Shoot first, then shoot some more.
Sometimes, that's all you wanna do, but the complexity of recent first-person shooters can make you feel like a simpleton. Am I a bad person if I bypass the thinking man's shooter for the thoughtless man's shooter? Of course not. Who knows where the genre would be without the road paved by twitch masterpieces like Doom and Quake? You gotta respect your elders, yo.
Which is exactly what Dreamcatcher and little known developer People Can Fly have done with Painkiller. There are no keys to find, no NPCs to interrogate, no unnecessary exploring to confuse your killer instinct. They've even done away with the need to reload. No doubt this simplicity will turn away those looking for a bit more from their FPS, but if you just have the fever to frag, Painkiller delivers a solid dose of the medicine you crave.
Of far less solid material is the game's story. You play Daniel Garner, Purgatory's newest resident due to a fatal car accident. In this realm betwixt Heaven and Hell, you are forced to take down the four generals of Lucifer's army, a gang of incredibly large badasses planning to wage war against heaven. Before you get to them, though, you must cut a swathe through hordes of their various minions. The bland story is told only through shoddy FMV sequences interspersed among the game's 24 levels, but the action is a different story all together.
Very much in the vein of games like Serious Sam, Painkiller is all about fragging, fragging, and more fragging. Each level tests your trigger finger to its fullest. Armies of some the most creative baddies I've seen in ages materialize with one single thought: Kill Daniel.
The biggest obstacle here is overwhelming odds rather than sophisticated A.I.; enemies swarm your position rather than actually plan out strategies. This throwback mechanic has its obvious problems, particularly if you've grown accustomed to the advanced A.I. found in any number of first-person shooters over the past two years or so. Once all the hellions have been smote, a swirl of red light appears to allow access to the next area. Checkpoints and quick saves make for a smooth progression through the levels. It's purely old-school in its gameplay approach, which can be either a turn on or a turn off depending on your tastes.
The graphic engine, however, is about as tasty as it gets. Painkiller looks terrific. Textures are rich, vibrant and detailed, complete with all sorts of eye candy like dynamic shadows and lighting. The game uses the Havoc physics system, leading to some of the best carnage around with destructible backgrounds and scores of creative death animations. Bodies slumped over railings, limbs blown to bloody bits, heads rolling like bowling balls - who knew Hell could be so fun?
Probably the same brains behind the heavenly weapons. Though there are only five of them in Painkiller, each has an alternate fire mode that essentially doubles that total to ten. The shotgun/freeze ray is great fun in particular - freeze 'em, then blast 'em into a shower of fragmented ice bits. The stakegun is another favorite, as it not only impales your foes but the force of the stake is so great it can send an enemy careening back to be stuck against a wall. In one of the more creative gameplay features, you can actually utilize two weapon properties together. Lob a grenade using the stakeguns's alternate fire, then time it right and stake it in mid-air to essentially create a third weapon: the grenade on a flying stick. Mmm…beats a corndog.
As do the massive end bosses, which are just awesome, towering over you in true demonic splendor. They'll burn you, stomp on you, even level structures to dump debris on top of you. Each boss has a weak spot, but it'll take some serious trial and error to find it. Even then, the suckers move so much, it's not easy to hit their weak spots consecutively. This puts an exciting end to each of the main sections.
When you kill an enemy they leave behind souls, some of which will actually cause damage while others will restore a smidgeon of health. Collect enough of the "good" souls and you will go into a type of bloodlust where the screen changes color and all baddies are dispatched with a single shot from any weapon. It's good incentive to rack up a lot of consecutive kills.
Painkiller also includes a unique yet superfluous Black Tarot card system. Destroying caskets, boxes and other ubiquitous crate objects yields coins, which can then can be used to buy tarot cards after they've been unlocked (using a single weapon on a level, killing every last baddie or similar feats unlock cards). The cards bestow various abilities to help in your fight against denizens of hell. You can mix and match or even stack card effects for more health/durability, slowing down time (akin to Bullet-Time), etc. It sounds cool enough, but winds up as something of a wasted gimmick. Better enemy A.I. would have been a better use of resources.
Once the final stage is completed, there is still a bit more fun to be had with Painkiller's multiplayer. You get the rudimentary Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and the interesting People Can Fly mode, which emphasizes the physics system by giving everyone a rocket launcher and only counting kills if the victim is airborne. Still, it's just another twist on Deathmatch, and while it may add a tad more life to the game, the multiplayer comes off as seeming rather dated compared to what we've seen in games like Unreal Tournament 2004.
For all Painkiller's intense fragging, time seems to be its greatest flaw. Had this game come out last year it would have stood out as a good choice, but it's hard to recommend this one over recent entries likes Far Cry, UT 2004 or Call of Duty, not to mention upcoming doozies like Half-Life 2, Doom 3 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. It does what it does very well, though, and if you're a fan of mindless destruction, you'd be hard pressed to find a game as immediately gratifying as Painkiller. Just don't expect it to be a cure-all.