Superhot takes an ingenious approach to emulating action movies: It lets you make your own. This is a game that casts players as fight choreographers as much as it does actors, giving you meticulous control over every split-second of stylish one-against-many shootouts. While surviving a scene and moving onto the next is your immediate goal, there’s a powerful allure to playing a scenario again and again until you’ve performed the perfect single-take assault. The trick is that Superhot is constantly recording your exploits, and when each level is said and done, the game replays your handiwork. Getting to watch the carnage you coordinated—now looking effortless as it’s played back in real time—is simultaneously a cathartic release from the game’s challenges and another challenge in itself, a provocation to do it again, better, faster, cooler.
You may remember Superhot from its 2013 prototype. Though it’s been expanded, the game’s elevator pitch hasn’t changed: It’s “a first-person shooter where time only moves when you do.” Things are a little more complicated than that, though. In truth, time is always moving, but when you’re not, it crawls forward at a nearly unnoticeable pace. Enemies will be frozen in place and bullets will hang in the air, their helpful red tail painting a clear path that lets you easily dodge them once you start moving again. Everything you do is considered moving, from walking to picking up a bottle to throwing a punch and even just turning your head to look around, and different actions speed up that flow of time to varying degrees. Walking sets off a jarring burst of real time, for instance, but looking around makes things move slightly faster than their “frozen” state.
That you can get killed just for turning your head and assessing the scene is especially nasty, because situational awareness is your greatest and rarest resource. Enemies appear all around you in waves, and knowing where the next bullet will be coming from is just as important as mapping out your next kills. Having a plan is everything, but it’s hard to do anything but scramble when you’re first playing a level and don’t know what to expect. Though enemy behaviors and placements might change slightly depending on your actions, replaying a scene a couple of times—with each attempt never a matter of more than a minute or so—is enough to give you a sense of what you’ll be up against. Armed with that knowledge, you have everything you need to choreograph the coolest gun-fu killing spree you can imagine.
What really makes that capacity for cinematic stylish violence work is the game’s clarity and focus. The minimalist aesthetic—red characters and threats against white backgrounds—and visual signifiers that indicate when you’re in place to pull off certain moves mean you always know what actions are available to you at any give time. Your moveset is smartly limited to a handful of maneuvers, but the key is in stringing these together and testing the various brilliant ways the game lets players push their limits. For instance, throwing something at an enemy and causing them to drop their gun is one of your primary methods of self-defense, but if you aim that coffee cup just right, it can take a bullet for you, and the resulting debris causes the same disarming effect while clearing your path. When you’re at the height of your powers, you’re fending off all comers like a terrifying, robotically efficient John Wick—stunning enemies, catching their guns out of the air, and turning the weapons on their colleagues before they even get a chance to fire a shot of their own.
The only thing slowing you down is Superhot’s story. Primarily told through text chats outside the action scenes and the occasional moment of in-game subversion, it provides a sort of meta-narrative for the game, suggesting that you’re playing a game you shouldn’t be and there’s something far more sinister going on. It leads to a couple of clever moments and sets up an intriguing mystery—until it’s clear that it’s covering some overly trod ground in a predictable way, at which point it becomes an overwrought roadblock to the more enjoyable parts of the game. Though you can skip many of the chats and get back into the action, there comes a point where the game won’t let you and consciously turns your impatience into a part of the story, mocking you for daring to skip ahead and telling it that you “just want to get back into the game.” At a certain point, it reads like an unengaging story commenting on its own inability to engage.
Once you finish the short campaign, a handful of story-less extra modes are unlocked, challenging you to tackle each scene with certain limitations or to survive for as long as possible against an endless stream of bad guys. Unburdened from those momentum-killing interludes, you’re free to revel in the game’s fervor and experiment with its finely tuned toolset, planning new and even more daring routes through levels. You may be getting more familiar with the game and its tricks, but that familiarity encourages an audaciousness that has you setting new goals and challenges of your own. With something to work toward and create, the thrill of arranging, executing, and watching back a flawless performance never has to go away.