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Painkiller Review

By Jeff Buckland, 4/19/2004

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2004 promises to deliver many great first person shooters. We've already check out excellent games like Unreal Tournament 2004 and Far Cry; highly-anticipated favorites like Half-Life 2 and DOOM 3 are still on the way. Despite these big-name titles, a few smaller game developers are pushing forward with their own unique takes on the FPS genre. One of these companies is People Can Fly - with Painkiller they promise great graphics, highly visceral and frantic action, and some old-school gameplay that'll remind everyone of the Quake days.

Painkiller uses a custom engine that can deliver a ton of polygons as well as excellent textures at great speeds. There are a few advanced pixel shader effects that show up when you are hit or when you turn into a demon, but the more impressive stuff has to do with the art and animations. Add on, though, the speed of the game and the consistency of its frame rate, and this game starts to look much better than the sum of its parts.

While playing online, I did notice that a low ping is pretty much a requirement for making Painkiller really fun. The client side prediction didn't seem so great, so anything over a 50ms ping just didn't feel right. When I did find servers with a nice ping, though, it was a really fun, unique experience compared to today's slow-paced multiplayer shooters.

Other than a copy protection issue that's already been fixed in a patch, I found basically no major bugs in Painkiller. The game ran great on my Athlon, Pentium 4, and my Centrino-based laptop as long as I didn't try and jack up the resolution too much.

People Can Fly are obvious fans of Quake. I can tell this by a few basic things in Painkiller that I haven't seen in first person shooters in a couple of years now. First, switching weapons is absolutely instant. Next, the game allows you to "bunny hop" to gain speed, mimicking Quake 2's strafe jumping while simplifying it a bit for the masses.

The game's multiplayer interface was decent, but dedicated players will probably still find some good reasons to use GameSpy, All-Seeing Eye, or any of the other server browser tools. One other unique aspect of Painkiller is its tarot cards system, where you can unlock and use specific cards to get special abilities for future levels. The interface that allows you to pick these cards seemed a bit convoluted at first, but I figured it out before long.

What impresses me most about Painkiller's graphics is the art. While the game shows a few brilliant moments as far as architecture or monster design, the textures are where the game shines graphically. Each level has a vastly different theme from the previous one, although most of the enemy types you come across carry across several levels. Still, People Can Fly did an excellent job separating each level and making each one feel very distinct. The levels span various ages in human history as well, and they're all almost equally good.

The enemies will come at you in droves, much like the Serious Sam games. The best part is that they look great, even when there are 25 of them on screen at once. The animations for the monsters are excellent - especially the grisly death scenes you can orchestrate with various explosive weapons.

The game includes various cutscenes to tell the story, but it's pretty much completely forgettable and the cutscenes themselves are not particularly well-done either. You'll miss very little if you skip every cutscene in the game, as it has little to do with the action.

Painkiller takes what is becoming a formula for the "frantic first person shooter" sub-genre and adds onto it in several ways. Much like you'd expect, you'll blast through hordes of enemies in one large area only to move on to the next area to do the same thing. The bosses are absolutely massive, but here, you'll need to figure out a specific trick to beat them - this is the closest we see to puzzles in the whole game. Where Painkiller really breaks new ground is in its tarot cards system, where a special goal must be attained to unlock these cards. You can then purchase the cards with the money you've picked up throughout the levels - and you'll likely need to use these to gain access to other cards in the later maps.

The combat is very fast, and you can easily get overrun by monsters if you get lazy. You'll need to think quickly, change weapons when appropriate, and leave yourself an escape if you start to get surrounded. Combine this with a spattering of ranged attackers, and this game is far from brainless. Granted, the standard difficulty, "Insomnia", is a tad easy for veteran FPS players, but there are two more difficulties past that to try as well. None of the AI is particularly engaging, as it's the situations and placements of the monsters that makes each encounter interesting.

Each of the game's levels is totally unique, but the order you do them in seems to have no bearing on the previous level or to the game's actual story. Still, they're great - highlights include a pretty creepy asylum, a ninja-filled opera house, and a finale level that I'll never, ever forget. It'll go down in shooter history as one of the most imaginative and unique levels in any action game.

Amongst all the visceral action, Painkiller makes great use of the Havoc physics engine to literally throw things around. Every monster dies in a unique way because of this - unless, of course, you make it just outright explode. It makes the combat very satisfying, and it means that the next horde of monsters are probably going to die very differently than the last horde. I can now say that any "frantic FPS" in the future better have some ragdoll physics at least as good as this, because it's a seemingly minor thing that really does add a lot to the gameplay.

One unique idea present in Painkiller is the combination of two weapons into one. Instead of ten weapons (which is pretty standard for FPS games) you get five, and each weapon has an alternate fire that's very different from the normal attack. For example, the stake launcher doubles as a grenade launcher; the shotgun also works as a freeze gun; and the rocket launcher's alt-fire is a chaingun. It sounds a bit goofy, but it actually works nicely, as it basically means that the player gets to choose which two weapons to have equipped at any one time. Certain types of monsters are weak to specific weapons, so it also means you will have to switch often. On top of that, your ammo for any one gun isn't going to hold out all game, either.

There are a few special touches present, like the "souls" that you can collect from any monster corpse. Each one will return a single point of health to you, and if you collect enough of them, you will temporarily turn into an invincible demon that can kill anything with a single shot and can see enemies in blood red.

The biggest thing I see missing from Painkiller is a cooperative multiplayer mode. The Serious Sam games had it, and it was a blast, but it's a shame that People Can Fly decided not to bother here. The multiplayer modes we do get are a Quake-style deathmatch or team deathmatch, "Voosh" (where everyone has to use the same weapon which will change occasionally), "Light Bearer", and "People Can Fly" where you can jump really high and can only hurt people in mid-air. I found the non-standard modes to be gimmicky and boring after a few games, and I figure that most servers are likely to stick with the standard matches. As it is, I just don't see the community taking off with this game to give it real staying power. There are just too many great multiplayer-oriented FPS titles out recently, and this is no UT2K4 when it comes to variety in online play.

I guess I should talk a bit about the story. You play as Daniel Garner, who died along with his wife in a car crash years ago. You're stuck in Purgatory, though, and are finally offered a chance to get to Heaven if you can kill off four generals under Lucifer's command. But the game's huge range of settings have little to do with the story, and it feels like it was tacked on at the last moment so that people couldn't complain that there was no story at all. Well, fine, but this story kind of sucks and it won't fool anyone; luckily, the gameplay is good enough and the game has enough replay value to make it worth the effort anyway.

The voice acting in the cutscenes is low-to-average quality for games, and that standard is already pretty low in my opinion. Of course, this can be forgiven as long as the sound and music are great during the action. Well, we get one out of two, as the sound effects are excellent. The monsters are unique, and the weapons are satisfying to fire off.

Yes, the problem is with the music. Painkiller includes atrocious, fake-sounding heavy metal that kicks in whenever a boatload of monsters is on the way towards you, and it does a great job killing any suspense that the level designers have carefully constructed. Seriously, do yourself a favor if you buy Painkiller and go directly to the options to axe the music.

Painkiller delivers satisfying gameplay, excellent visuals, and a visceral feel that veteran FPS players will feel right at home with. I detest the music as well as the lack of cooperative gameplay, but the replay value and other multiplayer modes are almost enough to make up for these issues. If you're looking for some fast-paced action without the complication of a plot, Painkiller's for you.

Overall: 89%



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