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Painkiller Review – Kill that pain dead

Painkiller:  Black Edition

Developed by:  People Can Fly
Published by:  DreamCatcher Interactive
Released: 2004
Platforms:  PC (Played – Good Old Games), Xbox

Painkiller’s story is absolute nonsense.  Event’s unfold via cut scenes played between chapters and have the barest relation imaginable to the actual game play.  After a level or two into the game though it becomes apparent that the developer’s care even less about the story than the audience.  They know very well that the story is just an excuse to throw wave after wave of enemies into the path of your very  strange and hilarious weaponry.

To summarize anyway, you play as Daniel – the most generic of protagonists – who dies in a car accident along with his wife.  She goes to heaven while he ends up in purgatory.  The scene transitions to a church like area where an androgynous grey haired person explains to Daniel that he needs to defeat the armies of Hell in order to ascend to heaven.

Not even the slightest acknowledgement is provided to the many questions the audience may have to this opening.  Such as  – Why is he in purgatory?  Why will battling hell’s armies save him?  Why is he the only one fighting? (it’s established as an invasion of Heaven).  Why is Hell invading?  Is victory over Hell’s armies the required process for all applicants to enter Heaven?

If pushed, I believe the answer to all these questions would be: To shoot demons in the face.

The end of every chapter progresses the story a bit further.  Daniel continues to track Lucifer’s Generals while a couple of secondary characters are introduced along the way.  Events and characters would be forgettable if they weren’t so awfully scripted and acted.  I say that with no malice either, it’s hilarious.  It’s B-Movie awful – wrapping right around and becoming entertaining again.

This silliness continues through the expansion ‘Battle out of Hell’, which somehow manages to be even more stupid.  However at that stage, I wouldn’t have been satisfied with anything else.

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The ‘Stakes’ are high..hahaha…..ahem…

Thankfully the game itself is bursting with quality.

Summarizing the gameplay is a lot more straight forward – you are dropped into a level and are not allowed to leave until every living thing is murdered.

Slaughter is performed through the use of wonderfully ridiculous weapons.  The default weapon ‘Painkiller’ spins a large rotary blade for close encounters and a secondary fire that launches a metal slug – followed by a trail of searing light that also inflicts damage.

The first obtainable weapon is the ‘Shotgun-Freezer’ – part shotgun, part freeze ray.  This can be used to great effect on the more difficult enemies as you can first freeze them and follow up with a shotgun blast, shattering them for a 2 shot kill.

Later you obtain the Stake-gun which will kill most enemies in one shot by impaling them into the scenery, leaving their corpse dangling from the pinned limb.  Other times this will cause all limbs to explode because, why not.  This Stake-gun also doubles as a grenade launcher.  This trend of bizarrely designed tools of death continues until you have a full complement of unique weapons for every situation.

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Each level is packed with a mix of melee and ranged enemies that attack in waves.  There are no primary objectives, no keys, no NPC’s and no puzzles.  You hit a checkpoint, get attacked by demons and can only proceed when every single one is a corpse.

The process of making corpses is probably the most important element of a first person shooter and it is clear that this was on the top of the developers priority list.  In the first map I was immediately attacked by about 10-20 melee enemies, into which I drove head first with the Painkiller.  It was absolute chaos as limbs and body parts flew in every direction, but also incredibly fun and intense at the same time.

More strategic tactics are required as enemies become tougher and more ranged enemies introduced.  There isn’t a massive number of weapons but the fact that they all have a unique secondary fire will allow for many options.  Almost every situation is covered and you will be actively switching between all your weapons throughout the entire game to pick the best for the situation.

Projectile weapons can be just as fun as the Painkiller – some fire rockets, others lighting and so on – to further describe them would ruin the surprise but  I wish to make a special note on the stake launcher.  Stakes fired have a predictable arch, requiring compensation to your aim depending on the distance of the target.  Shooting  a stake at an enemy half a mile away, watching it glide through the air, and finally seeing it impale said enemies face to the nearest pillar – on the first attempt – never stops being satisfying or hilarious.

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The little things

The Adage ‘good design is invisible’ is very appropriate to Painkiller.  It’s very easy to get lost in the chaotic fun of battle and not consciously notice many of the qualities that contribute to the experience.

The sound design is suitably visceral.  You can practically feel the feedback of the Painkiller from the sounds of it’s blades clanking off metal armor and tearing through flesh.  Every gun provides satisfying (and immediate) audio and visual feedback indicative of it’s power and whether or not you’ve hit your target.  Enemies react to damage just enough to let you know they have been hit and explode into wet chunks when hit with a powerful attack.

The design of enemies is appropriate to the theme of the particular level; soldiers in a military base, templars in castles, witches in the old town and so on, and are all combined with a hellish aesthetic, possessing at least some horrific quality.  Enemies generally possess a single ranged or melee attack, with the occasional opponent able to perform both.  Others possess a unique tactic/attribute, such as increased armor, or being able to use other enemies as shields.  The combination of enemy types and large variety of environments and guns prevent the action from ever becoming boring.

Most maps are large and complex but rarely confusing, designed so you can naturally intuit where to next travel.   A UI compass also directs you to the next check point and to any enemies that remain.

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Locations have zero relationship to the story and are the regular video game spots, such as graveyards, catacombs, warehouses, docks, an opera house and so on.  No information is provided for why you’re there – you are just dropped off at the start of the level and can only leave once you’ve reduced the inhabiting souls to just yourself.

As stereotypical and ‘video-game-y’ as maps are, they are still a blast to play.  Sure a Dock is boring, but a dock where you run from massively high crane to boat while exploding waves of enemies is not.  A military base is nothing new either, but one where a constant stream of turrets, tanks and ground troops have to be battled in a massively open environment cannot fail to provide fantastic intense action.

Also at 10 years old the game still looks very nice.  You may notice some block-y objects, but the majority of buildings, enemies, guns and bosses are dolled up with so much care and detail that I’m starting to think this game was a nightmare to run on 2005 hardware.

Painkiller isn’t ground breaking nor is there much in the way of innovation, however enormous amounts of attention has been put into each familiar FPS aspect.  None of the basic design – the ‘game making 101’ – is skipped or phoned in and everything comes together to make an impressively polished, fun package.

The expansion ‘Battle out of Hell’ continues this trend, adding 10 levels and is all round more polished and detailed.  Locations are slightly creepier too; the first level takes place in an orphanage full of undead children that need to be handled just like any other enemy – blown to bits.  It’s appropriately unsettling and genuinely creepy.  The developers put their design skills to good use and created an authentic horror setting and tone.

Other levels include a city where it literally rains zombies,  a demon infested carnival (roller coaster ride included), a coliseum, and other similar game-y setting.  All carry Painkiller’s fast action and madness but is even more refined.  New weapons are also included, and in general the expansion is just as fun as the original.

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However….

Aside from stupid plot and characters (one wears a towel ONLY), which at least has it’s charm, there are a few annoyances.

Boss encounters are disappointingly obnoxious, with many requiring tactics that are never used in any other part of the game and therefore difficult to intuit.  Others just required a massive injection of bullets while avoiding damage – but unfortunately involved an aspect of luck.

For example, The second to last boss encounter takes place on a multi-platform arena which collapses floor by floor.  Each drop would reduce my health considerably.  No matter how I prepared I could not avoid the damage.  A Youtube check later, it was apparent that it was impossible to transition unharmed.  You simply had to mitigate the damage.  This could result in a scenario whereby it was impossible to survive the drop to the next platform if you had already taken too much damage – necessitating a complete restart of the encounter.

The same video showed that the only way to avoid direct damage from the boss was by circle strafing – a tactic to which I had to resort as I could not find any other way to survive the boss attacks.  I find circle strafing to be more of an exploit than a genuine tactic (enemies aren’t programmed to attack in this way) but here it was the only way to avoid damage.  It became almost too efficient as the boss simply could not catch me throughout the entire fight.

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Other encounters had the mechanic whereby the boss was invincible until you performed a certain action (i.e  Shoot something specific).  The method to make them vulnerable was rarely clear and for most of these bosses I had to again look it up.  One particular boss required the bouncing back of it’s own projectiles to inflict damage.  One may say this is a very obvious, common boss tactic in games, but it was never once used in Painkiller to that point, so there was no reason to assume this would work in this particular fight.

Throughout the levels you can collect gold to spend on cards which can be used for a benefit such as a temporary increase in power, reduced damage etc… or are passive buff, such as pulling in nearby souls, having a higher HP etc…  Certain goals must be meet in game to purchase these cards. Goals that were prohibitively difficult.  For example, gathering a large amount of souls in the map – which turned out to be prohibitive to game play.  Collecting every soul means that every enemy needs to be killed in a place where the soul can be reached and collected before it expires – difficult to achieve while 30 other enemies are still attacking.

Too much effort was required for something that I was getting along fine without.  I barely used the 3 or 4 cards that I had manage to obtain.

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Recommended?  Yes, obviously.

You know, I’m starting to think I should organize these reviews so that the recommendation isn’t right after the criticism; it always feels like I’m recommending a rubbish game and have to begin the sentence with ‘aside from the above’.  Anyway…

Aside from the above criticisms I would totally recommend Painkiller:  Black Edition.  The original and expansion are professionally crafted and beautifully designed fun.  You’ll likely get frustrated in the boss fights but overall the game is an unapologetic blast with no pretense at being anything other than a visceral cathartic shooter.  It’s a game that is ultimately about shooting demons, so they made sure it was one of the best looking, and feeling games about shooting demons that they could create.