Painkiller Review

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Publisher: Dreamcatcher Interactive
Developer: People Can Fly

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC

Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 1.5 GHz, 384 MB RAM, 64 MB 3D video card, DirectX 8.1, 1.2 GB HD space, 4x CD-ROM

Painkiller has its own theology – a vaguely Christian vision, tweaked just enough to be the perfect setting for shoot-'em-up action. This is a Hellish version of purgatory, where souls that straddle the delicate divide between purity and evil reside until they are forgiven by an angel and admitted to Heaven or harvested forever by a demon. This realm is no featureless landscape, filled with gray mists. Rather, it is a dark and twisted version of the mortal world, with visions of the mortal plane ranging from a late medieval village to Venice to the Zurich train station, twisted and deranged by their proximity to the forces of Hell. This realm has always been perilous, but now Lucifer is covertly manifesting soldiers of his armies under four generals to prepare an assault on Heaven. Heaven wishes to avoid direct intervention lest it initiate the very conflict it is trying to avoid. So, Daniel Garner, thirty years dead, has been chosen as a lone commando to assassinate Hell's generals and dissipate Hell's gathering forces. His reward: ascension to Heaven and reunion with his wife.

Kyle Ackerman

Painkiller provides the sort of gameplay that usually seems old and tired to a modern audience, recalling as it does the early days of first-person shooters – but somehow the pure simplicity of the carnage, the quality graphics, the variety of enemies and the detailed physics combine for an incredible experience. The gameplay is simple – enter an area, kill everything that moves and get to the next checkpoint. That area might be as large as an entire airport, replete with tanks, artillery, and hundreds of Hell's footsoldiers. Or it might be a tiny, enclosed room, with gates that slam behind you forcing you to get up-close and personal with a single Sado Commando. What makes the game not only palatable but enthralling is the constant variety of enemies, locations and the occasional boss battles with Lucifer's generals that awe you with their might and immense scale.

Just The Fun Parts Of Physics, With No Final Exam

The real star of Painkiller (beyond the art) is the physics in the game. It's built on the Havok 2.0 physics engine, but the style is not just the engine itself. Realistically behaving objects and limbs are nothing without toys to manipulate them. The Painkiller weapon's laser-harpoon-like function lets you whip enemies over your head from high ledges, and blasting a rocket at the feet of a horde of skeletons in gas masks sends them flying outwards, limbs flailing. Weak columns can be pulled down and when zombies rip out their internal organs to fling them at you, you can use the Painkiller weapon to spear and fling the gory entrails out from underfoot. When you encounter skinless corpses, hanging by their ankles, you can blast them to set the bodies swinging, limply. Explosions send the living and dead flying. In fact, in the Venice level, developer People Can Fly put enemies on top of exploding barrels just to show off. You'll be glad they did.

The levels are spectacular, and often huge. More importantly, they embody distinct and varied styles. You may start off in a gloomy graveyard, but over the course of five chapters, you'll visit locations horrific and stately, but all are hellish variations on real-world locations. Venice would be beautiful were it not for the Hell Bikers covering the canals with machine gun fire; Maso Commandos lurk within a decrepit missile silo; an asylum is filled with Amputees that cling to the ceiling and straight-jacketed Freaks that look fresh from the electric chair stalking you with blue sparks emanating from their electrified heads. A late level looks as if you have snuck, well-armed, onto the set of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Except that it's teeming with demons, and there are scattered sacks of fireworks, just waiting to explode, simultaneously sowing destruction and pyrotechnic brilliance.

Five Destructive Weapons – Just Decide How To Apply Them

Effects such as the skyrockets just show off the game's moody and impressive lighting. Right down to the flashlight that helps you out in dark places, the lighting serves to set the mood properly for a festival of fear and carnage. All of this is accompanied by great music that ranges from moody to drivingly energetic. To say that each level is more impressive than the last would be unfair to the earlier settings, but the last level, which evokes every battle ever waged, frozen in time, is simply amazing. It's also the setting for the final, and most frustrating boss battle of all. While these conflicts, like all boss levels, are ultimately about pattern recognition, in Painkiller, boss battles are usually about how to use the environment against your enemy. Figure out how and when to do the damage, and the battle is mostly over. In many games this sort of puzzle necessitates endless replay, but Painkiller gives you the one tool necessary to streamline such conflicts – a save function. With that, even the most onerous of Boss battles/puzzles is manageable.

Your tools against the massed forces of hell are five weapons, once you've acquired them all. As each weapon has an alternate fire mode, these are more like ten weapons from another game. Well, not exactly like another game. The combination of rocket launcher and chain gun might seem normal, but the "Painkiller" weapon is a touch different. It's something like a combination of a stripped-down food processor and a laser harpoon. The primary mode spins the blades, letting you run at Hell's denizens like a disgruntled demon-child misusing tools in Hell's version of shop class. The secondary mode can be used as a distance weapon or a laser beam that slices and dices. Most of the weapons' two modes can be combined usefully. For the Painkiller weapon, you can set the blades spinning and launch them like the hero of Krull. The shotgun's secondary effect is a freeze-ray that leaves demons vulnerable to the shattering effects of a cone of shotgun pellets.

Painkiller Meets Collectible Card Games

Painkiller gets its replayability both from difficulty levels and the introduction of the Black Tarot deck. Each level has an explicit challenge (such as finding all secret locations or keeping your health above a certain level) that will unlock a new card in the Black Tarot. Some cards can be used to enhance your abilities throughout play, while others can only be used once per level. Preparing cards for use requires gold, so you'll have to collect enough of that, as well. Since the fun is the carnage, after completing the game, Painkiller is still a great game to jump into for a single level's worth of slaying undead. There are also always harder difficulty levels.

A word of warning before revisiting early levels to collect performance-enhancing Black Tarot cards. Going back can cause you to lose access to weapons you've already found, forcing you to replay levels just to recover your weapons. Trying to kill Bones (two legged skeletal creatures that molest you mercilessly with their jaws) without a shotgun is just no fun. It's also possible to get trapped in some areas of the game by the environment itself, but (save these issues) the game works well out of the box. Enemies aren't the brightest, and they will occasionally get stuck around a corner or at a doorframe, but they also interact with each other. Executioners wielding dual axes will hack open dog-like Beasts to unleash arachnoid creatures, and skull-headed warriors in leather jackets (Skulls) will grab Hell Bikers and use them as meat shields against your attacks. Each of the enemies has a personality immediately inferable from its appearance, and the way more powerful foes will bend less powerful demons to their twisted purposes (usually killing them in the process) is just evidence of the game's style.

People Can Fly, But Try Not To Do So

The single player action, at present, is what will draw you into Painkiller. There are a variety of ways to play multiplayer games, and the fact that they may not draw you in speaks more to the strength of the alternatives than any weakness in Painkiller's play. The free-for-all deathmatch is your typical match in which a bunny-hopping, rocket-launcher-toting warrior who knows the map rules the roost. More interesting modes exist, such as "People Can Fly" mode (named after the developer) in which players can only take damage while airborne (and you can make them so with a rocket launcher). Most of these modes will appeal to folks who want Quake-style battles with some unique weapons like the stake gun. People Can Fly matches are good for a brief lark, but aren't sustaining entertainment.

To call the game simple fun is to ignore Painkiller's proof that straightforward play in elaborate environments with creative, demonic enemies and a sophisticated sense of style is tremendously entertaining. This is a first-person shooter that can be enjoyed in brief sessions or a protracted weekend of play. Either way, it's worth taking the triple blades of the Painkiller for a spin.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on April 12, 2004 5:20 AM.

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