzzing bastard, you ready it for use by holding its dedicated trigger button. With the sword whirring, enemies will gain a red highlight when within melee range - a range of some considerable length, as our intrepid dealer of xenophobic self-righteousness lunges from several meters away to start slicing into his victim. You’re then invited to rapidly press the chainsword button to continue revving it into whatever poor dickhead’s on the toothy end. You can do this to any enemy in the game, though ones with more health are likely to eventually break free. Even then, you can resume chainswording immediately, and eventually you'll be able to estimate how much health something needs whittling before it can be brr’d to death in one decisive go.
Melee's inherent power is balanced by the player being left open to attack from other enemies that typically swarm from every angle, making it an incredibly murderous tool that’s nonetheless best used judiciously.
Its lunging effect also makes the chainsword a good way to cover distance as much as dispense the Emperor’s justice. Since you can do it in mid-air, it’s a great way to jump a gap and use the enemy as a guaranteed landing anchor. While level designs do almost nothing to make explicit use of this feature, it’s still a useful one and - more importantly - it just feels fucking good to do.
For the most part, Boltgun is perfectly functional, with rock solid combat that provides a healthy challenge with only occasionally overwhelming moments (fuck the Lord of Change’s barely telegraphed hitscan attack). While controls work great and the Space Marine’s clomping movement is perfectly portrayed with heavy stomps and shuddering animation, a questionable amount of slipperiness, especially when running, accompanies every step. There’s simply too much momentum when the player stops moving, causing a slide effect that gives the impression Ultramarines polish their boots with bacon grease. This wouldn’t be so bad if much of the game, especially early on, didn't take place among chasms with plenty of opportunities to tumble into them and respawn with 20 fewer hit points.
It gets worse during the few moments Boltgun decides to do some dreadful first-person platforming for which the Space Marine’s physics simply aren’t suited.
For the most part though, Warhammer 40K: Boltgun is just lovely. It asks very little of the player (except fingers sturdy enough to endure the sheer amount of trigger pulling), with gameplay outside of combat providing nothing more involved than finding colored keys to open corresponding doors. The armies of Chaos all look great and put up just enough resistance, though smaller melee enemies like Nurglings and Blue Horrors can just be annoying with their erratic movements and need to get in the way. Boltgun very deliberately gives complexity a wide berth, and while this leads to a purity of gameplay offering wonderfully straightforward entertainment, it seems to have forgotten that complexity and variety aren't mutually exclusive.
By far, Boltgun’s biggest problem is that it just doesn’t have enough stuff to cover its generously portioned campaign. There aren’t enough guns, there aren’t enough enemies, there isn’t enough environmental difference between levels. Hours before the final stage, you will have seen everything this title has to offer - all its guns will have become intimately familiar, most of the Chaos troops will have grown stale, and you’ll be utterly sick of the color red. There are three enemies in the game that could be called proper bosses, each fought multiple times during the game... including the final encounter, which features all three, one of whom has to be fought multiple times before it's all over.
Despite the promising mention of “Xenos,” no classic alien races show up. You fight some random Ambulls, but there are no Orks, no Tyranids, none of the good stuff. It's just Chaos, and even then you get bog standard Black Legion Marines and a few demons representing only Tzeentch and Nurgle since Khorne and Slaanesh remain thoroughly absent. At least some Rubric or Plague Marines would be nice, but nope, we get basic Chaos Marines alongside their elite Terminators and Champions.
With the game at risk of outstaying its welcome, Boltgun’s other flaws become more apparent. It’s easy, for example, to get lost in the relatively uncomplicated but visually samey maps, and wandering around looking for gameplay isn't very enjoyable. There are some sudden difficulty spikes coinciding with areas low on pickups or checkpoints, and checkpoints themselves can make matters worse - a couple of times the game autosaved on me while I had almost no health and enemies were still firing on me (I literally had a single hit point one time). I only escaped one such terminal Groundhog Day thanks to the accessibility settings offering an invincibility option. It was literally necessary to escape the cycle of death.
Oh, and the fucking Servo Skull’s inclusion is just plain bad. The player is accompanied by a floating skull that does little else except make noise and teleport when it falls behind, constantly making you think enemies are right behind you. I've named it Inconvenius. It doesn’t offer a map (which I’d love), it doesn’t help in combat, it doesn’t collect anything, it just floats around and redundantly scans pickups to tell you what they are. Occassionally it might say where to go or what to do, but once again there's no point - it only does this when things are obvious, like declaring you have to go down a set of platforms when down is the only direction you can go.
It's not even fully voiced, everything it says is delivered via a small text box in the corner that you likely won't read because you're busy playing the game. You don't need an onscreen character model that actively distracts you for any of the banal stuff it does, and I am thoroughly puzzled by its obtrusive presence. I can’t help feeling it’s an artifact of something in development that was going to be a lot more involved but got reduced to a bothersome familiar.
This is a litany of criticism for a game I had loads of fun with. I feel some of the problems would bother me less if not for that one truly egregious problem, that exhaustion factor, exposing me in abundance to all the smaller irritants. In order to be a truly great game, Boltgun needed to either be significantly shorter so it didn’t tread water for hours or offer some sort of diversity in its content, even if such diversity was largely cosmetic. As it stands, this is a game that never diminishes in quality but inevitably provides nothing besides the same guns with which to shoot the same enemies for hours.
Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun absolutely delivers on its promise of 40K-meets-Doom. Its guns are deliciously punchy, the chainsword is a consistent thrill to wield, and everything is presented with fantastic period graphics and a suitable riff-heavy soundtrack. The game’s overzealous commitment to one single note is a sadly undermining affair, eventually transforming an exciting experience into one that runs out of content long before it runs out of levels. Nevertheless, it’s fundamentally entertaining for as long as one remains invested, and I definitely had enough of that entertainment to feel like I got what I wanted out of it.
Plus, y’know, it has an entire button dedicated to yelling at vile filth and heretics. That’s easily worth the cost of entry.