If an easy comparison could be made between film and game, Painkiller falls into the slasher-horror genre. It has wanton violence and a plethora of monsters that are pilfered from every satanic verse, medieval horror and book of the dead written. While it does not feature a tragic plot, deep characterizations or the use of psychological machinations to instill fear, it does use copious amounts of gore, violence and the occult to produce the sort of sheer terror that works and works well.
As a game, Painkiller is actually quite simple. It does not stray too far from the id Software formula. No, I am not talking about the highly evolved sport formula of Quake III Arena but the original Doom titles would serve as inspiration for the style and pacing that we see here. The monsters come in dramatic waves usually heralded by a screech or the thud of a metal door closing behind you. The action becomes a rhythmic series of firing and switching weapons like the skill set I was able to develop with the playing of Serious Sam.
There are only five muscular looking weapons in Painkiller that are far from ergonomic. There are a variety of power-ups that augment your arsenal, including one that turns you into a hyperactive demon with heightened speed and damage, but the real skill is how to manipulate the five basic weapons to fight off dozens of enemies. Each weapon comes with primary and alternative fire and every weapon is useful. Even the lowly melee weapon (painkiller) can be used in multiple ways: as a rotating can-opener to slice and dice way through crowds, as a sort of boomerang, and it has the ability to shoot forth, impale through multiple opponents and grab an unfortunate soul towards you. There is the usual rocket launcher, shotgun and grenade repertoire. However, the wooden stake quickly became a favorite of mine. Slow to reload, it nevertheless makes a devastating impact on its victims. Through its kinetic force, you can impale and literally hang someone on the side of a wall; although it’s a pity for performance issues the bodies quickly disappear after awhile.
The levels never approach the large swaths of land like Serious Sam does. They do follow the same formula though. That is, any and every motif the artists decide on is included. The designers here are more focused on tight enclosed spaces and long corridors. The result is a clever set of small arena spaces to do battle in. With monsters typically coming from all sides, there are plenty of moments where you will find yourself backing up towards a wall or strolling innocently into a door that shuts behind you and the light goes dark.
The mechanics of the game are quite good. The action is enjoyable and the set battle pieces never overstay their welcome. They are neither too long nor short. Typically, most of the levels end with a ‘boss’ type character at the end to spice things up.
The true pièce de résistance has to go to the artists and the mood set out by their artwork. The work is realized by an excellent graphics engine that appears to display everything perfectly not only in standstill mode, but also when things are in action. Splash damage does more than simply damage foes. They have kinetic force that can repel the enemy. Even the minute bullets from the chaingun can be used to push enemies back. Stone columns will fall on unsuspecting monsters if you aim at their fragile base. Skeptics will say that these things have been done before, but what about this: dislodging an explosive barrel that rolls down a set of stairs, across a bunch of oncoming enemies and then shooting it to create a domino effect of explosions. Scenarios like these often play out like an action movie.
Besides the functional aspect, the visuals look great from an aesthetic perspective. Regardless of the many backdrops, they all share one common earthy type look, a big difference from the somewhat cheery and bright environments of Serious Sam. Audio sound effects are crisp and the surround positioning can sometimes give you a terrific jolt.
There are plenty of levels in the single player campaign to go through.
None really expand on the initial story of the hapless man who must do battle with demons in order to escape purgatory. It says the protagonist died from a car accident but judging from the amount of things he has to do in purgatory it almost seems like he ran over several camps full of innocent women and children in order to justify this amount of repentance.
Vis-à-vis difficulty, most first person shooter fans will be able to go through the campaign with ease. Some of the bosses have weaknesses that will take some trial and error to figure out (usually by shooting every which way until you find something). And while the levels themselves are segregated by dense checkpoints, sometimes you’ll find yourself at a loss for what to do. Most likely, it’s because you missed some monster that got stuck in a corner or behind a pillar. But otherwise, the only difficulties will be when you don’t know what to do and for the most part, the design is made to keep you moving through the game.
Taking a page from console products, the developers also offer some specific challenges that allow you to gain tarot cards. These cards provide some bonus effects (increased damage, movement rates, etc.) that can be carried forward into different levels. However, Painkiller can be completed without touching the tarot portion at all.
Customary with first person shooter titles, a deathmatch multiplayer component is present. The pace that Painkiller runs at reminds me a lot of Daikatana, although Painkiller is much better than it in terms of weapons. Up to sixteen players are supported in a variety of competitive modes. Sadly, there is no co-operative component and the maps are tailored towards arena style combat; not the big expansive (almost exploratory) lands that you see in Electronic Arts’ Battlefield series or Atari’s Unreal franchise.
Despite these shortcomings, Painkiller slices and dices its own niche in front of formidable competition in 2004. This title is pure unadulterated action, a great adrenaline run. Its staying power will rest on how fleshed out the multiplayer can be and whether there are any new maps, levels, modifications or expansion packs in store. Judging from the good fundamentals shown here, I wouldn’t be surprised if some or all of what I mentioned is available for Painkiller fans one year from now.