Painkiller Review for PC
Posted on Sunday, May 16, 2004 @ 02:00:12 pm E.S.T
The first-person shooter genre has become increasingly more complex in terms of gameplay and game mechanics over the past couple of years (you could probably mark the shift at the début of Valve’s seminal FPS Half Life in 1998), but that doesn’t mean every developer has completely let go of the genre’s roots. Like Serious Sam before it, Painkiller is an FPS that is purposefully designed with the old-school in mind, focusing squarely on killing a plethora of enemies that attack players in waves. However, while the gameplay featured here is satisfyingly speedy and ferocious, the fact that it’s extremely simplified compared to the most advanced games of the genre does makes Painkiller a rather limited experience.
Painkiller actually has a very intriguing premise. You play as Daniel, a man who, along with his wife, dies in a car accident. But instead of going to his final resting place, he gets stuck in a sort of purgatory, and is hired as a soldier for God to battle the minions of Hell. If he defeats Satan’s five demonic lieutenants, he will finally be granted access through the proverbial pearly gates, where presumably his wife is waiting for him. A lot of questions the might be raised—such as what makes this man qualified to be a holy soldier, or why God even needs to recruit the dead to battle the forces of hell—mostly go unanswered, but you can’t really fault the game too much. As captivating as its premise may be, Painkiller simply isn’t interested in telling a sweeping tale; the focus of the game is strictly on the extremely intense action.
As previously mentioned, rather then pushing the envelope and trying to match the most advanced offerings in the FPS genre, Painkiller sticks with the tried-and-true concept that these games were founded on: a one-man-army blowing up wave after wave of enemies with fantastically bloody results. Every level essentially consists of exploring the environment, frequently stopping for scripted sequences where you’ll battle hordes of enemies. After each wave, a compass will lead you toward a checkpoint (although you can also save your game at any time). That’s just about as complex as it gets, which obviously isn’t very complex at all. Even the weapon selection is purposefully simplified—you only get five weapons, but since each weapon also has a completely different alternate fire, it’s sort of like having ten weapons. But while Painkiller’s gameplay lacks depth, it is fast, smooth, and often extremely intense.
The only thing you really need to worry about when slaughtering the masse horde of demons is collecting the souls they leave after they die. Each enemy leaves a soul, and each soul replenishes one point of health. One point of health may not seem like much, but considering that you’re likely to kill around 20-30 enemies during each wave, those souls can add up quickly. Besides replenishing health, accumulating souls has another effect: if you gather enough souls, you’ll briefly be transformed into an invincible, powerful, swift-moving demon. This being a first-person shooter, you obviously won’t actually see your character transform. To compensate, Painkiller offers a pretty inventive graphical effect: everything turns black-and-white, except for your enemies which turn blood-red. In a nice touch, you’ll actually see your foes running away from you in a frightened panic.
Another twist to the straightforward action is an interesting power-up system in the way of tarot cards. Every level has a certain optional goal, and achieving those goals earns you tarot cards that grant you special powers, such as stronger attacks, faster movement, or slower enemies. Once you’ve earned a card, you can put it into play (“equip it,” essentially) before beginning a mission, and you can then activate your equipped cards one time in each level, briefly gaining their effects. The only problem is that the goals you need to achieve to unlock them can sometimes be extremely boring and tedious. Objectives like destroying every breakable object in a level or collecting every box of ammo aren’t exactly the epitome of gripping entertainment, and a lot of players probably won’t even bother trying to unlock many of the cards.
Even with the tarot cards and the ability to transform into a demon, the gameplay in Painkiller is still overly simplistic, which is the game’s major drawback. With 24 missions, the game isn’t necessarily lacking in length, but you can only kill so many demons before it all starts to get a little old. Painkiller offers a multiplayer component in addition to the single-player missions, but this too is entirely rooted in the old-fashioned style of games like the original Quake, often to its detriment. There are five modes of play: Free-for-All, Team Deathmatch, People Can Fly, Voosh, and The Light Bearer. All these modes are just variations on regular deathmatches (there are no capture-the-flag or objective-based game options), but People Can Fly and Voosh do offer some pretty unique spins on the scenario. In the former, players can only be harmed when they are in the air, and in the latter all players start with a specific weapon, and after a little while everyone automatically switches to another random weapon. Speaking of weapons, though, the fact that there are only five of them really hurts the variety of the action in multiplayer, much more so than in the single player game. Also, games are limited to 16 players, which is pretty small compared to a lot of other multiplayer FPS games out there. In fact, if it’s multiplayer that you’re interested in, you really shouldn’t bother with Painkiller at all when there are much better offerings out there (such as Unreal Tournament 2004). But in all fairness, the main focus of Painkiller isn’t really on the multiplayer component anyway.
Graphically, Painkiller ranks quite highly compared to other contemporary games. The game implements a lot of cutting-edge visual features, which is kind of ironic considering that the gameplay in Painkiller is so old-fashioned. The game uses the Havok 2.0 physics engine to awesome results—the bloodied corpses of your enemies will be propelled through the air after getting pumped full of shotgun flak at point-blank range, which can actually make collecting all of their souls pretty difficult since they’ll most likely be scattered all over the place in the heat of battle. One especially cool usage of the physics engine involves the stakegun, which is probably the coolest of the five weapons in the game. Like the name implies, it shoots large stakes that kill most enemies with one hit. The cool part is that it can actually be used to pin enemies to a wall, where they will hang limp as a ragdoll. There’s a great variety of inventively grotesque enemies in the game as well, although the actual behaviors of many of them aren’t as varied as they’re appearances.
And if you think the standard enemy fodder looks good, you’ll be slack-jawed when you face the bosses. A lot of games (both 2D and 3D) have featured large bosses relative to the playable character, but the sizes of your ultimate foes in Painkiller are borderline ridiculous. While their enormous sizes may make it seem as if you couldn’t possibly fell them in battle, they’re usually not as tough as they appear, since they mostly follow patterns of attack that can be exploited. Actually, the boss fights in the game create an interesting juxtaposition with the standard levels in the game, since they are generally more strategic and involving.
In addition to a visual treat, Painkiller also offers some high-quality audio. Music mainly consists of rock tracks that play when the action picks up, and it fits very well in the game’s gory, gothic aesthetic. The audio is also used to pump up the atmosphere, as you’ll often hear obscure screeches and wails from your enemies that all sound appropriately unsettling. Finally, the sound effects— be it the firing of your various weapons, the squishy splatter of wounded enemies, or the destruction of various types of objects such as wooden planks or metal barrels—are all satisfyingly crisp.
Ultimately, Painkiller offers some fast, bloody, frantic old-school style FPS action. As a throwback or homage to the games that originated the genre, it works. However, this does inherently make the gameplay very simplistic, and when compared to the vanguard of the FPS genre—games like Halo, Unreal Tournament 2004, or even something as old as 1998’s Half Life—Painkiller just doesn’t have enough depth to really compete. Even still, it does offer some enjoyable action, and while there are certainly better FPS’es you could play, there are also a lot worse. Basically, if all you want to do is massacre craploads of demons in a fantastic looking game (and there’s really nothing wrong with wanting that), then Painkiller will certainly satiate your bloodlust. Those interested in a deeper and more involving game, though, would do better to look elsewhere.
Review By: Kris Pigna - 1100 Reads
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