Painkiller: Hell & Damnation Review
I was sure I'd be the ideal audience for Painkiller: Hell & Damnation, the just-released remake of the frantic, demon-infested 2004 first person shooter. I loved playing the original, I still enjoy old-school FPS games in at least small-to-medium doses, and after seeing the success of a similar game's revival - I'm talking about Serious Sam 3: BFE here - I thought it'd be difficult not to love a return to Painkiller.
Unfortunately, that's just not the case. Polish studio The Farm 51 set out to redo the graphics primarily, and they tried not to change the feel or action of the original game too much. The end result is that this remake's biggest feature is a nice facelift, but not enough was done to bring the game into the modern era. The fast-paced battles with dozens of enemies at once are certainly back, along with the classic weapons and one major new one, but we get the same small, claustrophobic areas to fight in that we had in 2004 along with limited enemy selections that don't ask for much in the way of tactics when dealing with the enemies all at once. These areas often even have obstacles in them that make the tried-and-true tactic of running backwards and holding the fire button down a little more difficult, and you'll often be trapped in one or two rooms and forced to kill every enemy before you can move on, then rinse and repeat.
You'll stock up on piles of ammo and to maximize your game, you'll have to bust open barrels and chests for money to use your cards. You'll be collecting souls from enemy corpses to regenerate health and eventually make a super-powerful demonic transformation, but one of the frustrating things about the original Painkiller was that you had to wait for an enemy corpse to spend a few seconds lying there before you can collect its soul. And for some reason, the developers left that in this time; it really kills the fast pace of the game unless you just ignore the souls and move on.
The constricting level design and overall small-ish feel does make for a more straightforward game that's hard to get lost in, but it also means that the combat becomes limited too often, and the creators seemed to populate most encounters with only one or two enemy types at any one time, just piling them on in the dozens without a lot of variation. Often, the more interesting tactics come when you've got to deal with three or four distinct enemy types, each with distinct attack patterns, but Painkiller HD doesn't do that nearly often enough.
One major innovation is the two-player cooperative action over a LAN or Steam-based multiplayer, but right off the bat, it feels like a mismatch for this kind of game. With the tight level design and the way enemies often only have to walk a few steps to jump into the herd of monsters chasing you, there's not enough room to make cooperative play fun; it just highlights the problems with the single player and almost makes them worse, especially since you'll then also be colliding with another player while running backwards. Cooperative action games with tons of enemies need to give players a lot of space to allow them to move around and "kite" monsters in, and Painkiller was not redesigned here to do that. Additionally, there was a competitive scene for the original game way back in the day and the versus multiplayer has returned, but considering that competitive FPS gamers often turn down detail settings to the minimum (and then modify config files to go even lower than that), I don't think that anyone still interested in getting back into a Painkiller deathmatch scene would really be all that into this. But I wasn't actually a part of that scene, so I don't want to act like I'm speaking from authority on that matter. Just going with my gut on that one.
The developers re-did pretty much every texture and model while trying to keep the feel of the original Painkiller alive, and for some reason they also changed around the story, but it's still pretty non-sensical. It probably would have been better, if they were going to redo it, to make it silly or somehow tongue-in-cheek, because all the fancy CGI in the world wouldn't fix this game's plot. This game was always about the super-fast action and fights against tons of monsters and big bosses, and everything that gets in the way of that drags the game down. Unfortunately, there's a significant amount of stuff doing exactly that.
I was excited to revisit Painkiller, but clearly this was a case of rose-tinted glasses combined with a change in my perceptions of what big, bad cooperative shooters should have. In nearly every way, Serious Sam 3 is a better choice, and while it costs double the money that Painkiller HD does, money isn't the only thing we should be considering, especially when we're doing retro remakes of classic games and such. In the end, Painkiller HD is only a half-measure, and it doesn't do everything it could have to modernize the classic fast-paced action of the original. It's worth the twenty bucks if the overhaul you want is visual, but otherwise, it's best to pass.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher on Steam.