Review by Steerpike
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 hookedit'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 Odiuma 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
But Odium bombed and Metropolis sank and the developers
moved on to start People Can Flyand 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
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 Heavenan
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 Eveof
Adam-and- famewho 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 sarongan 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 advantagessome 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.
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 thatlevel load times exceed five minutesbut
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 paisleywho'd have thunk it?), the subtle flicker
of a torch against a blood-spattered brick wall, the sudden crumbling
of a towering Doric columnnot 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
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
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 clumsythey'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
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 simplisticfar 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 themselvesand
even, to a degree, the locationsare 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 weaponsstake
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.
Release Date: April 2004
Four Fat Chicks Links
out of Hell Review
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