Setting a “boomer shooter” within the fertile world of Warhammer 40K is such a good idea, it’s surprising that it hasn’t been done before. With Warhammer 40K Boltgun, British studio Auroch Digital has not only delivered on that concept – they have absolutely nailed it.
Published by Focus Entertainment, Boltgun casts players in the role of Ultramarine Malum Caedo, sent to the forgeworld Graia to recover a powerful artefact. Previously the setting for 2011’s Space Marine, the planet proves to be in the midst of a full-blown Chaos incursion. This slender thread of plot is all that is needed to trigger a one-marine rampage across Graia – and one of the best retro shooters that money can buy.
It is difficult to overstate just how much fun Boltgun’s gloriously gory combat is. The eight distinct guns smash enemies apart, the ever-ready chainsword is a grisly melee solution, and grenades paint the walls with demon blood. This is retro FPS nirvana – as rooted in a rock-solid grasp of the genre’s fundamentals as it is in the grimdark world of 40K. That combination lets the player inhabit the role of a space marine like never before.
The movement, owing much to classic Doom, is as good as the shooting. The surprisingly mobile Caedo can sprint, mantle, deploy a charge with a short cooldown, and even splat smaller enemies by landing on them, like a fanatical two-ton Mario. The chainsword’s lock-on feature also enhances Caedo’s mobility, as it incorporates a leap to better introduce its buzzing blades to a demon’s dome. Like Warhammer 40K Boltgun’s other bloodthirsty pleasures, this never gets old.
Cutting a bloody route through the 24 smartly designed levels feels so good that it may produce a desire to shout zealous slogans in praise of the Emperor; which is why Auroch have included a taunt function which does exactly that.
Just as id Software or 3D Realms would have done, Auroch have divided the 8-10 hour campaign into three episodes. The varied level design revolves around key hunts, but these are never intrusive – they instead feel like a logical progression. Secrets are numerous and cleverly hidden, and always worth seeking out. Rewards include special magazines for the boltgun – which briefly enhance its firepower – and a handful of power-ups including a sizable damage boost.
Roughly once per map, the servo-skull that accompanies Caedo will announce a “purge”. This is the trigger for a tough arena fight, which will test the player’s ability to deftly switch weapons and prioritise targets. Crucially, these are engaging spaces – Caedo can never win by simply circle-strafing or backpedalling, but has to use the environment to his advantage. Bosses are a little underwhelming, however, as they are often too large to move in a threatening way within these spaces.
Allied to the game’s superlative retro gameplay are its brilliant visuals. The low-poly 3D environments recall Quake, while the combination of sprite enemies and voxel pickups brings to mind the original Shadow Warrior. Auroch Digital’s deep affinity for 40K is evident everywhere. The environments include desert canyons, caves carved out by vicious ambulls, and numerous Cult Mechanicus facilities. At times the levels are truly grandiose, but never incomprehensible. One consists partly of a series of small cathedrals suspended over a void in an immense chamber, while another is a massive “grand elevator” freighted with cargo, cranes, machinery, whole buildings, and hundreds of enemies. This hosts one of the most thrilling battles not only in Boltgun, but in the genre.
These sometimes spectacular environments are rich with the corroded gothic atmosphere of the Imperium and the maddening disorder of the warp. All of this is backed up with suitably ominous music and great sound effects. 40K fans will be pleased, too, by the inclusion of obscure weapons and enemies from the voluminous lore. Never again will anyone have to wonder what it is like to incinerate a screamer of Tzeentch with a volkite caliver – because of Boltgun, they will know.
Auroch Digital have done a wonderful job with Warhammer 40K Boltgun. The bare minimum of story and lack of options outside the campaign may slightly limit its appeal, but are the norm for the genre. This confident and polished retro FPS is both an essential play for boomer shooter fans and a terrific use of the 40K licence. The same publisher will help deliver Space Marine 2 later this year, but make no mistake – the first great 40K game of 2023 has already arrived.