Now that we’ve monotonously repeated its title a few times (more on that later), let’s talk about Superhot. The indie FPS out of Poland started life as a game jam project, before building up interest (and funds) on the web thanks to a rather brilliant central conceit; in Superhot, time only moves at normal speed when the player does, otherwise slowing to a crawl. This is a great concept on its own, but its developers, who formed a company just to develop the game, have parcelled up their core idea in a neat little paranoid-cyber-thriller package as well.
The Superhot menu and “cut scenes” are presented evocatively as a DOS-style operating system, all DIRs, c:/ prompts and flashing cursors. The look and sound of the whole thing are pitch-perfect, and the level of detail extends to being able to dive down through the file directories to find ASCII-character “VR” demos and even an entire functional tree-chopping game, presented with all the graphical majesty that 95 monochrome characters can provide. As the scene-setting framework for a game on a limited budget, it’s a bit of cost-saving genius.
Things start getting really interesting when you run “superhot.exe” from the main menu, and someone contacts you via online chat to let you know about a crazy new game, accessible only via illicitly cracking a corporation’s servers. Duly armed with the crack, you set out to join the mysterious game server through a portal-like connection service, thus entering the game proper.
The Superhot world is one of stark white and clean lines. It’s reminiscent of what Faith parkours over and falls off of in Mirror’s Edge, but even further drained of colour. There are two exceptions: black polygonal environmental objects (wall screens, pool balls, bottles, lab equipment), and the equally polygonal, armed red guys unanimously intent on killing you. The player almost never starts a level with a weapon, and their only way of getting one is to use their fists on – or hurl environmental objects at – their attackers.
Taking on half a dozen heavily beweaponed goons while armed only with a martini glass doesn’t seem like a great idea, but fortunately, the player also has the game’s time-slowing trick in their arsenal. Stop moving, and time all but halts with you, allowing you take a good look around and track the lazy paths of bullets heading towards your face. Make an action – run, fire or grab a gun, biff objet d’art across the room, or drive an elbow into a lackey – and time boots up too, returning bullets to lethal speeds and sending glass fragments flying from their prior mid-air suspension. The effect is – for want of a better description – pretty damned cool.
While the ability to stop time is a heck of an advantage, a few deliberate gameplay tweaks prevent every level from being a pushover. When you finally get your hands on a gun, there’s a delay after you fire before you can shoot again, which often means murderous polygons swinging bats or crowbars are on you before you can shoot them, and the only option is to hurl the gun into their face. Ammo is limited too, which means it’s never long before you need to go back to throwing office equipment. Enemies often arrive from multiple directions, too, making situational awareness vital - a single hit from a bullet, fist or crowbar spells death and a level restart.
All this plays almost as an FPS strained through turn-based strategy; a juggling act of prioritising targets and calculating vectors. Should you use your last bullet on this guy or that guy? Can you make it behind that pillar before that swarm of shotgun pellets intercepts you? Will you hold on to that katana, or throw it at that guy bringing his assault rifle to bear?
Yes there are katanas, because of course there are katanas. Superhot after all exists for its balletic violence. Sequences such as “Drop through a skylight, baseball-bat a guy in the head, hurl the broken bat at his friend as he raises a gun, pluck the gun out of mid air when he drops it, and promptly shoot him in the knee with his own weapon” are entirely standard throughout. Ingeniously, on every level completion you’ll see your successful run replayed at normal speed (while mesmerising voice and text repeat "SUPER. HOT." overtop), emphasising the sheer style of the gun-fu you just perpetrated. Rudimentary replay editing and sharing tools are even provided to facilitate online bragging.
But the baddies are only faceless red polygons, right? Maybe not. The game’s campaign splendidly capitalises on its lo-fi hacking framework to suggest something more sinister, with a grungy cyberpunk “depths of the net” atmosphere that takes on a distinct urban-legendy feel. Throw in some Kojima-lite meta tricks and commentary on player agency – reinforced by an additional gameplay mechanic later on that adds another dimension to the gunplay – and it’s enough to start making one rather paranoid. At one point, in fact, your reviewer stared at a game-locking crash for about a minute, convinced it might be part of the show. (Nope.)
It’s hard to relate exactly how well game, presentation, and story work in concert without spoiling things. While like many conspiratorial mysteries, it perhaps doesn’t quite stick a satisfying landing, it may be enough to suggest that the narrative (short, but appropriately so) contains instructions for the player, and at its conclusion, you may feel ready to obey. (SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT.) You can also plunge straight into an extensive selection of challenge modes, as well as “Endless” gameplay, where you’re tasked with eliminating as many angry red men as possible before they put you down.
Superhot isn’t an 80-hour, triple-A epic. Instead, it is a neat wee idea tied up in a neat wee package – the kind of game you’ll come back to for half-hour blasts of fun every so often, and will show to gamer mates when they’re over. It’s testament to the viability and points of difference of the indie game model – all while allowing you to sidestep bullets point-blank before wreaking stylish revenge. Go bust some polygonal heads.