Painkiller came from out of nowhere at E3 2003 to blow more than a few PC shooter fans’ minds. The game had exquisite graphics, seemingly real-life physics, great ambient sound effects and more than enough weapons to fill two armories. Its presentation was perfect, and Painkiller seemed destined for instant fame. DailyGame, in fact, awarded it “Best Shooter of E3 2003,” and that was just one such honor awarded to a game nobody had even heard of prior to the show.
Now, almost a full year of development time later, Dreamcatcher has released the game for Windows, and somewhat surprisingly, every element has remained intact. The graphics will still test the horsepower of your video card, the physics will still boggle your mind with their accuracy, the sound effects will continue to immerse you in a demon-filled universe, and the weapons will undoubtedly still pique the interest of your gun-toting alter ego.
In fact, as much as Painkiller sneaks up on you, pounces from the dark and tears into your gaming psyche with all the subtly of a 200-foot-tall necromancer, there’s just one thing keeping the game from becoming a true classic: a sense of purpose. Painkiller tries desperately to tell a story, but the plot just doesn’t quite work as planned. Players get sufficient background, but there’s little to no character development, and the stages are thrown together in such a way that the “story,” as it were, is more of a side note between levels. What the game does as a shooter, it does incredibly well. But in a first-person- genre now accustomed to meaningful plots and substance, Painkiller is just a few years behind the times.
The story starts out simply enough. The main character, Daniel, and his wife have died in a car crash, and while the wife has gone on to The Great Beyond, Daniel is forced to struggle through purgatory trying to eliminate Satan’s top generals so he can “prove himself” and be reunited with his wife. With that backdrop, players are thrust into a cemetery to start slaughtering demons.
The gameplay in this first level doesn’t provide much of a training, per se, as much as it shows players what to expect from the rest of the game. Much like the classic PC shooters Quake and Doom, Painkiller follows the gameplay model of “enter room, kill everything in sight, move to the next room, lather, rinse and repeat.” This first-level cemetery plants the seeds for that gameplay, as fences magically sprout from the ground to block off the exits until all the undead enemies in that area have been dispatched. Quite literally, every subsequent level follows this same sectional pattern, with the exception of boss battles and mini-bosses.
There’s a difference between repetitive and boring, though, and Painkiller manages to keep players’ interest with a continual influx of challenging enemies and scenarios. For example, while one room in the asylum will close itself off until all the zombies and freaks have been eliminated, the way in which you eliminate them is completely up to you. You can use the shotgun, a favorite of many FPS fans; you can use the Painkiller, a blender-like weapon that slices and dices through foes; or you can use the stakegun, which shoots incendiary wooden stakes that, if you time it right, can peg two enemies together against a wall. Yes, the game’s realistic physics actually serve a gameplay purpose.
Likewise, the bosses themselves each provide a nice challenge, and in some instances incorporate minor puzzle-solving elements. For example, the first-level boss is impervious to gunshots, which is clearly an obstacle for such a straight-ahead shooting game. In this case, you simply need to remember the capabilities of the game’s physics engine and blast away at the wooden planks on the ceiling. This reveals the sun shining outside the cave, which will spill into the room and do away with the demonic creature once he walks through the ray of light. It’s a very minor “puzzle,” to be sure, but it keeps players from getting bogged down by the repetition of fire/reload/fire/reload. Later enemies offer more complex challenges, from learning and exploiting their weaknesses to finding the best strategy to defeat them in such a short amount of time that you unlock secret Tarot cards.
These Tarot cards are Painkiller’s primary unlockable item, and they make life much easier in the later stages of the game. Available before each level, these cards are activated by using the players have accumulated throughout the game by destroying various objects. Once activated, the cards give players a special ability or augmentation for the remainder of that level, be it an increase in the player’s maximum health or an extra life if the level proves too difficult (players normally get just one life, so checkpoints quickly become your friends).
The enemies are numerous and relentless early in the game, but they’re none to smart, which renders the tarot cards nearly useless for the first several levels. As players advance, that changes drastically, with swarms of enemies approaching from every direction, some even shooting projectiles from a distance. The bosses, too, become more challenging, requiring both a quick trigger finger and knowledge of the area’s obstacles and layout. Just remember that the physics engine allows for destructible environments, so crates and concrete columns can only protect you for so long.
You’ll notice I’ve not talked much about the story, aside from the pre-cemetery introduction. That’s because the game doesn’t talk much about the story, either. There are five basic levels in Painkiller, each divided into “chapters.” While most first-person shooters today would at least have a common theme to each level, the chapters that comprise each level in Painkiller are as disparate as the enemies within them, leaving the game feeling almost like a tech demo. Likewise, the story, which has slowly become an FPS staple since the days of Quake and Doom, is only told through brief movies between levels. Although the production value if these narratives is quite high, they never quite let players “connect” with the plight of the forlorn antihero who just wants to see his wife. It’s ironic and unfortunate that a game with so many technical bells and whistles omits such a basic component of videogames today. Good thing the gameplay itself is so addictive that you’ll hardly miss the story when you’re in mid-level.
Painkiller does its first-person-shooter thing so well, in fact, that it will make you forget all about the oft-delayed Doom 3. Translate that to the game’s online multiplayer options, and you have a shooter that will lead to late nights for many a PC-shooter fan. The pace is fast, the action is frantic, and the graphics are still, somehow, incredible even in multiplayer. What Painkiller won’t win for innovation it will more than make up for with its straight-ahead design. If mindless action is your cup of tea, Painkiller will give you the arsenal you need to blast that cup to pieces.
And if that cup-blasting metaphor could actually happen, this game’s graphics engine would allow it to do so. I have yet to play Far Cry, which I hear is gorgeous, but from what I’ve seen in Painkiller, there has yet to be another game for Windows that looks as good. From detailed character models and exquisite animations to bump-mapped levels and particle effects galore, there’s not a single thing missing graphically from this game. The framerate is also incredibly steady, even with dozens of particle-effect-flinging enemies flanking our hero from every direction. Granted, we reviewed the game on a powerful system (Pentium 4 2.8GHz CPU, 1GB RAM and a 256MB ATI Radeon 9600XT), but Painkiller still managed to amaze. Couple the graphics with an impressive Havok physics engine, and you’ve got a game that really has to be seen to be believed.
The sound effects are equally impressive, although the hard-rock soundtrack gets annoying after the first two chapters. The basic gameplay of “enter room, kill everything, enter next room, kill everything” continues uninterrupted from opening movie to closing cinematic, and each time a room fills with enemies, the same headbanging song plays until the last enemy is killed. In some respects it’s nice to have the aural cue that enemies are nearby, but the lack of musical diversity is a blemish on an otherwise multimedia-friendly game.
Yet I suppose “unfortunate blemish” is the name of the game with Painkiller. The shooter has outstanding graphics, addictive gameplay and solid multiplayer components, but it’s held back from becoming a true classic through its disappointing narrative and mediocre soundtrack. For a game that mimics Quake and Doom so well, it’s sad that those components aren’t just a bit better, because the rest of the elements fall neatly into place. Narratives and soundtracks didn’t used to make or break a PC shooter, and they don’t always do so today. But for today’s FPS fan, many of whom are looking for a bit more depth, Painkiller, sadly, isn’t going to be their cup of tea. As far as straightforward shooters go, it’s hard to top Painkiller. As far as immersive games go, however, our fearless game hero has a few rungs left to climb on Jacob’s ladder.
- Gameplay: 8.5
- Graphics: 9.5
- Sound: 8.2
- Replay: 8.5
- Overall: 8.6
- Straightforward gameplay, but done very well.
— Jonas Allen