Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun is a loud, obnoxious, and damned fun retro shooter

Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun is a loud, obnoxious, and damned fun retro shooter
Gaming & Culture
May 2023


"What is that sound?" my wife yelled from the other room, 20 minutes into my first session of Warhammer 40,000: Boltgun.

I was playing the game on the Asus ROG Ally I had connected to the TV in our tiny, temporary rental. The handheld Ally was propped up on an inactive heating panel, and it was rumbling non-stop. Every thunderous step of my Space Marine Sternguard, every shot, every explosion, every chainsword dismemberment rattled the wall-mounted panel, and she could both hear and slightly feel that one room over. I explained what was happening, but I was smirking the whole time, struck by some distant memories.

Tearing through dumb-as-rocks soldiers and demons? Stomping around in armored boots that sound like a mid-'90s Nine Inch Nails rhythm track? Losing track of time in the depths of a catacomb? You can't go home again, but Boltgun gave me the occasional sense that I was back in front of a CRT monitor and Creative Labs speakers, annoying everybody within earshot.

I had not previously indulged in the retro-shooter genre (alternately, unfortunately labeled "Boomer Shooters"), but I can't imagine many hit their mark as well as Boltgun. The primary mechanic is "killing things," and everything feeds that mechanic or tries not to distract from it. It's a game with absolutely zero ludonarrative dissonance. If its genre and Warhammer trappings don't turn you off entirely on sight, I wager you will enjoy it.

This game requires zero Warhammer knowledge (but does reward it)

Let's get this out of the way: I knew next to nothing about Warhammer 40,000 before playing Boltgun. I knew people love collecting and painting miniatures and that the lore is about extremist factions in eternal conflict. I would occasionally invoke "Blood for the Blood God, skulls for the Skull Throne" when feeding a bad impulse (such as a purchase of Family Size Snyder's Pretzel Pieces). That's about it, but it needn't matter.

In fact, having almost no context about who and what I was killing, and why I was justified for killing them, gave me the proper mindset for being an elite Space Marine Sternguard, doing the work of the Imperial Inquisition. There's a floating skull that follows you around and gives you bits of lore and direction. But really, it's simple: If they're on the screen, they gotta go. And making them go was loud, stupid, circle-strafing fun.

There's not much to explain, gameplay-wise, if you've played anything resembling the original Doom--or, to a lesser extent, Doom (2016) or Doom Eternal. You have guns, slotted to your number keys, along with grenades and the chainsword melee weapon. You try to hit enemies, and when they hit you, you lose first armor (actually "Contempt") and then health. Health and Contempt are scattered around, or sometimes enemies drop them. Some areas of the levels are closed off until you find the right key for them. Every so often, you'll come across a really big enemy you'll have to shoot a lot.

There are some tweaks to the formula. Enemies have a toughness level, shown in a badge on their health bar at the top of your UI. If your weapon's strength level isn't at or above that level, you'll do little damage. This aspect is apparently pulled from the tabletop games; PC Gamer's review has a lot more depth on what does and doesn't line up with distinct eras and lines of Warhammer. In short, though: You'll find lots of lore callouts and Easter eggs in Boltgun, but none of them does anything to slow down the action.