Tryzon's Nonsensical Gaming Trips #42
Painkiller (PC, 2004) (Also on Xbox)
Yet again, I find myself apologising for a large lapse in production. My last review was some months ago, it's true, but I had a decent reason to stop. See, the final handful of those analyses were under-prepared and consequently meh; I went through a brief phase of making reviews because I felt I had to, rather than because I wanted to share something with the webternetz. Yes, I still reviewed titles I thought folk should know about, but the format was becoming overly formulaic and predictable, to the point where I could've just got a robot to churn the things out and achieved similar results. The resurrection of my gaming trips is an event that deserves special treatment. As such, enjoy the treat I've brought you...
It's a sad but undeniable fact that the FPS genre is, generally speaking, all kinds of shite at the moment; in much the same way that Halo meant every shooter needed to have regenerating health, CoD4 has spawned a mass of grey, carbon-copy realistic shooters with a strong emphasis on multiplayer deathmatches. Now, I have nothing against the original Halo or CoD4, but their legacies are much more curses than blessings. In this age of blandness and ultra-mainstream, we need a shooter that goes back to the classic formula, has a blatant disregard for any kind of logic, almost no plot and, above all, tons of gore. Gentlemen, we need a Painkiller.
*Predictable Monty Python reference*
Inevitable puns aside, Painkiller truly is such a clear demonstration of how badly wrong most FPSes are these days. My go-to example of how to make the perfect shooter has traditionally been TimeSplitters, particularly the second one, but even I must concede that 'Splitters doesn't give you a spinning blade that works as an automatic knife, comes with a grappling hook that deploys a laser tripwire and can launch the blade like a mini helicopter of death towards your adversaries. It's a rare sight indeed to find me complimenting a game for doing something better than 'Splitters, so this should be making your ears perk up.
If you're wondering why I, having admitted to wanting something like Doom but with the benefits of modern tech, don't just play Doom 3, then prepare to have your brain kerploded: I own Doom 3 and played a large chunk of it, but then got very bored indeed. See, even if we overlook the obvious problem of how the game thinks it's meant to be horror and not action, there's the additional issue that whoever decided to put a jump scare behind every single door, panel or window was clearly under the impression that endless repetition was the key to success. I could go into detail as to why Doom 3 fails at fear, but my point today is to stress that it bears as much resemblance to the original legend as a sumo wrestler does to a ballerina. No, Painkiller is somehow more of a Doom sequel than the actual Doom sequel, so let's just drop that topic and move on to praising the more deserving shooter s'more. I'm not even going to mention the notorious lack of sellotape on Mars.
You take the role of a bloke whose life seems perfect until he forgets that keeping one's hands on the wheel and eyes off one's insanely beautiful wife are a basic key to avoiding contrived tragedy on the motorway. Forced to linger in Purgatory while the lady goes to Heaven, seemingly for being an innocent victim of her husband's stupidity, you jump at the chance to ascend and see her again. Of course, there's a small catch involving having to kill Lucifer's four generals and thereby prevent the lord of darkness from seizing control of Purgatory. Being a leather jacket-wearing reincarnation of '80s Arnie, you agree. The only plot that gets rubbed in your face after the intro comes in the form of the end-of-chapter cutscenes, though these have a habit of taking themselves too seriously and outstaying their welcome. It's a shame that the protagonist (whose name I can't even recall) wasn't made more memorable, since a few witty one-liners here and there could have so easily made him the greatest man ever to wield a boomstick. Indeed, had they simply brought Bruce Campbell in for the role, you'd be looking at a perfect hero.
But you don't eat ice cream for the nutritional value and you don't play Painkiller for the story, so let's dive in. From the moment you start the first level, you know exactly what you're in for: there's no tutorial, no drawn-out explanation of how to make things die, no explanation why you're fighting skeletal knights and the scariest damn old hags outside of Beales and certainly no reason not to have stupid amounts of fun. You progress in a linear manner through areas, killing everything you see until the next gate swings open, at which point you saunder through and repeat the process until the glowing, moaning portal to freedom materialises. Dead things drop souls that top up your health and eventually let you unleash a temporary demon mode, while such hallmarks as armour and hidden collectables also make their welcome appearance. You can even go faster by utilising the ancient art of bunnyhopping. It's old-school in every way, and that's completely the point.
Skeletons with maces? Of course.
A shooter would be laughed out of the party if its weaponry wasn't suitably boomtacular, and Painkiller has no trouble in that department. Though there are only a grand total of five weapons in the game, they all have an alternate fire mode and make up for their small number by being outstanding. One of the biggest drawbacks of all these realistic shooters we're seeing at the moment is that you can't go too silly with the guns or you'll start to undermine the whole realism aspect. A game based around fighting demons in Purgatory has no such creative boundaries: the titular Painkiller is the blade mentioned above; the shotgun does what you'd expect, but also lets you freeze opponents who can then be smashed for easy kills; the stakegun could have come from Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fiction and allows one to pin beasts to walls with lengths of wood, along with doubling as a grenade launcher; the chaingun has the same crowd-control capabilities of 'Splitters 2's minigun, but also the added explosive capability of rockets; finally, the electrodriver's combination of shurikens and lightning has already been publicised for good reason, so there's no need to dwell on that. Owners of the Black Edition also get to play with an SMG/flamethrower combo and a sniper rifle that launches five rods into skulls from great distances, as well as a few bouncing baubles of confusing death. Painkiller's arsenal is a testament to the benefits of relaxing the realism police's grip and letting creative people make awesome things; don't tell me CoD wouldn't be improved by its own stakegun.
Twenty-four levels are spread out across five chapters, with each chapter culminating in a boss. The beauty of Painkiller is that the missions have little logical order, meaning you can be slogging through a plague-infested Medieval town (complete with witches) one minute and suddenly trading fire with skeletal, gas mask-wearing soldiers in a train station, followed by blowing the heads off whimpering crazies in an asylum. Why? Because it's awesome. There are too many enemy types to count, and only a bit of recycling. This whole approach creates an atmosphere where any level could be anything, making for legitimate joy when the time to progress comes. The style doesn't lend itself to a coherent narrative, but what's not to like about fighting demonic bikers in Venice? Not a thing. And yes, a ridiculous variety of settings is one of TimeSplitters' hallmarks. Methinks somebody on the dev team was a fan.
I own and love Doom, like any sane man should, but I'll be the first to admit that I'm awful at it. My biggest problem is simply that I get lost constantly. The same thing happens whenever I try Wolfenstein 3D, though at least in that I learned that anywhere overflowing with Nazi corpses was a place I'd already investigated. Since the glory days for such early shooters was before my gaming time, I'm obviously more used to the hand-holding of newer games and as such have a terrible sense of direction. Even when I'm given a clear map of an area, I find myself constantly bringing it up for fear of slightly deviating from the intended path. Painkiller wisely accommodates eejits like me by including a magical arrow at the top of the screen. During battle, it'll always point to an enemy, but once the coast is clear, it'll indicate the direction of the next checkpoint. Such a simple feature works wonders in terms of compensating for my lack of an internal compass, and since only the arrow never tells you where to find treasure or bonus goodies, there's still plenty of room for completists to explore without feeling cheated. Very nicely done, lads.
I'm a sucker for enjoyable physics. The day I stop laughing as a Combine is sent flying into a wall by my rocket is the day I stop gaming. Now, when Doom was first corrupting the minds of adolescent males across the globe, such a thing as ragdolls wasn't really feasible. That's not to say that shotgunning monstrosities' faces into gibs can't be entertaining by itself, but the technology at the time didn't allow for the sort of stuff that makes GMod so endlessly comical. Painkiller to the rescue! Shoot something with your weapon of choice and said thing will either collapse to the floor in a heap or explode, showering the area with its squishy bits. You can even use the hookshot to play a twisted match of keepy-uppy by continually pulling a cadaver into the air until it vanishes, earning some extra coin for your trouble. This is the kind of technical enhancement I think we can all appreciate, lads! If you don't chuckle when you leave a zombie dangling from the ceiling by its skull, you have no right playing your copy of Painkiller and thus depriving a more deserving soul of it. You're also a communist.
I'm having Shadow of the Colossus flashbacks...
Much of Painkiller's replay value comes not only from the increasingly sadistic difficulties you can pick, but also from the cunning system know as the tarot cards. These come in two varieties: silver ones give permanent benefits that are felt whenever you play, while golden ones give you superpowers that can be used once per level. You can only equip up to two silvers and three golds at once, and you need enough cash to use them. Naturally, the best toys cost the most, but you get a bit of a refund whenever you remove an old card in order to add a new one. Cards are unlocked for selection by beating a level's challenge. Said challenges start easy ("Beat the level") but quickly become fiendish ("Beat the level without getting hurt even once"). For my first playthrough, I only casually tried to get cards, but the benefits provided by them mean that it's in your best interests to get all you can if you're trying to tame the game's hardest setting. Most of the challenges are entertaining to do, even if some are absolutely vindictive, but it's a bit naughty that you have no clue what the card you're slaving away to obtain is. I recommend finding a list of the cards if you can't be bothered to do all the challenges and just want the nice bonuses, since the effort isn't always worth it.
All this talk of difficulty may be off-putting your cajonťs are less than terrifying to gaze upon, but even weak little babbies like yourself can partake of this forbidden fruit. The Daydream setting turns the game into the best stress-reliever short of a hired sex slave, and is slightly less embarrassing to be caught enjoying. With this setting, you can merrily slaughter hordes of undead without worrying about such petty matters as actual skill. Ponce.
Given that the visual style of Painkiller makes it one of the most metal games you'll ever see, it's unsurprising that the soundtrack consists mainly of instrumental guitars screaming. The tunes do change in-between missions and gunning down slabs of meat to the sound of raw metal is understandably epic, but I have to say that there's not as many memorable tracks as Doom, whose very menu theme is all kinds of amazing. On that note, I highly recommend trying Painkiller with the Doom soundtrack. The non-battle music is considerably more varied, like the monk moaning in the cathedral or the evil circus racket in the amusement park of your nightmares, but even that is decimated by the classic tunes in TimeSplitters. Remember that bitchin' guitar rendition of the James Bond theme in GoldenEye? Same bloke did all the music for every 'Splitters. Personal favourites include Return to Planet X, Siberia, Scotland the Brave and Anaconda. And before all you other 'Splitters nerds point out that the Anaconda music only plays during the optional minigame and not while fighting, I'll have you know that you can pick that track to play during a deathmatch. Pwned, bitch.
Painkiller was clearly a labour of love, made by guys who wanted to express themselves. In my eyes, creating something that lets people set clowns on fire is as much a means of expression as painting a pretty lady holding a spoon, or whatever it is those painter types do. Locations have rather a twisted, exaggerated and nightmarish version; don't get me started on the weird goings-on in the orphanage, which clearly failed a few health inspections. Then there are the little touches, like the one level where crows peck at corpses you create, or the fact that some projectiles can be deflecting using blade-'o-doom. Stuff like that just shows that people spent time and effort to make the experience that extra bit more interesting, and I approve.
Since my version of Painkiller is the Black Edition, I feel I should give a concise summary of the Battle out of Hell that comes bundled with the main game. Quite simply, it's an extra score of levels with new baddies and a pair of groovy new guns to eviscerate them with. There's not much else to say about it, other than bring up my theory that the pack was conceived as a way of utilising the developers' more unhinged ideas that didn't make the cut the first time. The trickiness factor is also ramped up a fair bit, so don't underestimate those knife-wielding demon orphans.
You may have noticed a general lack of complaints so far. This must be remedied. First off, I like the soul-collecting mechanic, and I understand the strategy in choosing between grabbing as many as possible (thereby leaving yourself open to attack) or focussing on combat, but there are still times when waiting for the green globules to emerge following an ambush seems to take an age.
And what of the impressive boss fights, which are actually a bit pump once you get over how pretty they are? The ending fight in particular could easily be won by just holding the button down and running backwards at the right moment. I realise that FPSes and boss battles don't have the most peaceful history, but...yeah.
I've already mentioned that some of the card challenges are cruelly hard, but I need to reiterate that they really are preposterous at times. I just know somebody's going to pop up and say they earned all the cards on Trauma without hassle, but for all us regular mortals who haven't signed any Faustian pacts of late, such a feat would be nothing short of Herculean.
Lastly, it has to be said that the AI is at best aggressive and at worst thick as a pigeon. Most baddies just charge straight into your barrels, which I don't mind so much, but it gets a bit ridiculous when you see them getting stuck on low walls or even just standing in a corner until you slice their limbs off to get their attention. Given how much of the shooting involves pogoing round rooms while frantically hurling lead-flavoured pain at your assailants, the computer's habit of just massing you works, but the daft situations described above detract from the experience a bit. In a more grim-toned game with a legitimate plot that you might get immersed in, such instances would stick out more, but a mad creation like Painkiller can get away with it; any game that lets me grind up children for chuckles is going to get some lenience from me.
Zombies AND giant bugs? You're spoiling us, Painkiller.
So that's Painkiller, folks: violent, stupid, non-sensical and backwards. It's these qualities that make it one of my favourite FPSes in the whole of forever. Yes, I hold it in the same regard as Urban Chaos: Riot Response and even the mighty TimeSplitters 2. That's like if I said I considered a movie on par with RoboCop, Highlander and Total¨-smegging¨-Recall. Can you even comprehend how much I love Painkiller? Probably not, which is why I hereby order you to play it right now. To GOG with you!
This last little segment goes on the assumption that you're now determined to get Painkiller and need only decide which format is best for you. Well, if the obvious benefits of a mouse aren't enough reason to seek out the PC version, then the fact that the Xbox port (subtitled Hell Wars) is not actually a straight conversion, but rather a random mix of levels from the main game and Battle out of Hell. All very strange. I've also heard that the Xbox edition introduced some unpleasant bugs, though I can't personally confirm that. Plus they might have patched it, who knows? More definitely problematic is the fact that all the other expansions appear to be PC-exclusive, with the most recent being only available off Steam. Given that Painkiller is something you can never overdose on, not being able to play every part of it ever is probably reason enough not to get the Xbox one. Don't let me stop you, especially since I haven't personally tried it, but the PC just seems the way to go.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some clowns to skewer...