Painkiller: Hell & Damnation|
I was a huge fan of the original Painkiller that released back in 2004. Even then the game was ahead of its time in its ability to churn out some benchmark-quality visuals that would tax the top-end PC’s and video cards not to mention provide a nightmarish look at hellish level and creature designs. Now, with eight years of technological advancement, a new engine, and a new developer at the helm, Painkiller: Hell & Damnation gives a new generation of gamers a chance to experience the insanity of Painkiller and veteran gamers a chance to relive the nightmare.
Being a reboot, those with good memories will likely remember the game, or at least certain parts, but there is still enough new material and the graphics have been impressively enhanced to the point where I can wholeheartedly recommend a second trip to hell. In a day where FPS games have become quite formulaic in their rules and style of play, Painkiller hearkens back to the retro days of the genre where enemies come at you by the hundreds and your health doesn’t regen when you stop fighting. The very nature of your quest demands that you collect 7 legions (7,000) souls for the Grim Reaper – that’s a lot of killing for any video game.
Story is secondary in a game like Painkiller, but there is a feeble attempt to tie the 14 levels of bloodletting together with a plot. You play as Daniel Garner, killed in a car crash along your wife and sentenced to eternity in Purgatory, that is, until you make a deal with Death to be reunited with your true love, Catherine. Why weren’t you allowed into Heaven? Why does God need a hitman? How many shotgun rounds does it take to kill the devil? These and other questions might just be answered if you have the skills and twitch reflexes required to complete Death's challenge.
Painkiller is a balls-out run (usually backwards) and gun shooter spawned from the classics like Doom, Heretic, and Hexen, but with overwhelming numbers and overbearing enemy AI combined with the arena-style level design, the game often ends up playing and feeling like "Serious Sam Goes to Hell". You know the routine; enter a room, door slams shut, heavy metal music starts, and streams of enemies pour from multiple spawn points and attack. It’s all about maintaining your distance as you cycle through an eclectic assortment of weaponry choosing the best weapon for the immediate threat, all the while running around resupplying your ammo, health and armor. You know the threat is over (at least for a few seconds) when the music subsides and the red smoking pentagram checkpoint appears.
You’ll repeat this process throughout all the levels as you kill hundreds of enemies, smash everything that is destructible in the environments, and collect gold coins and souls. Each level has a score card that you can bring up to check your progress as well as the requirements for earning up to two Tarot cards per level. The implementation of the Tarot cards is probably the most ingenious device ever added to a twitch-shooter such as this. Earning cards requires you to finish a level while meeting certain objectives or restrictions. You might have to kill all monsters, smash all breakable objects, find all secrets, or beat a boss within a certain time limit. Once you earn a card it is added to your deck. There are 24 possible cards you can collect throughout the entire game, but you may only have five of them activated at any time.
Cards come in Silver and Gold. Silver cards give you permanent enhancements during the entire level while Gold cards give you a once-per-level use for a short duration. You can pre-load up to three gold cards in your “hand” but when you activate the cards all of them are activated at the same time. This encourages a bit of strategy in picking a good combination of cards that complement each other and the particular level you are playing. Placing a card in the active “hand” costs a significant amount of gold, but you are refunded half the amount when you return the card to the deck. This deters casual card exchanges and makes you “think”.
In addition to being just another collectible item, Souls also serve another important purpose. When you collect enough of them your character will temporarily morph into a powerful demon. During this short time the screen goes into a photonegative mode where everything is black and white and enemies are bright red. You are invulnerable during this time and a single shot decimates any who stand before you. They are literally ripped to pieces with parts flying all over the room.
While the enemy AI adheres to the “mob mentality” there are some impressive displays of simulated intelligence. Large groups of enemies will often break up and try to surround you. Various enemy types will combine their efforts. Snipers will take shots at you from above while closer targets distract you. Don’t be surprised to see rival monsters fighting each other at times. The enemy has uncanny accuracy but nothing a little nimble dodging can’t avoid. As with most games of this type, circle-strafe is your best tactic, at least until you’re surrounded. For some reason, the game does not play that well with a gamepad, and for the second time in over a year I’ve had to go back to using a mouse and keyboard. Incidentally, the “other” game was Serious Sam 3, which is pretty much identical in style and pacing to Painkiller.
Combat is great fun thanks to the devastating selection of well-balanced weaponry with unique and multiple firing modes. For example, your primary weapon, the Painkiller is a whirling blade of death that is great for mangling enemies up close and personal. The secondary fire shoots out a bladed hook that can yank an enemy towards you where you can finish them off. You can also lodge the hook into a wall and create a beam of deadly energy that rips through enemies. The “third” fire mode for the Painkiller weapon is a combination of spinning the blade with the primary fire then pressing secondary fire to launch a boomerang-style spinning blade that rips through enemies or ignites barrels or kegs before returning.
Once you complete, or get tired of trying to complete the campaign mode you can check out a local co-op campaign mode – this will require someone to use a controller – as well as some intense PvP and PvE multiplayer modes. At the time of this review there wasn’t a lot of online activity, but as word spreads this game should really start to flourish online. The level designs and game modes are incredibly original and great fun.
The new enhanced graphics offer much greater texture details in creatures and the sprawling levels. The boss levels can only be described as "epic" with giant creatures that tower above you like skyscrapers. Even mid-level bosses are impressively huge. Then you have creepy puppet guys with glowing eyes, a Pinocchio doll that will stab you with his "growing nose", demonic clowns, undead orphans that burst into flames, skeletons, demon knights, old hags that burst into a murder of crows when killed, and that's just a few of the 30 nightmarish creatures waiting to attack every time that heavy metal theme music kicks in. When not in combat you can expect plenty of chilling environmental sounds and expertly placed 3D sound effects like hisses, chants, moans, and other sounds to keep you on the edge or your seat and sanity.
Painkiller is an excellent mix of intense first person shooting combined with a sophisticated risk-reward system that actually integrates into the gameplay. The Tarot cards are pure genius and add a whole new tactical level to the genre, and even the vanishing souls will have you considering the best way to approach target-rich environments. With killer weapons, frightening monsters, massive levels, and a bleeding edge audio-visual package, this is hardcore demonic action at its finest. Painkiller: Hell & Damnation is a fantastic fresh look at a classic title. It set the bar in 2004 and easily does so again nearly a decade later.