Videogames’ fascination with slow motion action – owing undoubtedly to the spectacular bullet-dodging acrobatics of The Matrix and to a lesser extent, the flamboyant gun ballets of director John Woo – is sort of ironic. In The Matrix, it’s Neo’s complete mastery of the titular simulated world, his intimate knowledge of the rules and limits of the software, that allow him to pull off such physics bending feats.
Neo is effectively an expert videogame player, so skilled and practiced in the mechanics of The Matrix that he can anticipate every move and land every shot. The slow motion sequences accentuate his preternatural ability – they express, in a filmic language, what it feels like to be a master player. It’s a bit strange, then, the number of games that are keen to ape what’s essentially an attempt to translate one of the fundamental joys of the medium.
Getting that good takes serious commitment of course, and if you’re anything like this reviewer, reaching savant status at a given game is little more than a pipe dream. SUPERHOT offers a shortcut to that feeling. From the word go, you’re granted Neo-like levels of perception. Moments after starting the game, you find yourself standing in a glowing white corridor, face-to-face with a bullet hanging in mid-air.
In a regular first-person shooter you’d already be toast – riddled with holes before you could so much as blink. In SUPERHOT though, you step casually to the side and fire off a round into your assailant as the incoming slug sails safely past your shoulder. Unfortunately for the enemy, they’re just another faceless red dude and you are a god. They shatter into a dozen pieces and it feels amazing.
SUPERHOT features the best use of “bullet time” since Viewtiful Joe. Many others have tried – like the Max Payne series, Red Dead Redemption or Sleeping Dogs – but whereas in those games it was a flashy gimmick, just another special ability to deploy if things were getting tough, here it is the essence of the game. “Time moves when you move” is the game’s tagline, but that isn’t strictly true. Rather, time moves glacially slowly when you stand still and picks up when you get to business, meaning that while you do have some time to maneuver and plan ahead, you can’t dilly dally for too long.
Each level is like an isolated action scene from The Matrix or Hardboiled in which you’re launched into a shoot-out that’s already underway and tasked with eliminating all of your opponents. Each scuffle last only seconds in real time, but they can take dozens of minutes and multiple retries to execute as you plot an optimal path between bullets and around bewildered bad guys. It’s almost like a puzzle game, but not quite: while the stop-start nature of action affords some degree of strategy, in the end reflexes are still king as enemies can appear at anytime from any direction.
This gets to be a little frustrating as the difficulty ramps up, with bad guys streaming in so quickly that any hopes of a patient, methodical approach goes out the window. Soon, rather than the hyper-aware ninja who's always several steps ahead, you find yourself barely scraping through one encounter to next, constantly caught off guard by yet another bullet that’s seemingly materialised out of nowhere.
At this point, mastering SUPERHOT becomes less a case of honing a transcendent ability like Neo and more a matter of memory, of repeating levels over and over until you know exactly where to be and when. Still, the replay of your final performance is always a beauty to behold – it makes you look like a badass, even if you don’t necessarily feel like one in the moment.
SUPERHOT is a slick, inventive and considerably confident debut effort, almost to the point of being a little cocky. The plot – serviceable but stylishly executed - imagines the game as a mysterious, clandestine piece of software that’s so enthralling, users can’t stop playing, even when their lives at a stake.
It’s a premise that takes a lot of gall – especially when, just as the action is starting to feel a bit repetitive, the game haughtily dares you to quit, proceeding only to mock your obedience if you do decide to stick with it. SUPERHOT wouldn’t be a modern “cerebral” videogame if it didn’t directly address you, the player. Fortunately, it's also at this juncture that a totally unexpected, game-changing ability is introduced which elevates the experience from a clever one-trick poney to something genuinely inspired.
SUPERHOT takes bullet time – a concept too often shoehorned into action games as a shallow, artificial way to communicate the protagonist’s larger than life capacities – and really probes it to fashion a streamlined, invigorating take on the first person shooter that, at least until the last third, pretty much nails the elegantly choreographed slo-mo duels of The Matrix or its ilk. It may not be the deepest game we’ve played this month, but it’s pretty darn entertaining.