Believe it or not, shooters aren’t really about shooting people. Oh sure, plenty of shooting happens throughout the course of a standard shooter, but, much to the dismay and chagrin of angry parents everywhere, games aren’t designed to be murder simulators. The prominent violence is set dressing, the outfit that a given game chooses to wear. But the core around which that outward appearance is wrapped is much, much simpler: Shooters are about problem-solving.
In some critical circles, action beats in shooter games are referred to as “bullet puzzles,” since the objective is to traverse from Point A to Point B while removing obstacles – the “puzzle,” then, is how to do that without dying; the bullets provide the solution.
This has more or less always been the case, but it takes a game like Superhot (SUPERHOT Team, 2016) to really pick apart the shooter at its seams and hold it under a microscope so we can see exactly how all the pieces fit together – and make no mistake, in Superhot, they fit together expertly.
First, a bit of history: Superhot first sprung to life out of the crucible of the 7 Day FPS game jam back in 2013. Its stripped-down, almost default-looking Unity-esque visuals may have seemed to be the inevitable result of a significantly shortened development period. In reality, the game’s visuals, like every other part of it – narrative, mechanics, even polish, are deliberately field-stripped in service of the real star of the game.
People familiar with the prototypical game jam version of Superhot will find that, pleasantly, not a lot has changed. In fact, the developer has kept most of what was already there and simply expanded on it. A shotgun and an assault rifle have been added to the arsenal – different enough from the standard pistol to provide new tactical options but similar enough in function to not throw off an already established rhythm. It’s also possible to now grab items and throw them at enemies, stunning them and sending their weapon careening through the air, just waiting for you to snatch it up for yourself. The addition of throwable and melee weapons (including a katana, which is probably The Best-Feeling Weapon In The Game) adds to what was there without mutating the game into something more or other than what it is at its core – a rare feat for a remake, sequel, reboot, or any such endeavor.
The core conceit of Superhot is, like the rest of the game, so simple it’s almost comical, but simultaneously brilliant in its simplicity. The game plays out as a series of encounters, almost diorama-like, that pit the player against squads of literally faceless assailants. Everything dies in one bullet, regardless of gun. The trick is this: Time only moves when the player does.
This one concession, this one seemingly minor glitch in the monolithic framework that is the standard modern-day shooter, transforms the game’s levels from samey-looking sandboxes of death to the aforementioned “bullet puzzles.” Standard genre skills and competencies like quick reflexes or steady aim aren’t helpful in Superhot – there’s no need for snap decision making when you have more or less all the time in the world to make your next move. In this sense, Superhot is a true “tactical first-person shooter” – perhaps the first of its kind.
Each level is like a puzzle, and players can effectively plan out their moves ahead of time: Throw this bottle at an enemy. Catch his gun, then shoot, and turn around and target the next enemy. Step to the left to avoid enemy fire. Throw empty gun at enemy, grab shotgun, finish off final foes. When the game works, you feel like Batman or Robert Downey Jr. in those Sherlock Holmes movies; the developer does an outstanding job of making every player action feel utterly heroic. Or I guess I should say, antiheroic.
Superhot’s necessarily slower pace lends it another uniquely interesting quality: When the action moves a frame at a time, a system arises where emergent possibilities and accidental “holy shit did you see that” savantism are common.
It’s worth noting that another thing the developer added to Superhot is a frame story. I’m as big a fan of experimental narrative in games as you’re likely to find, but in this case, I’m inclined to be skeptical of anything that takes focus off of the solid gold core. The game’s narrative plays with cyberpunk themes and pokes annoyingly at the fourth wall, but the story and metastory both are paper-thin and really just feel like they’re there to provide some sort of context for what would otherwise be a series of disjointed levels.
Superhot was also clearly made for VR, or at least with VR heavily in mind. First-person perspective aside, the Matrix-y frame story and the player-as-protagonist narrative trope, coupled with some trippy CRT-style graphical flourishes make it a clear choice for any Rift owners who are looking for something to justify their purchase.
The game takes clear cues from spy movies, action thrillers, and other gunthusiastic media that we’ve all grown up with, and it’s obvious throughout. The levels players will traverse aren’t narratively linked to each other in any way, but are meant to be simple snapshots of high-octane action scenes one might find in a John Woo or Michael Bay movie: A shady deal gone wrong in an abandoned parking garage, a dangerous shootout in the cramped cars of a high-speed train, a bar fight that quickly escalates into a bar massacre. All scenes that we’ve seen thousands of times in movies and TV shows. These are the types of setpieces shooters are constantly trying to recreate and force down players’ throats – Superhot is designed in such a way that instead it just lets players create their own such moments.
Superhot can be frustrating at times, to be sure. When one hit from a bullet, baseball bat, or even fist will subdue the protagonist, expect to restart levels a lot (one scenario begins with the player locked in an elevator surrounded on three sides by gun-toting toughs – it was nearly 30 minutes before I was convinced the level was even possible). But chances are, if you’re having mortality problems when playing Superhot, it’s because you’re playing it like a shooter, and not like a puzzle game.
And make no mistake – when you’re able to play the game as intended, to “see the code” (are Matrix references still relevant?), the game positively, absolutely purrs. Completing any game is satisfying, but Superhot’s levels are designed so that players complete them in style. I can remember more than one occasion when I literally yelled out loud after I threw my gun into an opponent’s face, grabbed his rifle out of midair and shot him with it. It’s a game that doesn’t need excessive achievements, unlocks, or leveling up, because playing the game well is so much more rewarding than any creeping XP bar could ever be.
Superhot was developed and published by SUPERHOT Team and released Feb. 25, 2016 on PC. A review copy was provided by the publisher.