As my assailant approaches, I throw a bottle square at his head. Stunned momentarily, he loosens his grasp on his pistol, which I grab from midair before following the bottle with a well-placed bullet. I instantly pivot to fire another round into his approaching buddy, before suddenly everything stops, the crystalline world frozen in place.
Then I plan my next move.
In Superhot, for all its pistols and shotguns, bottles and katanas, the most powerful weapon at my disposal is time, my mastery of it the only thing that sets me apart from the legions of ‘red dudes’ assaulting me at every turn. As long as I keep moving, we’re on a level playing field. But the moment I stop, the world stops too: bullets hanging in mid-air, enemies frozen in place. dogs caught mid-bark.
Well, almost. Technically, time just slows dramatically rather than strictly freezing – stand around too long and that bullet straight ahead will eventually work its way (oh so slowly) into you. I found that one out the hard way early on, and pretty quickly learnt my lesson – each pause is a breather, a chance for quick evaluation, not lengthy planning.
Those evaluations boil down to finding ways for as many bullets as possible to pierce my enemies, and as few as possible to pierce me. A single shot kills, so the margin for error is pretty tight, which is a crucial limitation in a game that would otherwise be little more than an FPS power fantasy turned up to 11.
My moveset is limited. I can shoot pistols, shotguns, and assault rifles. I can punch people, knocking their weapons into the air, to be grapped in one smooth motion. Melee weapons offer a more personal touch, and can be thrown in a pinch. So can plenty of object in the environment, not to mention my guns – useful when each holds just 3 or 4 shots, with no reloads. I’m thus constantly assessing not only where the ‘red dudes’ are, but how many shots I have left, what weapons are around, and how I can get to the next one without getting hit by any of the bullets already streaking through the air.
When I string the right sequence of moves together I’m a balletic death machine. When I screw up, I drop dead pretty fucking quickly, and the game knows how to put me in my place.
It’s when I get it right that Superhot really becomes something special though. There’s a special thrill in disarming someone just to shoot them with their own gun, or dodging a stream of bullets in slow motion to get up close and take someone out in melee range. Superhot is precision engineered to create that rush – and to allow you to create it for yourself.
Early on in the game, I found myself facing down two guys at the end of a corridor. Unperturbed, I fired at one, just as he did the same – only for our bullets to shoot each other out of the sky. “No they didn’t”, a Steam achievement popup breathlessly declared as I proceeded to dismember the poor fellow who’d dared crack a shot at me. This is Superhot.
I’m beginning to feel like a bit of a fucking badass.
As I play on, I settle into the same sort of anaesthetic rhythm that characterized much of the equally violent Hotline Miami. Just as in that game, minute-long levels are repeated ad infinitum: this series of aggressive dance routines make me feel increasingly numb to the context of my actions. The violence itself falls to the wayside, an irrelevant byproduct of my choreography.
Each victory is greeted by strobing praise, shouted at me from the screen. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. Eventually I’m no longer sure if the game is even addressing me here, or just offering a simple declaration. SUPER. HOT. It doesn’t matter though. There’s something to the cadence, the rhythm, that feels inherently rewarding. SUPER. It’s what keeps me going through the game’s toughest levels, that booming baritone voice. HOT.
When I’m not busy blasting apart polygonal crimson hordes or just listening to SUPER. HOT. on repeat, I’m embroiled in an occasionally compelling narrative wherein I’m playing a game within a game. Except is it a game? Is this real? “Bodies are disposable,” I’m told, as the game’s pulsing violence steps up another level. I’m repeatedly told to quit, to stop meddling with things I don’t understand. I even do at one point, before I’m drawn inexorably back in.
It’s surely no coincidence that Superhot’s meta-narrative taps into questions around virtual reality, drawing heavily from The Matrix’s iconic bullet time effect. I’m tapping into all my juvenile Neo power fantasies as I tear through opponents, and have to stop myself from trying to do that swooshy bending over backwards thing on my way to make myself a cup of tea between levels.
It begins to take on the feeling of a compulsion. By the final level, I’m laying waste to hordes as I assault some source code (or something? I’ve sort of lost the plot by this point). I play this final segment over and over again, constantly caught in the crossfire as guards attack from every direction, each time failing to address a single, crucial bullet.
Yet watch the replay of my final, successful assault, and you’ll see none of that. You’ll only see the outcome of generations of repetition and iteration, a flawless flow through a hail of bullets, enemies dropped with lethal precision, every moment put to perfect use in an orgy of abstracted violence.
This is Superhot. Not the countless attempts that ended with my death. Not pressing ‘R’ to replay. No, Superhot is that singular moment when everything clicks into place, countless carefully orchestrated moves culminating in a sequence that appears entirely effortless. And as always, just after my moment of triumph, there it is: