Review by Steerpike
June 2004

Depth Perception

I was a bit leery about Painkiller when we saw the first ads a few months ago. Aside from the inclusion of a weapon that flings sharpened wooden stakes, it didn't really seem to bring much that was new or innovative to the FPS world. But I downloaded the demo because I wanted to see the new engine, and within two minutes I was hooked—it's that good. If video games got drunk and had one-night stands that resulted in pregnancy, Painkiller would be the product of the frenzied, S&M-laden coupling of DOOM and Serious Sam.

This is the first game from the folks at the new Polish studio People Can Fly. Much of the team worked at Metropolis in 1999, creating a well-intentioned flop called Odium—a game that came this close to being a worthy successor to the small-squad combat of X-Com (actually, if X-Com and Fallout got drunk and made a baby, it would be Odium). Called Gorky-17 everywhere but here in the States, it was saddled with a clumsy and oftentimes nonsensical movement interface that pretty much ruined the game. Still, its repellently violent gameplay dripped with atmosphere, and it was a pretty unique and original narrative idea.

But Odium bombed and Metropolis sank and the developers moved on to start People Can Fly—and if Painkiller is any indication of the general quality we can expect from this studio, we're going to be hearing about them for a long, long time. It has the gore of a snuff film and the frantic intensity of a war zone, and it is quite frankly one of the most beautiful and satisfying shooters I have ever played.

By distilling the FPS rulebook down to the most basic essentials (move and shoot), Painkiller wipes away the patina of complexity that so burdens, and sometimes so overwhelms, modern first-person action games. There are times when you just want to kill and kill, without restrictions or addendums, and that's what this game is about.

Which is not to say it's lacking in depth. Painkiller's art direction and thematic intent is intricate and powerful. What would appear to the casual observer to be a string of meaningless, logically disconnected killing fields is in fact a stirring artistic reflection on the nature of the afterlife, specifically the madness-gripped waiting room that some believe stands between this mortal coil and Heaven. It is only when all the pieces have come together, when you play the kaleidoscope of horror that is the game's perspective-shattering final confrontation, that you realize the philosophical scope of this casual shooter. To stand bewildered in that final level, to spend a good two or three minutes wondering what it is you're looking at before the light bulb pops and you whisper, "oh my God ... they're right. This is exactly what Hell would be like"—it's quite an experience.

Don't Hate Me, Jen

We have a simple rule at Four Fat Chicks: the games we review have to be story-driven. As rules go, it's not really unjust or difficult to follow, but for some reason I take a sadistic glee in pushing it to the very limit. My coda of reviews, while containing a nice crop of very story-intensive games, does reveal the occasional, shall we say, somewhat out-of-scope title that could arguably be called less than narrative.

I'm saying this in the review rather than in a conversation with the boss because by the time Jen learns of my most recent and egregious crime, the work will be done, and her heart is too big and too good to refuse something that one of her people has worked on, even if it doesn't quite follow The Rule. To call Painkiller story-driven is reaching. It has a story, the same way as, say, a porn movie has a story, but that story is strictly confined to the back seat. Honestly, why they tolerate my presence around here is beyond me.

Here's the story: you're a nice fellow named Daniel who is married to a nice woman named Catherine. It's Catherine's birthday, so Daniel stuffs her in the car and whisks her off to a fancy dinner despite the wrath-of-God thunderstorm roiling around them. In a cinematic moment as sweet-hearted as it is tragic, Daniel reaches across to take her hand and give her one of those "what a great wife I've got" smiles, thereby taking his eyes off the road just long enough to plow into an eighteen-wheeler that pulverizes the car and its occupants.

Catherine gets into Heaven. Daniel does not. For reasons totally inexplicable to him, he's stuck waiting in an in-between world while his wife plays her harp without him. Along comes a surprisingly creepy angel named Sammael, who offers to move Daniel to the front of the line if he'll do God the teeny favor of killing Lucifer's four generals. They, along with an army of demons, have invaded this limbo and are preparing to launch an all-out assault on Heaven—an assault that, given their numbers and Heaven's apparent France-in-the-1930s military preparedness, they'll almost certainly win. Daniel, lacking anything else to do that day, agrees.

Though Sammael warns Daniel that killing these generals may not be very easy, he neglects to mention that they're about three hundred feet tall and so well protected that even getting near them is a labor worthy of Hercules. (Sammael's actually kind of a jerk.) As Daniel makes his way toward his goal, he enlists the help of Eve—of Adam-and- fame—who offers advice only slightly less nebulous than Sammael's but seems to genuinely want to see him succeed. Unfortunately, People Can Fly fell into the usual video game trap of making this one female character an implausibly stacked, shirtless woman dressed only in a translucent linen sarong—an ensemble that doesn't make much sense considering all the claw-festooned demons running around. Plus, there are places in Purgatory that look cold.

Daniel has access to the Black Tarot board, which is Painkiller's one and only nod to anything other than splatterfest violence. Each level has an objective that, if met, unlocks one Black Tarot card. These cards can be "played" on the board between each level to provide you with various advantages—some are permanent, some can only be activated once per mission. Playing these cards costs gold coins, which you'll find in nearly every destroyable object in the game. These cards are sufficiently varied to add real spice, and the objectives to unlock them are at times so incredibly challenging (and at other times so laughably easy) as to significantly increase Painkiller's replay value. Maintaining your card collection is a lot of fun; the only problem is that you have to play your cards prior to each level, before you really know what sort of challenges you'll be facing. The trick, therefore, is to play cards that will help you meet the objective necessary to get another card.

Painkiller presents Purgatory in a very unique and compelling way: an unsettling, dreamlike landscape where your location, and the geography, seems to vary depending on your state of mind. Thus a posh opera house could be next door to a collapsing factory; a throat-lumpingly beautiful Venetian city could stand inches from the very gates of Hell, and so forth. Despite an initial sense of unrelation, the levels in each of Painkiller's five episodes exhibit a common thread, however subtle, that ties the otherwise disconnected locales together.

Where you are ain't no good unless you can get out: Purgatory is a bad place to be for two reasons. One, it's not Heaven, and two, it's swarming with demons because of the big war that Lucifer's plotting. And if one of those demons kills you while you're there, you go to Hell.

Max Pain

Painkiller employs a completely new codebase to handle rendering tasks. Called the Pain Engine, it's easily competitive with Lithtech, Crytek, Gamebryo, and Unreal 2.0, the four major licensable engine properties on the market today. Indeed, I can only assume that People Can Fly plans to market this bad boy as a standalone game engine; if it's easy to develop for, they'll make mad money.

Within three months we'll be seeing the next holy trinity of game engines to beat: Source will power Half-Life 2, and Serious 2.0 will hum underneath Serious Sam 2. But it's the long-awaited DOOM 3 engine that represents the biggest wildcard in FPS today; if DOOM 3 runs smoothly with moderate hardware (which I highly doubt), nothing will have a chance against it.

It's unheard of to have eight standalone engines available for game development, but it looks poised to happen by the end of the year. Lithtech, Crytek, Source, Gamebryo, Pain, Serious 2.0, Unreal 2.0, and DOOM 3 will all vie for attention over the next eighteen months. Amazingly, the virginal People Can Fly has developed a game engine that is easily powerful enough to swim with the big fish.

Pain has the lighting and texture prowess of Unreal 2.0 and Gamebryo, the vivid palette and stunning water effects of Lithtech, and the obscene draw distance of Crytek. Better still, it runs like butter on machines only nominally within its recommended specifications. We pay a price for that—level load times exceed five minutes—but further optimization may even grind that complaint down.

Painkiller is, quite simply, gorgeous. My screen caps do not, cannot, do it justice; the Pain Engine's magic is only visible when it's in motion. The flapping of a demon's paisley robe (yes, demons do wear paisley—who'd have thunk it?), the subtle flicker of a torch against a blood-spattered brick wall, the sudden crumbling of a towering Doric column—not to mention the holy-crap enormity of the game's five boss monsters, creatures so huge that you literally don't reach their ankle; Painkiller is graphic splendor pure and simple.

The Havok floodgates are wide open now, and the lapdance of Painkiller's graphics is made all the more arousing by the addition of this mighty middleware physics engine. People Can Fly dodged the usual problems we see in Havok by limiting it to explosions, flying bodies (and body parts), and scripted crumbling of buildings. The game doesn't bother with chairs and wastebaskets you can knock over, so none of the bizarre mass problems of Invisible War or Deadly Shadows exist here.

The aforementioned stake gun hurls sharpened wooden shafts the size of telephone poles into your enemies, and there is little more satisfying than watching an opponent transfixed on the end of a stake, picked up by its force, hurled back into a wall, and stapled there, twitching. Until developers really master the complexities of working with Havok, they'd be well advised to employ it for effects like this rather than more easily botched "realistic" weights and measures.

A couple of patches are available for Painkiller, and it's in your best interest to download the latest. It improves stability and load times, corrects some weird texture problems with the GeForce 4 4200, and gives the overall game a general spit and polish. The multiplayer element is also patched, though frankly I don't see anyone playing Painkiller online much. It's pure run-and-gun deathmatch, so fast and so furious that only the most Quake-d gamers will be able to keep track of the action. This is a single-player game and is probably best when viewed as that alone.

Welcome to Limbo, Here's Your Atlas

Gameplay in Painkiller is almost painfully linear. There are no mazes or wrong turns; what appear at first to be satisfyingly open levels are compartmented killing boxes. You enter an area and all points of egress seal. Kill everything in that area and the exits open up again, usually leaving behind a game-saving checkpoint that, on some difficulty levels, also tosses you a bit of health. You can also save at any time throughout.

Now, normally there would be points off for this compartmentalization, because in a way it's a sign of clumsy level design. But even a casual glance at Painkiller's levels is proof that they're not clumsy—they're designed very specifically and very intentionally to work the way they do. Painkiller is not about exploration, or locating an exit or a specific item, it's not about the stuff that normal FPS games are about. It's about entering a room, killing everything there, and moving on to the next room. What seems like heavy-handed game control is in fact just good organization. One drawback to the system is that it is possible, on occasion, to inadvertently escape the region you're in and enter the next one before the game is expecting it. If you manage this, chances are you'll be stuck there, so you're better off following the path that it sets for you.

On the subject of control, those in Painkiller are among the most mappable and friendly you'll find in a shooter. Each of the game's five weapons has a primary and alternate fire mode, and you can even switch one for the other. Pretty much every key on the board can be mapped, but since the gameplay is so straightforward it's not like you'll have a lot to remember. You can't even crouch in this game. When I say they stripped out everything that makes FPS games overburdened with complexity, I mean it. Yet that doesn't make Painkiller simplistic—far from it.

When monsters die, they leave their souls behind. In addition to being a good way to minimize memory clutter by vanishing the 3D models of corpses in the level, each soul returns one hit point to Daniel's pool. Collect sixty-six and you morph into an invulnerable demonic form for twenty seconds or so. If you time your collection right, you can take this form when you're literally swarmed by enemies and then really clean up.

Painkiller has five episodes, each with four or five levels apiece. Its bestiary is so huge that you'll never feel as though the game overuses its monsters. Better yet, the monsters themselves—and even, to a degree, the locations—are tied to the particular general they serve. This consistency is limited, but in a general sort of way you'll find medieval/gothic architecture, gritty urban nightmare, wide-open spaces, nature gone horribly wrong, and so forth grouped logically.

Monsters demonstrate admirable AI, at times using one another as shields and certainly appearing to learn your stratagems. They generally make it a point to approach with vastly superior numbers and firepower, so it can be tough to decide whether they're getting smarter or whether there are just more of them about, but you'll find the game challenging from many perspectives. As is the trend in today's games, some difficulty levels only unlock once you've completed the game or some other objective, and I'm told that a secret ending awaits those who manage to finish Painkiller on its highest level.

Paradise Lost (and Regained)

The game is not entirely perfect. Though the levels are extraordinarily compartmentalized, there are times when it's not clear where you're supposed to go next. A compass that points you in the right direction is provided to offset this difficulty, but at times it seems to freeze up for no good reason. On a few rare occasions, I found myself wandering through an area I'd cleared out for the better part of ten minutes, wondering where I was supposed to go and why the compass wasn't moving. Areas only reopen when you've killed every opponent in them, so sometimes you think you're trapped when really there's just a tiny monster high up on a balcony or something.

The arsenal, while excellent in the extreme, could be a little more numerous. I applaud the inclusion of some entirely unique weapons—stake gun, shuriken cannon, and my personal favorite, the eponymous painkiller weapon, add flavor alongside the shotgun and minigun/rocket launcher. These weapons are wonderfully balanced, all have a distinct purpose, and all are deeply satisfying on an ass-kicking front. It's just that five isn't many, and I wouldn't have said no to a few more.

The acting is bad. Especially, and as usual, from the protagonist. Why studios always choose to give the worst actor the biggest part is beyond me. Eve is okay, but she's so offensively drawn that the words coming out of her mouth are less important than what's scarcely concealed by her flowing tresses and naught else. The rest are mediocre to sucky, with the single exception of the charming demon lord Alastor, who sounded like a good actor, but his voice was so distorted that it's hard to tell.

The difficulty levels could also use a bit of a tweak. Daydream (read: "easy") is far too dreamy; Insomnia is still pretty dreamy, and Nightmare is, well, a nightmare. Also, there are secret items and areas lurking throughout each level, and in most cases they're just ridiculously hard to find. One of the best ways to "break" the linear pathing system is to wander into the wrong place while exploring for secret areas.

None of these are dealbreakers. Heck, none of them are that serious. Painkiller is the most fulfilling ultraviolent experience I've had on a computer in ages, and anyone looking for a good, straightforward shooter could do a lot worse.

This game is the sort of which I'd like to see more: breathtaking attention to detail, deeply satisfying gameplay, and a focus on pure, simple fun that doesn't in any way defeat or diminish a richly powerful thematic narrative. My own review can now be added to the pile of glowing kudos from all walks of the industry. Far Cry, though popular and successful, was so shackled to its crushing system requirements and moronic save interface that we had little choice but to focus on the negatives of what would be an otherwise excellent game. Painkiller, meanwhile, never deviated from its original concept and goal. It is relentless in its focus on being exactly what it is intended to be, and the result is a colossal achievement in gaming, and one that I suspect will be thought of highly for many years to come. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: People Can Fly
Publisher: Dreamcatcher
Release Date: April 2004

Available for: Windows Xbox

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System Requirements

Windows 98/ME/2000/XP
1.5 GHz Intel Pentium III or AMD Athlon processor
384 MB RAM
1.2 GB free hard disk space
64 MB DirectX 8.1 compatible video card (NVIDIA GeForce 3 or better)
DirectX 8.1b or better compatible sound card
Keyboard and mouse

Where to Find It

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No reproduction in whole or in part without express written permission.