And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Let's break this up into a traditional structure, shall we?
Graphics & Sound:
Farcry's recent visual accomplishments have set a new bar by which FPS games demand to be judged, and while it's not to that level of optical splendor, Painkiller holds its own nicely. It is not nearly so bright and colorful as a game like Farcry or even Unreal Tournament 2004, invoking instead the palette of id's legacy. Painkiller reminds me in many ways of an updated and enhanced Quake with its pervading gothic texture scheme, balls-to-the-wall gameplay, and its voluminous infatuation with shades of brown and gray. Painkiller also passes the classic FPS crate test meaning that there are crates and lots of them. Most are destructible and filled with golden coins which serve virtually no purpose except to make pleasant jingling noises and increase the number of things you can collect, but we'll get to that in discussion of the gameplay.
Painkiller does a good job of creating very large playscapes, conjuring alternating senses of freedom outdoors and confinement indoors. There's very little pop-up given the often impressive draw distances. The enemies are nicely detailed and vary widely across the different chapters and landscapes. The engine is also capable of drawing a significant number of enemies at any given time often leaving you in grand courtyards or cathedrals surrounded by a dozen or more enemies bent on destruction. With my GeForce 4 ti4400 I usually enjoyed a smooth framerate, however on some of the larger levels if surrounded by a cadre of baddies, I'd experience brief but notable slowdown. As it stands, Painkiller is a little inconsistent on performance depending on the size of the level, the number of enemies, and the number of items being blown up, rolled down hills, tossed rag-doll into the air, or poofing loose the mortal coil. At its worst, Painkiller could bring my admittedly mid-range system to its knees, though it was not common.
Most notable, however, are the epic sized monsters you'll occasionally encounter throughout the game. Including the mammoth boss at the ends of each chapter, there are several creatures that loom over you at breathtaking proportions. There's an unique gaming quality to fighting a demon ten, twenty, or a hundred times the size of your character; a creature that can cover what seems a safe distance in two great strides. Painkiller is at its best when you find yourself looking up and up at your staggering enemy.
As for the sound, it's there, it works, it's immersive and thick enough for the situation. I really only want to talk about sound when it fails me in some way, and that's not the case here. Monsters roar, guns fire, and rockets blow up with heavy thumps; you can't ask for much more. The only notable point is that the music provides a flawless cue to let you know when there are monsters nearby, the moment it switches back to ambient tonal sounds, you know it's time to move on.
Well, that's not entirely true. There is a story, but it is virtually unrelated to the game. As an analogy, you could presumably pick up a book. Now, read the prologue to that book. After finishing the prologue play through the first chapter of Painkiller. After completing that, instead of watching the cutscene to follow, go read chapter 1 of the book. Now play the next series of Painkiller levels and proceed in that fashion throughout the game. My point being that the book you're reading – even if it's a book about the history of the Cajuns – is about as connected to the gameplay as the cutscenes between game chapters. Additionally, there are no significant story elements told through the gameplay, nothing you actually collect or pursue that forwards the presumed story.
Every level is broken up into a series of enemies. You begin a level, move forward til you run into bad guys, kill bad guys until cued to move toward a checkpoint, and once crossing that checkpoint (usually a door that has magically opened for reasons unknown) move on to the next wave of enemies. There is no world interaction, no use function, no inventory, no real point to any of the levels aside from progressing through the linear checkpoints from beginning to end. You never restore power to open a door, turn steam valves, crack computer codes, or even find an ever clichÃƒÂ© key. It's this simple, kill all the bad guys and you can move on.
The cutscenes do give some justification by way of story for your actions, though it's perfunctory best. You are Daniel Garner – Random Badass #4747 – who begins the story dying, along with your wife Catherine, in a predictably fiery car wreck. Sent, for reasons beyond your understanding, to purgatory, you are eventually given a chance at redemption and ascension to join the presumably saintly Catherine in heaven. However, to reach that end you must do battle with the mobilized forces of Satan and kill his gargantuan generals. It's enough to put a shotgun in your hand and unspeakable evil in your path. Along the way you meet up with a virtually bare-breasted woman with a mysterious past named – wait for it - Eve. Yeah, you'll never crack her secret.
Listen, the story is barely there and doesn't connect the gameplay dots anyway. If you're looking for deep philosophical or theological narrative then keep moving. Painkiller just wants to get to the part where you shoot hell-demons with guns.
Gameplay (The Part Where You Shoot Hell-Demons With Guns)
It's fun. For all the things I can say about Painkiller that aren't quite up to snuff with the modern discerning gamer, they get it right where getting it right counts. If you're going to be a game that's all about blowing up fleshy evil, then blowing them up should be a pretty good time. And, it is.
AI? Forget about AI. Creatures go poof and make a b-line toward your position. Along the way, if they can, they will shoot you and then run at you some more. If you have the room to move, you could form a demonic conga line of angry hell-henchmen, and often enough that's fun to do just so you can shoot a rocket at their feet.
You are given five weapons and a demon mode put at your offensive disposal. Each weapon has a primary and a secondary mode along with a combo. The Painkiller is a melee weapon in its primary mode – imagine the business end of a blender – and can be used as a tripwire laser in secondary. The shotgun primarily does what shotguns do best, but also fires freeze rounds in secondary mode. Before you ask why the shotgun has freeze rounds as secondary mode, you should wonder why the stakegun also fires grenades. I don't think this stuff is actually supposed to make sense. The rocket launcher also acts as a chaingun, and finally the Electrodriver either fires shurikens or acts as the Lightning Gun from Quake. Finally, as you kill enemies they leave their soul behind to collect. Collect enough and you enter demon mode where you are invulnerable to normal attacks, and fold reality around your enemies to send them into moist pieces.
While each weapon has its own certain appeal, the stake gun takes most advantage of the Havoc rag-doll physics and can be used with great pleasure to stake your enemies to ceilings, floors, walls, or the ever pervasive crate.
The game's pace is always frenetic, and one good that can be said of a lack of story, scripted events, or actual interaction with the world is that you won't spend a lot of time wandering through half-empty levels hunting for the next item. Weapon fire is a constant, with near inexhaustible enemies assailing you in swarm after swarm. There are no alternatives as you drive inexorably down a single-minded path. There are no stealth missions, no alternate ways through a level, no option but to fire your weapon until it runs out of ammo, and then switch to another gun. I can't overemphasize how very much a game of pure unadulterated action this is. You shouldn't load it up with any other notions.
Finally you can unlock tarot cards of varying strength and functionality by finishing each level under preset conditions ways. For some levels it's as easy as killing all the monsters or maintain a certain level of health, or as difficult as finding all the secret crannies in a level or using a certain weapon exclusively. Each tarot card takes a certain number of coins to put in play, usually based on how powerful a card they are, and once placed Gold Cards – the more common and easily achieved cards – work for a brief time while Black Cards give their enhancement throughout the level. This lends some replayability to the game, particularly for those compulsive obsessives who simply must collect anything that can be collected. Additionally, there are four degrees of difficulty with certain game levels or alternate endings only available for those of substantial fortitude.
It's there, but it's nothing more than variations on the theme deathmatch. Painkiller, as should be mantra by now, brings nothing new or even particularly deep to the table. Unfortunately, it's not even particularly fun in this case, which is an excuse that can at least be made for the single-player experience. On top of that, if you're hoping to pick up a multiplayer map bring some friends. Even at primetime there aren't many reliable servers on which to find a game.
Painkiller is a simplistic game by today's standards, but I'm not sure that's all bad. I have mixed emotions about this game, admitting at one turn that it falls flat in many gaming areas I'd normally consider crucial: plot, continuity, scripted events, creating an interactive world, enemy AI, and ultimately having a sense of cohesiveness. In the end, Painkiller is twenty some-odd unconnected levels of shotgun pumping mayhem with no real sense of purpose beyond wreaking havoc. And yet, it is at turns strangely compelling and wickedly fun. It presents a satisfying challenge not through any clever thought process but through sheer volume and relentless carnage. It truly harkens back to Quake, and more recently Serious Sam, as a shooter without pretense and without purpose, a bloody tour through visions, both figuratively and literally, of hell.
If you're looking for a serious or thoughtful action game, steer clear of Painkiller. If you're looking for deep multiplayer options then put Painkiller back on the shelf. If you want some kind of story to engage you, then literally run screaming from Painkiller. But if you think shooting hell-demons is always a fundamentally sound concept for fun, then you might need to give this one a look.
In the end, I just don't know that there's enough there to recommend this game, particularly considering the competition of late. It has its high point, but it lacks Serious Sam's price point. Painkiller is fine, even good at times, but you can find a better game easily for the same price.