In Superhot, time flows only when you move. This is an idea so straightforward it’s almost impossible to conceive a reality where a first-person shooter has not already inked it into its contract. Plenty of shooters (and plenty of games) have played with bullet time, stopping time, or some otherworldly manipulation of time, but none have married its passage to movement quite like Superhot. It not only adopts and plays with this idea; it pushes and refines it to its logical extremes by discarding anything that might get in the way.
Superhot breaks down into a couple dozen unique challenge rooms. Its rules are delivered, tested, and improved upon gradually. Red guys spill out of unseen doorways and require a single bullet to be taken down. They’re also equipped with an assortment of ranged or melee weapons. Disarmament comes through contact; either a swift punch to the body or throwing a nearby object causes a red guy to drop his gun. The surrendered weapon lingers in mid-air and you can pluck it right out of the sky. The first time this happens creates a personal revelation; success demands complete agency inside your environment.
Movement’s relation to time is simple, but Superhot’s mechanics can crash its flow. Actions that appear immediate demand compensation, so switching out weapons, jumping, reloading, and firing a gun allow time to speed up a fraction of a second. This sounds minor but in practice it’s the difference between narrowly avoiding a bullet barrage and taking an unseen shot in the back of the head. Again, it all comes back to mastering your environment. Situational awareness is everything.
Superhot wears the costume of a first-person shooter, but the ability to move between bullets shifts nearer to a strategy game. Pay close attention to a red guy’s hand and you can anticipate which way his gun is going to aim. From there you can set out on a line that actively avoids incoming fire. Of course, multiple red guys means multiple angles of fire, and with only 180 degrees of the screen available at any given time, it’s quite easy for bullets to literally sneak up on you. Managing this requires the player to dance around and between cascading lines of fire, a task that’s easier to digest than one may assume. “Bullet ballet” is a stupid phrase that often finds its way into videogame reviews but there isn’t a better available set of words to describe Superhot’s action. It’s a purposeful and sometime rehearsed dance around a series of variable obstacles.
Some levels I completed on my first run and others required a bit of trial-and-error, but all rewarded some degree of improvisation. Performance can be a game of either calculated planning or just totally winging it. Both are valid methods of play, but the former is where the game comes to life. Throwing your gun like a projectile seemed like a desperation move at first, but I figured out it was quicker than reloading and there always seemed to be another gun nearby. Soon it wasn’t uncommon for me to fire a shotgun round at one red guy, turn and throw the gun at another red guy, and then calmly step out of the way of the oncoming hail of bullets. Repeat this process under a myriad of different circumstances in different environments with a suite of offensive options and you start to see where Superhot opens up.
Most of the time I just wanted to use a sword. The sword is Superhot’s AK-47 because it is the only thing capable of killing every motherfucker in the room. It doesn’t dull like a club, it doesn’t run out of ammo like a gun, and it doesn’t shatter when shot, thrown, or otherwise miss-handled like everything else. It also kills red guys in one hit. Range is tricky but risk always has to come with reward. Initially it pained me that a sword didn’t seem to be available in every level, but when I completed Superhot I unlocked an alternate mode that made one sword the only weapon for each level. Other post-game options—speed running, fists-only, endless-mode levels, each gun only has one shot—are fine and enjoyable, but nothing called to me like the instance of sword exclusivity.
Superhot has the sense to allow the player to instantly restart at any available moment. Most levels can be efficiently completed in less than a minute of normal time, but mistakes and the general learning process may demand more. This could get frustrating, but the lessons of Super Meat Boy fit neatly inside Superhot; snappy resets and getting the player back in the action as fast as possible is huge asset. Screwing up is rarely a penalty because lessons can instantly be applied.
Conveniently, Superhot also does the Super Meat Boy thing of granting a full level replay with each victory. The twist is it’s a real time version of the wild slow motion performance you just achieved. Movement looks a little stiffer than your average first-person shooter, but finished product makes you look and feel like some sort of god. Watching my replays in Superhot reminded me of looking at those incredible Dishonored videos where proficient players were performing superhuman feats of applied skill. Superhot is quite a bit easier than that, but watching my avatar somehow see the future and move between bullets made me feel like I was capable of living and thriving in that world. The best part is this gets to happen every time a level is finished.
Presentation is an equal partner in Superhot’s performance. Minimalist is selling the game short; Superhot has some unplaceable future chic aesthetic that values information and efficiency as much as style and sass. Text blasting each level with an intimidating title and ominously repeating the word, “Superhot” add another layer of mystique to its confident facade. It feels like the game was conceived from Mirror’s Edge’s design team trying to placate the functional necessities of a Terminator, which is a combination too lethally exciting to ignore.
Along the way Superhot attempts take a stab at plot and narrative. The setup is you’ve gotten early and unwarranted access to a game called Superhot and odious forces may not happy with that. Certain parts of this—Superhot’s chatty PC interface and some inspired but unrealized story sequences—are passable if not fleeting. What goes down is either a rotten commentary on the state of piracy or a misunderstanding of The Last Starfighter, but it’s hard to say Superhot is better (or worse) for it.
One of the most inventive, engaging, and methodical games in the last year is technically a first-person shooter. How crazy is that? For a genre left to be picked apart by open-world ambition or MLG hopefuls, Superhot is an aggressive demonstration of different ways for interface and perspective to affect mechanics and design. Its own ambition and the player’s expectations run white hot until it’s over, and whether that’s a few hours or a dozen more is dependent on how deeply you’re taken by Superhot’s most basic premise. I’ve found few other games where my finest performance was also its best reward.