Admittedly, there are a couple of layers of separation between the player and the harsher implications of the mayhem. First of all, SUPERHOT takes place in a glitchy, low-polygon virtual environment pitched somewhere between The Matrix and the retro-futuristic world of TRON. Second: the violence is so absurdly over the top that it’s closer to something like Monty Python than, say, the Japanese master of cinematic gore and mayhem, Takashi Miike. At least one encounter has seen me batter a man to death with a large fish, which is about as Terry Gilliam as you’re going to get in a first-person action game.
Then again, SUPERHOT isn’t strictly speaking an action game in the conventional sense. It’s unspeakably brutal, yes, but developer SUPERHOT Team have introduced an ingenious time-based element that turns it into something approaching a puzzle game. In essence, SUPERHOT takes place in a digital world where enemies barely move unless you do: stop dead in your tracks, and time slows to a barely perceptible crawl. This gives you plenty of time to look around and plot your next move, which means SUPERHOT could also be classed as a turn-based strategy game of sorts.
I seem to remember there was a stage in Jonathan Blow’s seminal Braid that fiddled with time in a similar way, but director/co-designer Piotr Iwanicki’s handling of the concept turns it into something almost unrecognisably different: here, the stop-start flow of time allows you to pull off all kinds of superhuman tricks. Spot a muzzle flash aimed in your direction, and you can nimbly strafe out of the way of enemy bullets. Meanwhile, in glorious slow-motion, you can punch a bad guy in the face, snatch the gun out of his flailing hand, and then shoot him in the head with it.
The one immediately graspable rule is that if an item in the game world is black, you can pick it up and use it as a weapon against the bad guys, uniformly coloured a garish crimson. In SUPERHOT, any object is fair game, turning most areas into miniature playgrounds of death. So far, I’ve plucked an outsized clock off the wall and smashed a luckless goon in the face with it. In a colour-drained garage, I killed one assailant with a trolley jack and stabbed another with a tyre iron.
SUPERHOT positively encourages these off-the-cuff moments of murderous inspiration. One challenge saw me completely unarmed and asked to clear out a room populated by three bad guys with guns. Fortunately, a few darts sticking out of a dartboard on the wall were all I needed to duck in the room and temporarily disable one villain by lobbing a tiny arrow at their face. The shock of the assault caused them to send their shotgun spiralling in my direction, which I could then use to shoot the other two fools on the spot.
Elsewhere, my general haplessness saw me run out of ammo in a museum (this happens a lot in SUPERHOT, you’ll find), so I was forced to pick up small exhibits from the shelves and repeatedly smash them into my attackers’ heads. SUPERHOT lets you do all these things and more, and makes you feel effortlessly cool as you do so. The game’s been out for a good while now, yet I avoided it until recently because, generally speaking, I’m a bit rubbish at first-person shooters. But because SUPERHOT completely short-circuits the need for split-second, housefly-like reactions, it’s possible for even the most dawdling players to take down villains and feel unspeakably badass in the process.
Years ago, SUPERHOT wouldn’t have looked too out of place in an arcade. It has the same snappy thrills you’d expect from a coin-op experience – levels are over in seconds, and the action’s fast and easy to grasp – making it a slightly more cerebral, arthouse successor to Namco’s Time Crisis. Admittedly, this means SUPERHOT has some of the drawbacks of an arcade game: murdering the same villains against the same clinical backdrops can pall after a while, as can the initial rush of seeing bodies and heads disintegrate into glassy red shards.
In short bursts, though, SUPERHOT remains an absolute thrill ride: an action game that manages to turn a shoot-out in a warehouse into a graceful, even beautiful art installation.