Painkiller is a first-person shooter set in the sinister world of gothic horror. As the mercenary known as Painkiller, players are charged with the task of eliminating the undead in whatever lair, tomb, or residence they may be lurking in. Dressed in a black overcoat and wearing sunglasses to protect himself from the harsh glare of sunlight, Painkiller has earned a reputation for his no-nonsense approach to demon hunting. Yet he also hides a secret: a pact with a demon has granted him special powers at the expense of his humanity.
Painkiller must fight his way past hordes of undead creatures while freeing whatever is left of their souls. With every 100 souls collected, Painkiller can transform into a ghastly creature himself, using its physical strength and ferocity to engage multiple demons at once. Players will also have at their disposal an arsenal of ranged weapons, all of which feature primary and secondary attacks. Painkiller uses the Havok physics engine (Thief III, Deus Ex: Invisible War) for its interactive 3D environments and details such as moving clothes, rippling water, and crumbling walls.
At first glance, the prospects for Painkiller do not look promising. It's a first-person shooter published by Dreamcatcher, a company whose previous attempt to break into the action genre was the mediocre (and that's being charitable) Gore. Painkiller was created by People Can Fly, a developer in Warsaw whose claim to fame is the unremarkable X-Com clone called Odium. Throw in some screenshots of skeletons in dungeons being shot with shotguns. List a few bullet points about advanced physics and polygon counts. See the blandly handsome hero's sneering unshaven mug featured on the box cover as if it were an ad for Gillette's new four-bladed razor. Let your eyes glaze over....
But when you actually play the game, you'll realize everything you know about the gaming industry can be wrong. Who'd have thought that this combination would be able to sum up everything we've learned about first-person shooters since DOOM and wrap it into in a tightly wound, intricately crafted, gut busting, giggle inducing, splattering squib of undead guts and shrewd level design and thwacking wooden stakes and clanking doors and scattered explodables and slick water/fire/lighting effects and where-the-hell-is-the-last-secret-area and isn't that end-of-level satanic Gregorian riff one of the sweetest you-can-breathe-now sounds you've ever heard?
Wait, wait. Let's back up. At the most superficial level, Painkiller is simply an old-school shooter. It's you against an army of demons, one of the oldest stories in the book: they've got the numbers, and you've got the firepower. There's nary a sign of anything resembling a puzzle (with the exception of a few bosses) and you'll never have to wander because there's an arrow at the top of the screen pointing the way. It's a shooter in the purest and most unadulterated sense of the word.
But this only begins to describe Painkiller. Perhaps what's most amazing is that it plays like the work of a seasoned developer with a rare grasp on atmosphere and tone, a rock-solid set of technologies, and sophisticated ideas about game design.
Don't be fooled by the mercifully minimal pretensions towards storytelling. The story is very basic, allowing the narrative to focus on action set pieces in which you're the star, a prime mover with a big gun. Painkiller is a desultory journey through an infernal limbo, both picaresque and picturesque, moving dreamlike from an opera house to a suspension bridge to a military base, for no good reason other than the fact that they make for cool levels.
One cathedral has minarets, another has flying buttresses, and yet another has some sort of funky Babylonian ziggurat vibe. There are demon ninjas, robed monks, and drunken sailors belching poisonous vapors. A ghost soars through the walls of an insane asylum, zombies in gas masks guard a UFO, and skull-headed bikers loiter among Venetian canals. It's as disjointed as it sounds, but the sheer randomness is covered in a consistently creepy and unsettling tone that hasn't been done this well since Monolith's first Blood. In ways, it resembles Serious Sam, but without the bright colors and breezy gameplay. Serious Sam was Looney Tunes. Painkiller is Lovecraft.
Part of what makes Painkiller work so well is how it keeps unveiling little surprises, carefully doling them out over the course of the game. By way of a small example, there's a level near the end with crows flying around. When you kill someone, the crows descend on the corpse and start picking at it. It's a simple trick that makes great use of the ragdoll physics, but like everything else in Painkiller's bag of tricks, it's carefully placed. People Can Fly keeps this going from the simple graveyard opening all the way to a mind-bending timeless finale, which is set in one of the most memorable levels you'll ever see in a first-person shooter. So many games seem to run out of steam long before they're over, but Painkiller keeps up a consistent and energetic sense of discovery throughout.
The technology is also a major part of what makes Painkiller work. It's an original, muscular engine, capable of vast spectacular levels. If you see a tower in the distance, you can rest assured that it's a physical object and that you're probably going to reach the top of it before the level is over. What's more, you'll be able to look down and see the spot where you started. Along the way, the physics do a splendid job of adding detail without drawing focus. You won't find the kind of nuance or minutiae you get in Far Cry or Max Payne, but there is an acceptable compromise between flavor and interactivity. There are enough breakables to keep you busy if you're into that kind of thing, but it doesn't compromise the size and expanse of the levels.
The ragdoll bodies are a big selling point, whether they're being hit by crows' beaks or rocket blasts. Bodies jerk and jangle and spin convincingly, splattering and tumbling and spewing blood. And there's even a sense that because these are zombies and demons, it's not really in bad taste to delight in the way the stakes pin them to the wall so they dangle by their heads. At a time when so many first-person shooters are actually about shooting persons -- even if they are criminals or enemy soldiers -- it's nice to get to enjoy some guiltless ragdoll physics.
The monsters are another significant part of what makes Painkiller work. Any game developer worth his salt knows that good A.I. is about personality. An enemy that can always get a headshot isn't good A.I.; it's simply ruthless. But Painkiller doesn't resort to cheap tricks. Instead, it presents creatures with specific behaviors and vivid animations that make them all the more gratifying to shoot, stab, and mutilate. You learn to time your shots to the moment a leaping ninja lands. You can use the stake gun to leisurely pick off shambling flesh-tossing zombies. The bigger guys are great for their tendency to get sidetracked by retaliating against the littler guys who might accidentally smack them. The armless biting skeletons are perfect for a bone-rattling scramble with your rod of spinning blades.
In fact, there's a shrewd synergy between the monsters and the weapons. This is arguably what gives Painkiller the bulk of its personality: the point where the bullet meets the bone, so to speak. Any criticism that Painkiller features only five weapons is ridiculous, since any one of these five weapons is more carefully thought out than a dozen guns from a typical first-person shooter. All five weapons have at least two attacks, sometimes more considering how they can be used for some clever combos.
To its credit, People Can Fly has drawn from console games for the structure of the single-player game, which involves collectibles and locked content. You can collect souls from killed creatures to occasionally morph into an indestructible colorblind demon that "smells" monsters in bright red. Furthermore, each level has a bonus goal that allows you to unlock a tarot card. These cards change the way the game plays. Some are minor tweaks, but others have a dramatic effect, such as slowing time or making monsters fight each other. You activate cards by spending the gold you find on each level, and gathering gold and unlocking cards give you an incentive to replay levels. In fact, once you've finished the game, there are new cards and even a new level if you replay at a harder level. Painkiller is one of those rare games that doesn't end when you've finished it.
As a multiplayer game, it's not so easy to appreciate Painkiller, which has been upstaged by more sophisticated recent fare such as Unreal Tournament 2004. It's clearly a Quake throwback, built to be fast and sleek for advanced players. There are some nice tricks in the way the weapons interact, but unless you like the sort of frantic deathmatching that went out of vogue with Quake III, Painkiller's multiplayer is going to feel a bit anemic. In fact, the typical server seems to have one or two guys who are clearly Quake vets, with another half-dozen players serving as cannon fodder. Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with catering to a niche audience, but the almost universal appeal of Painkiller's single-player game isn't present in its multiplayer support.
Unlike some recent first-person shooters, there's more than enough game in Painkiller even if you never go online. It may be another episode in the proud tradition of simply blowing stuff up, but it's as glorious and accomplished an episode as you could ever hope for.
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