Disturbingly, violence can be artistic. It’s a thought that comes to mind as a perfectly timed jump spirals over an incoming vehicle. Landing on the other side, a punch disarms one target, a pistol sent spinning into the air. Instantly grabbing the gun and squeezing the trigger dispatches one foe, while simultaneously spinning around and sidestepping an incoming bullet from the next target. He falls quickly to another precise headshot. More men storm in, armed with swords, lusting for blood. The trigger is squeezed again. ‘Click’ - it’s out of rounds. A blade swings close but in desperation a fling of the now empty gun knocks it from its mark. The grip loosened, the sword is stolen, its blade now reversed through its owner’s bowels. The final target charges into the fray, his odds of success considerably lessened by the dispatch of all his allies. Mere moments later he is finished, the sword flung with devastating precision through his skull. SUPERHOT.
Originally created during 2013’s 7DFPS (Seven Day First-Person Shooter) Jam, SUPERHOT is a frighteningly elegant first-person shooter where time only moves when you do. The camera can be spun to view your surroundings as time passes at an almost imperceptibly slow rate, but any movement causes time to lurch forward so every action must be carefully planned. It’s this simple bullet-time premise that allows for such beautiful fight scenes to be created, every incoming projectile dodged, while every shot you fire a precise and deadly hit. There’s no health and no second chances, so every short mission must be completed without a graze or restarted again from the beginning. Once all the targets have fallen you’re greeted with a blistering replay of the events in real time that can even be edited and uploaded to the internet in-game. SUPERHOT. On to the next, always more.
After coming away with over $250,000 to make a complete game via Kickstarter, the team have revamped the engine, transforming the originally muted palette and animations of the jam into a stunningly artistic vision where bodies shatter into hundreds of glorious red shards on impact, surrounded by a white world that serves to highlight the violence within. Perhaps the world of Mirror’s Edge as seen through the eyes of a violent psychopath. Maybe that’s not too far from the truth.
There’s also an underlying plot behind this wanton killing. Upon booting SUPERHOT you are greeted with an archaic operating system and a drive filled with a range of truly bizarre items from an exceedingly retro two button game to ASCII art to logic gate instructions. It is a step back in time. A chat box appears from a hacker friend informing you of this new super cool game that all the kids are playing. SUPERHOT. He sends you a hacked .exe and, upon hitting enter, you’re graced with this sudden wonderfully discordant change to the first-person engine.
Then begins the killing and for while that seems simply to be the point. It’s fun to play this game within a game. But it slowly descends into this dark contemplative affair. Why are you killing? Reality becomes distorted. In many ways it is reminiscent of ultra-violent hit Hotline Miami, which also broke down boundaries between gaming violence and reality and asked very similar questions. SUPERHOT feels a little more clunky in its interpretation, at times thwacking the player over the head with the point it’s trying to make, but it does at least give an interesting spin on the otherwise storyless missions.
The game evolves little over its course. New scenarios with more enemies and different weapons appear and later on one more player skill appears, but the basic premise remains. The existence of shotguns and assault rifles mixes things up a little: you often cannot dodge a huge spray of shrapnel or a flurry of bullets heading towards you, no matter which direction you move, but you learn to take these foes down first and then turn these weapons against them. Strangely, once you get used to the basic mechanics the game becomes markedly easy, you can feel like a god dispatching everything in your path. And then it is over. SUPERHOT’s greatest shortcoming is its brevity. Barely two hours in and the story is over, and it ends on a rather muted note instead of a huge crashing chorus ensemble which would seem more suited.
Fortunately completing the game opens up a huge host of alternative options which mixes everything up. There are never-ending arenas that clock up the body count until you die. Speed runs where players can compete for the best time, both in terms of the in-game clock (since time is relative to movement) and real world time (so you must think quickly instead of planning out each action). A large array of alternative modes appear as well, including a personal favourite where you must finish every mission with a single katana. No guns, nothing to disarm your opponents, just you and a katana that if thrown must be collected again. This requires some serious planning or else being left with no way to defend yourself. Bizarrely there is actually far more content available after completion, which is a shame since the game itself loses momentum, perhaps instead adding in various modes throughout the story would have prolonged the enjoyment.
Because of its single unwavering mechanic and extremely short duration, SUPERHOT feels very much like the converted jam game that it is (something that could also be said about similar converted jam game Titan Souls), all of which makes the eighteen pound release price mark seem rather high. However that single mechanic and resulting gameplay is so unique and beautiful that many will find it a worthy purchase, particularly during an inevitable price drop in the future. There may be many games that make the player feel like a god while playing, but SUPERHOT also makes the player feel like a near immortal genius: using those time bending super powers to outwit and outmanoeuvre the enemy. It’s a wonderful experience, if only it could have been more challenging and did not come to such a short and abrupt end.