Superhot. No, it’s not about a radiator that secretly fights crime. This stylised FPS comes to us from newcomer Piotr Iwanicki, as an updated and Kickstarted version of a prototype he made in 2013. But now it’s got a campaign, an endless mode, challenges and so on, filling it to make it a fully-fledged game, now sold on PC and Xbox One. It’s also got a really irritating narrative threaded through it, like some big, conceited tapeworm, but more on that later.
So let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way – Superhot does have a very smart angle on the standard FPS system. When you stand still and perform no actions other than looking around, time slows to a complete crawl, to the extent where you can watch the bullets drag themselves through the empty space before you. That’s pretty cool if nothing else. There’s something satisfying about causing a violent skirmish suddenly turn into a colourful, slo-mo freeze-frame whenever you want. I like to think of it as “Zack Snyder-cam.”
Don’t think you’re invincible, though. Just because the bullets seem slow doesn’t mean you can’t get shredded by them if you stand in their way. The actual advantage of this mechanic means you can shout “time-out!” in the middle of a firefight and consider a plan of attack as everyone holds their respective poses. Yes, dodge under that shotgun blast hanging in mid-air, pick up the hammer off the table, throw it at the prat coming round the corner, grab his gun as he falls back, and then we’ll stop again to take it from there.
This strategy decided, you spring into action and everything snaps into real time again, only with you playing the game like Neo on Red Bull. The poor saps never knew what hit them.
You can’t do this kind of planning forever, though. As mentioned, time doesn’t halt completely, and it’s surprisingly easy to get lost in your battle tactics and get a slow-motion bullet nuzzling its way into your skull, as punishment for your indecisiveness. But that’s good, it’s keeping the pace up and making sure you never lose the sense of tension.
And the pace is what it’s all about. In fact, Superhot reminds me a lot of Hotline Miami (Superhotline? The Miami Superheats? Must pay a comedian to write this joke later), with its one-hit-kill policy and instant restart when you get murdered. You can even throw any weapon, including the guns, and you’ll certainly have to when the average clip wouldn’t hold enough ammo to worry Bambi’s mother. But again, that’s not a bad thing. It fits the idea of improvisation and stops the player from reducing the game to cover-based shooting, as you’d be wise to sprint out into the battlefield and grab whatever stick or popgun is close to hand. Honestly, it’s situations like these where the game is at its most interesting.
So yes – the comparison between Hotline Miami and Superhot was inevitable, but it’s not always favourable. Hotline Miami had an effective visual aesthetic that suited the game and its madcap tone, whereas Superhot’s design just started to make my eyes ache after a while. It’s all polygonal angles and shining white surfaces, and the image is curved at the edge to recreate the look of an old 90s computer monitor. I get that they want it to have a certain style and highlight any objects of importance, but anything that makes the viewer want to look away and blink until the migraine stops should probably be back in the design stage.
It’s a genuine shame. I’ve always held that style of appearance is more important than sheer graphical power, but this has just ended up being offensive to the senses. What could’ve been a cool visual theme just looks like an unfinished Mirror’s Edge, one that’s determined to put a chisel through your frontal lobe. And that’s not helped by a flat voice burping the title at you over and over when you beat the level or the huge text that constantly flashes up to kill any epileptics playing, and obscure the view of the battleground.
The gameplay stays enjoyable throughout, but it’s broken up with over-long sessions of watching the Facebook Messenger.
Of course, it took a while to kick in that the stylistic choices were bothering me, but it was concerning that I noticed at all. Shouldn’t Superhot have been engaging me more than that? It’s probably not a coincidence that I realised my temples were throbbing during the story, which was severely getting on my nerves by the time of its conclusion. It’s a short campaign – very short, about two hours – but I still found myself relieved when it was over.
As you start the story, you discover you are inhabiting the role of a nerd playing video games on his computer, so it didn’t take too long for me to adjust to that part. Your annoying chatroom BFF contacts you and says that you have to try this new game called Superhot, stolen from some company over the internet. Superhot is the best game ever, he insists, so cool and innovative, with a story that develops as you go and, and… And is it me, or is all this sounded a little smarmy and self-aggrandising?
But as you play it you realise the boundaries between reality and game aren’t as clear-cut as they seem, with the two getting harder to distinguish as you progress. It might sound interesting, but, honestly, it’s quite boring and unoriginal as stories go, taking elements from the Matrix, Ender’s Game, Blade Runner, Tron and more, to the point where you could make a pretty lethal drinking game out of naming everything Superhot owes its ideas to.
Yet all this is presented with so much pride that it makes me wonder if the writer thought he’d stumbled onto some untapped goldmine of ideas. It doesn’t help that it’s loaded with self-aware metanarrative, that dangerous no-man’s-land which can either become something very special and clever (like The Stanley Parable and Undertale) or just make the writer look like an insufferable smart-alec (looking at you, Assassin’s Creed: Unity).
Sadly, the Superhot game is the latter, an uninspiring soup of half-baked ideas that never really achieve much friction and are all fairly predictable as these things go. Stop me if you’ve heard these ideas before, but did you know that global mega-corporations might be evil and doing secret things you don’t know about? Did you know that your computer could be hacked by someone else and they could edit your “adult” collection without you knowing? Did you know that virtual reality might be so good one day that it becomes hard to tell the difference between the genuine and the digital? Did you know that when I fell asleep during a long text-scrolling sequence, it took ten minutes to work the imprint of the keyboard out of my forehead?
So it’s kind of a blessing that the campaign wouldn’t outlast most sneezes, as completing it opens up all the challenges and extra modes that have the decency to only contain core gameplay. Because it’s that bit that’s fun, side-stepping bullets and throwing heavy objects like a kid having a tantrum. There’s a simple joy to being dropped into some office space and being told to use whatever you can find to tear through waves of enemies. And in every mission, it concludes with a replay of your accomplishments, but with all the pauses and time stops removed, which just looks even cooler. You could spend ten minutes lining up a shot in-game, as reality slows to a crawl and everything goes slow-motion, but in the replay you just see your character spin casually on his heel and instantly make the kind of long-range kill that Legolas would seem surprised at.
I do wish more had been done with the slow-motion, though. Admittedly, sometimes the game puts you in tricky situations and forces you to use this power to escape, like sticking you in a small lift with three men holding you at gunpoint. That’s pretty cool and has that feeling of pride when you finally orchestrate some organic solution and leave the bodies stacked behind you as you casually walk out, adjusting your tie in that James Bond-style.
But mechanically there’s not a lot to Superhot, making it feel a little anaemic. Shoot guns, wave melee items, throw both of them and occasionally punch someone. There’s a body-swapping power that’s introduced later on, but it’s basically a limited teleport for emergencies and easy to forget about.
So Superhot is a game that’s asking for a little too much, in return for not enough. It costs less than a regular game, but still feels a little pricey for the small amount of content it can offer. Not that it doesn’t have charms – I’m still impressed by how clever the basic gameplay idea is – but I also like hot dogs, and I wouldn’t be impressed if somebody was charging three times their value.
Fundamentally, our Superhot review is a mixed bag that manages to come out on the good side of average. The great core mechanic pushes Superhot up several notches, as one of the best innovations in shooters for a while, before the weight of a dull story, glaring visuals, and undernourished design pull it back down to earth. I can’t say it doesn’t have its moments, there’s just a lot of faff and nonsense to power through between those moments. After a while, you realise you’re just stopping and starting. I can’t say it’s not appropriate.
- A very clever approach to traditional gunplay
- Slowing time blends heat-of-the-moment adrenaline with improvised tactics and strategy
- Small but important mechanics contribute to the overall feeling of off-the-cuff combat
- The replay at the end of each mission is an enjoyable idea
- Content feels a bit lacking for the price
- Visual and sound design goes straight for the pain centres of the brain
- Story is weak, and often annoying