Superhot lasts all summer long
Superhot is the most innovative first person shooter I’ve played for years. Full disclosure, that’s what the game just told me to say.
Even though Superhot told me to tell you that Superhot is the most innovative FPS I’ve played for years — it wasn’t wrong. Superhot is a strange, surreal deconstruction of the genre, with a twist in game mechanics every bit as ingenious as Portal.
Other shooters experiment with sandbox antics, zombie addons and fancy graphics - Superhot strips gameplay down to a series of simple conceits.
Its 30-odd small levels are all pristine white spaces, with familiar configurations; train stations, offices, warehouses and bars. In these spaces waves of polygonally constructed red guys try to kill you and, if you don’t kill them first, they will. Every time you’re killed — the level resets and you start again.
There are plenty of weapons around to help you out; pistols, shotguns, machine guns and katanas. That’s a samurai sword to you and me. If you can’t grab any of those in time, you can duke it out with your fists or use objects lying around to dent your enemy’s heads. Bottles. ashtrays, even computer keyboards. At the beginning of one level you’ll find yourself armed with nothing more than an 80s mobile phone. It’s a far cry from Far Cry.
I’ve left the most crucial and defining detail out — in Superhot, time moves really slowly, barely at all, until you move.
Those red dudes in the screenshots up there? They’re coming towards you at a glacial rate, bullets slowly streaking from their gangster gripped pistols, until the moment you start walking towards them.
Of course, this isn’t quite as innovative as Superhot’s narration suggests. Indie hit Braid was built around a similar timey-wimey mechanic, but it’s the first time it’s been applied to a shooter.
In the very earliest levels, while you’re learning how things work, this gimmick simplifies things so much that even the most gormless of gamers will feel like golden Gods, but as you progress it has a really curious effect.
Every weapon has a limited amount of ammunition, so you can’t just sit there and wait for enemies to come to you; you have to take the fight to them. Time dilation forces you to adopt a meticulously planned strategy.
Other games give you fake super powers — Superhot gives you the compelling sense that you’re in control of time, while being attacked by a horde of murderous red ninjas.
In one level you land in an elevator with a triumvirate of goons, armed and inches away. You move and one of them picks you off. You hit reset and take a step in another direction. A bullet slams into your chest and you shatter like a vase.
Over multiple replays, you evolve an approach that gets dumped into short-term memory. You smack the dude on the right, strafe left to dodge a bullet, grab a pistol from the air, plug the bloke in the middle and catch his shotgun, step right and spray lead into the last guy’s face… and finally, after you’ve mastered this, the door dings open to reveal another pair of red henchmen with kalashnikovs ready to perforate you.
At full speed Superhot would be impossibly frantic to play. Every level ends with a real time replay of the carnage you just wrought just to rub that in. It makes you feel like an impossibly prescient, flint eyed assassin; Jason Bourne with a crystal ball.
Although you control time, you have little control over space. Most shooter levels are twisty little corridors. You arrive at one end and shoot your way through to the exit.
In Superhot, you’re in a closed space — an arena — like a multiplayer level. There’s no way out, until you’ve killed a set number of hapless red shirts. If you move too fast those red guys will end you, so you have to inch around the room defending corners and cover to keep them from creeping up.
Exploration brings its rewards, with freaky secrets hidden in almost every level — but thinking about going off grid could get you killed. A wrong turn here, a misstep there.
It’s a blast.
I’ve lived with Superhot for a while, from the original prototype two years ago, through to an early beta. There was even an April fools version that turned the first chapter of Quake into a Superhot clone (SuperQot).
There have been changes along the way to graphics and gameplay. Most notably, there was a God mode in beta that appeared when you were struggling to clear a level. Its absence adds rather than detracts; making things too easy deflated the tension. Some levels will feel like a grind as you are killed and killed and killed again — but the endorphin rush when you clear the room is worth it.
Most of the new work has gone into the game’s framing device; the hacker story it’s wrapped in is way more coherent and satisfying than in the preview and beta versions.
There was one more big surprise in a game full of twists and turns — a new mechanic almost as radical as time control appears about two thirds in. I’ll leave you to discover that on your own.
The best revelation of all comes at the end of story mode. Once you’ve conquered every level of the main game, you unlock Challenge and Endless Modes; wave after of wave of crystalline red fellas, ready to eat your scrummy bullets.
Superhot lasts all summer long.