Review: SUPERHOT (Xbox One, PC)

Posted by Simon on May 13, 2016
Games, Reviews

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Lukewarm.

There’s a point where a joke isn’t funny any more. Any regular Internet user will attest: one day, something will happen online and it’ll naturally become something spontaneously hilarious. It will spread like a fire through the dry kindling of social networks until many are echoing its punchline on Facebook walls everywhere. Then its beats will no longer surprise, and many will work too hard to work it into their own personal context. It will finally die long after it should have, smouldering into nothing as the next great meme takes over.

SUPERHOT isn’t a joke, though. In fact, it has one of the best, most innovative central mechanics that I’ve ever seen in games. The problem, though, is that its seemingly simple idea – time moves only when you do – is taken and forced into a narrative that doesn’t work, and finds itself saddled with needless extra elements. It’s stretched too thin, even over a short game, and this takes so much of its beauty away.

The story, as it is, is equal parts Tron and Rez. A mysterious new game snatches the player away and plays with ideas of agency and obedience; it wants to tell a tale of the dangers of blindly following orders, of autonomously tracing a line of red through whatever violence stands in the way. It’s a set of story mechanics that have been explored in games before, not least by Bioshock’s now infamous would you kindly… twist, but SUPERHOT’s writing is not up to the weight of its own ideas. Instead of sophistication, the script attempts to be direct and shocking but is reminiscent of a school play about sentient computers. It feels artificial, for good reason; the team has attempted to add some context to its series of disconnected stages, but it comes over as immature and brash. By the time it’s worked itself into its endgame, it’s garnered too many eyerolls to be taken seriously.

It’s a good job, then, that SUPERHOT’s single great idea is so compelling in itself. Every movement, from walking to turning to jumping and shooting, moves the scene forward through time. You’re always outnumbered and outgunned; each SUPERHOT level is a kind of mystery box that must be unlocked one enemy at a time. To win is to plan your attack in stages, moving around and through bullets as they dance around your head, albeit a virtual head that feels slightly too large.

The original concept for SUPERHOT – developed in a seven-day game jam – keeps things very simple. There’s only one gun type and a limited melee system, and a selection of pocketed stages that sees you gently gliding between projective trails like a loose-stepping ballerina. A ballerina with a gun. In spite of its intentionally slow movement, it’s still the closest any game has got to emulating Matrix-style Bullet Time directly through the eyes of the player. The combined steps jumble together into a cluster of single kills, tension mounting quickly as enemies pile towards you. There’s a purity of action that feels akin to Geometry Wars’ Waves mode, or even Tetris; a state of focussed connection with the distance closed between player and game.

So why does the full release feel so weak in comparison? Exposure has not done SUPERHOT any service. The original concept was so good that it garnered a huge amount of hype from people, like myself, who were eager for more. Unfortunately, designer/director Piotr Iwanicki and Team Superhot interpreted more as complicated. Now there are more weapons, like a sneezing shotgun and spitting machine gun. Melee combat now includes thrown bats, ashtrays, hammers and crowbars, as well as an assortment of punches. Stages are shorter and arrive more quickly, throwing you from one situation to the next with the recurring thread of weak narrative woven between them. The original concept allowed you to dance through its carefully crafted stages, tension coming from numbers rather than complication. SUPERHOT’s final form is more staccato, with quicker solutions and no real opportunities for experimentation. A later Hotswapping mechanic – where you can instantly zap into an enemy’s body – only dilutes the experience further. By the time you’ve trawled to the final stage, wearily scanning through the repeated attempts at deep, involving narrative, there is the distinct feeling of boredom growing underneath the endless violence.

It’s shame, then, that SUPERHOT saves its best hand for right after the story’s finale. There are challenges which hold some short-term interest, but it’s the Endless mode that really captures the beauty of the original concept. There’s not convoluted plot or short stages here; locations from the game are resurrected as final stands against a never-ending wave of enemies. As your kill number increases, so does the number of attackers, until you’re forced into desperate slow-motion defence from every angle. This is SUPERHOT at its very best, delivering moment-to-moment thrills usually reserved for Hollywood superheroes. It’s impossible to not feel the thrill as you plow your final bullet into an enemy, throw the empty weapon at another, grab their sword, then slice a third without breaking your slow momentum.

It’s here that you can also fully enjoy the game’s amazing visual aesthetic. Stages are stark white and cast from concrete, small pocked holes visible in each surface. Enemies are made of vectored red glass, each bullet shattering them into thousands of crimson shards that flow around you as you move. It’s truly beautiful and indescribably violent; there is a glorification of bodily destruction here that even Grand Theft Auto would shy away from. Sound design compliments the destruction, with each shattered impact drawn out for maximum effect.

So it’s a shame then that such a simple visual look and finely-tuned gameplay mechanic have been diluted by the developers’ attempts to make the game bigger. Maybe it was the pressure of selling the game at a higher price point, a bone of contention for many due to the extremely short story on offer. Perhaps they felt the need to complicate in order to evolve their title with a more meaningful narrative. Either way, they missed the point: SUPERHOT’s fantastic beauty was there to be explored instead of manipulated by the desire to tell a story of software sentience. It’s a missed opportunity that could have expanded on that initial simple concept to fantastic effect.

The night I finished SUPERHOT, my subconscious decided to fix all the elements that frustrated me with an extended dream that took me through a frantic, labyrinthine stage. Gone were the extra weapons and hotswapping; instead, it was streaking pistols all round. My objective was to rescue a baby; it lay in a room the other side of multiple enemies. I moved through them, shooting and smashing in slow motion, a dance of death through red streaking bullet trails. As I got to the final room, there were pedestrians running across my path, each of them painted in the same white surface as the rest of the stage. Their faces were more defined; the fear showed clearly. I waited for one to pass then planted three bullets into an approaching enemy – two in the chest and a final tap in the head – before realising that an alabaster animal was making a grab for the baby, leaping in a slow arc with teeth bared. I shot it in midair then grabbed the child. Game over.

I woke with equal parts satisfaction and frustration. I’d just played through my all-time favourite SUPERHOT level, and it wasn’t complicated with extra mechanics but enhanced with ideas. That’s where the game’s real version falls down. SUPERHOT’s first concept built excited hype with simple possibility, but its full release sees it squandered through needless complication.

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