out of Hell
Review by Steerpike
And Simple Is Good
was something of a surprise hit in 2004, drawing raves for its
elegant, beautiful engine and brusque simplicity of gameplay. In
many ways, Painkiller is the spiritual successor to DOOM
and Serious Sama shooter in which you shoot, in
which your sole objective is to unleash ordnance upon whatever hideous
thing happens to present itself to your crosshair. The first-person
shooter genre has come to resemble a digital Winchester house, so
laden with additions crammed haphazardly onto the basic framework
that the entire thing teeters alarmingly, groaning with Byzantine
disproportion. Painkiller is unburdened by inventories, stats,
skillsall of it.
And yet there was a depth to Painkiller far beyond that
found in more "full-featured" contemporaries. It is a
bold, deeply profound rumination on one of humanity's most considered
and least understood mysterieswhat happens to us when we die.
Its exploration of the question is managed not through narrative
(Painkiller isn't burdened by one of those, either), but
through the creators' vision of the world beyond. They brought the
land of the dead to life in ways no one else had really considered.
People Can Fly followed up its surprise hit with Battle out
of Hell, a ten-level addition. It is an expansion in the purest
sense, drawing on what's already there and extending where feasible.
There is nothing new, no additional ingredients threatening to ruin
the delicious soup of the overall game. If you liked Painkiller,
you'll like Battle out of Hell. If you didn't like Painkiller,
then there's something wrong about you and you're different
and strange. Everyone else thinks Painkiller is great.
Though quite good, Battle out of Hell is not as good as
Painkiller itself. It feels very much like an expansion pack,
in that there is a distinct "this one doesn't have to be as
good as the original" flavor to it. And it exhibits a few peculiar
flaws that were not present in the originalflaws that were
consciously introduced, which is bewildering. But it's a blast.
Welcome to Purgatory; Please Take a Number
When we last left Daniel Garner, he'd been stuck in Purgatory for
30 years, waiting to get into Heaven. His wife Catherine (both were
killed in a car accident) was already up there, probably being wooed
by a sexy harp player, and Daniel missed her. An angel named Sammael
offered to get him in sight unseen if Daniel would help thwart a
planned invasion of Heaven by the Devil's legions. Along the way
Daniel got help from Eve, who's been stuck in Purgatory since the
apple scandal. Daniel killed the four generals who commanded the
demon army, theoretically ruining the invasion. But Lucifer, in
a fit of spite, grabbed Eve and took her to Hell. Daniel sacrificed
his ticket to Heaven in order to go down there and save her, which
was a pretty nice thing to do.
Hell is a favorite site for video game adventures, but most developers
stick with trusty standbys: horned statuary, eviscerated corpses,
lava, what have you. Not People Can Fly. The art directors at that
studio have such gifts that I wish they could be cloned and distributed.
Their avant-garde depiction of the nether world is very different
from the blah Hell we see in most games. You only see it at the
very end, the mind-blowing final confrontation when all the pieces
come together and the whole picture is finally visible.
Painkiller's Hell is a diorama of our species' capacity
for self-destruction, an open-air museum in which every wicked deed,
every cruelty, every occasion on which humans have displayed their
ugliness is frozen in a drop of crystallized time. It is a bleak
and empty place, the presence of the damned belied only by their
invisible screams. Hell in Painkiller isn't some brimstony
"look how scary!" environment, it's a ghastly exhibition
of our abject and ongoing failure to become what God imagined we
might one day become. Worse still is the revelation that Hell is
a chronological succession of horrors, proving that humanity is
not growing better or wiser, but more ugly and brutal. The deeper
you go into Hell, the worse it gets, because the deeper you go,
the more you learn about human beings. In short, the Hell of Painkiller
is exactly what Hell would be likenot a dark reflection
of Heaven, but a grim accounting of Earth.
Daniel wiped the floor with Lucifer in Painkiller, which is ostensibly
a good thing. Problem is, that game's finale strongly implied that
Lucifer was sort of the Woodrow Wilson of infernal politics: he
was the boss, but he wasn't able to get much done. Battle out
of Hell's opening pretty much cements that implication. The
demon lord AlastorLucifer's former number one and top generalis
the new guy on the Throne of Bone. And if Lucifer was Woodrow Wilson,
Alastor is George W. Bush. In fact, he wants to invade Heaven now,
damn the risks, generals or no. After all, he still has a huge
army milling around Purgatory, and his view is that there's no point
in having an army unless you invade something with it.
Things looked grim for Daniel and Eve at the end of Painkiller,
but Eve manages to summon up one last shred of magic, transporting
the two of them back to the dubious safety of Purgatory. Understanding
that Alastor now represents as great a threat as Lucifer ever did,
Daniel sets off to prevent the invasion of Heaven once and for all.
Thus is the stage set for Battle out of Hellan ironic
title indeed, since you spend only a tiny fraction of the game there.
We already know Daniel and Eve from the original game, but there
are a few more opportunities to explore their characters in this
expansion. Eve is kind of bitchymore so than she was before.
There's nary a "thank you for voluntarily entering the Kingdom
of Satan to rescue me, thereby denying yourself any but the most
remote chance at ever reaching Heaven" from her. In fact, she's
really rather bossy. In the plus column, she is slightly less naked;
either complaints about her portrayal reached the ears of People
Can Fly or someone loaned her a bikini top while she was swimming
in the lake of fire.
Daniel, meanwhile, remains a bit of an enigma. We never really
learn much about him, so it's up to our imaginations to fill gaps
in his character. Painkiller makes it clear that he's a doting
husband, but despite this I always got a very sinister vibe from
Danielas though he were a reformed hit man who quit the life
after marriage but retains the capacity for unimaginable cruelty.
After all, he didn't get into Heaven, and the reason why
is never supplied. He certainly handles weapons well for a thirty-something
suburbanite. I don't know if People Can Fly actually put much thought
into developing Daniel as a character, so of course all this is
Painkiller has a story, one of impressive depth if you're
willing to mull it over, but very little of that story is told through
the narrative. I find this appealing from an academic perspective,
because it's solid proof that fiction isn't the only mechanism by
which a game can exhibit thematic potency. On the other hand, a
professional writer could have done some interesting things with
the game's story (just as a professional cast could have done something
with the dialogue; the acting is hideous) and I would like to have
seen a bit more storytelling in the expansion.
Painkiller is very stylish and says many positive things
about the studio's talent, but there is more to it than that. People
Can Fly is a Polish studio (don't forget Poland!), and a civilization's
traumas affect its art. A taste of Japanese art or culture sings
songs about how the atom bomb can influence a societal muse. Watch
a Verhoeven film to see the artistic vision of a man who spent his
most impressionable years growing up in a Nazi-occupied country.
And there is no doubt that any nation's art would be profoundly
affected by life behind the Iron Curtain.
We can learn a lot about a people based on their artespecially
the collective and silent miseries of which they themselves may
not be consciously aware. There is a magnificent bleakness, a nihilism,
about the universe of Painkiller. The canvas of the game
says something about the culture from which it sprang. It is beautiful
in the same way desolation is beautiful, as though ennui could be
captured in oils. You simply wouldn't have the same game if Painkiller
had been developed by a western studio.
Singin' in the Pain
The proprietary Pain engine is back, doing the grunt work for Battle
out of Hell. Pain is still very impressive looking, with slick
liquid effects, nice lighting and expansive draw distance. It still
looks good almost a year after its first appearance. Pain remains
highly competitive with the Lithtech and Crytek engines, and with
the current iteration of Unreal technology, though it's really not
a match for DOOM 3 or Source. Nor does it claim to be.
But, strangely, there are a few things that look worse. This is
what I was referring to when I said there were consciously introduced
flaws in the expansion. While the game engine looks fine, the cinematicsadmittedly
few and far between in Battle out of Hellare considerably
worse. The (fairly) realistic hair seen in the original has been
replaced by toothpaste strands, resembling carefully molded strings
of Play-Doh more than actual human coiffure. Cloth effects are similarly
reduced, in the cinematics and engine alike. Flapping textiles make
for a cool visual, and they're essentially gone from this game.
Furthermore, they did something weird to Daniel's face. He was
never going to win the Brad Pitt Memorial Stud Award, but in Battle
out of Hell he's been saddled with a twisted grimace that demotes
him from homely to downright ugly. It's a constant sneer that suggests
he's smelling something foul and is very, very angry about it. Alastor,
too, is notably different and worse looking. This isn't a Max
Payne kind of "we got a better model" switch, it's
Another negative is the fact that the engine's performance is diminished,
despite no obvious improvements to overall technology. In the time
between Painkiller and Battle out of Hell, I've upgraded
from an Athlon 2800+/512 MB/Radeon 9700 to an Athlon 64 3800+/1
GB/Radeon X700. While the old machine could play Painkiller at
1600×1200 with all effects maxed out, Battle out of Hell
crawls at that resolution on my new computer.
All that bad stuff said, Battle out of Hell looks great,
with sweepingly artsy level design and nearly as much atmosphere
as its predecessor. Environments run the gamut, alternately dark
and light, grim and weirdly cheerful, open and claustrophobic. Despite
the relative gloom of the game concept, both Painkiller and
Battle out of Hell aren't afraid to use bright, vivid colors
and beautiful locales to further underscore the quality of their
art direction, which is very consciously geared toward communicating
their view of the afterlife to the player. It's another point in
favor of the studio's incredible artistic talent.
There really never was much to say about the audio in Painkiller.
It's "fine," which is to say that you're never really
aware of it. The music and effects are neither noticeably bad nor
noticeably good, though the effortless segue into thumping rock
during combat is very nicely achieved. I do wish the acting didn't
make Keanu Reeves seem like Olivier by comparison.
Step One: Begin Game. Step Two: Reload.
Battle out of Hell is significantly more challenging than
the original Painkiller. At times, it is frustratingly difficult;
this expansion will task even talented shooter fans. What's worse,
you have to finish the game on the highest difficulty level to see
the "real" ending. That is an extraordinarily difficult
Gameplay, while harder, is basically the same. You'll remember
that the structure of these games isn't one of linear progression
so much as it is a compartmentalized series of battles within each
level. You enter an area, the doors lock and monsters swarm. Once
all of the monsters are defeated, the doors open and you move on
to the next zone.
They improved the compass, which had been rather faulty, and tweaked
AI so enemies coordinate attacks more effectively. You are also
given a couple of new weapons to help out. The Boltcaster will quickly
become a favorite among snipers; its primary fire launches four
metal spikes with great speed. It's kind of a Stake Gun on steroids,
with an added zoom feature and secondary fire that flings a bucketful
of bouncy grenades. You'll also find a new submachine gun that doubles
as a flamethrower. While the sub isn't really too usefulbullets
are scarce, rate of fire is low, and your arsenal already includes
a minigunthe flamethrower does come in handy. It's a lot like
the beloved and eponymous Painkiller weapon in that using it requires
some artistry: setting a charging enemy on fire isn't necessarily
the wisest course of action.
One thing that's not really clear is whether Battle out of Hell
is an according-to-Hoyle expansion pack or a set of levels that
didn't make it into the original game. My guess is the former, since
you're fighting all new monsters (some of which do bear a striking
resemblance to reskinned old monsters), but it's hard to say for
sure. The shortage of narrative means that the Painkiller games
have to depend on great level design to remain engaging. A few questionable
missions aside, the original boasted fabulous level design. Battle
out of Hell is about one notch down on the quality scale. Many
levelsthe first four especiallyare easily as good as
those in Painkiller; the other six are a little more dubious.
None are downright bad, but one does get the idea that People Can
Fly chose to take it easy a bit on some of these.
In Painkiller, accomplishing certain goals in each level
allowed Daniel to pick up Black Tarot cards. He could then spend
collected gold to play them, each of which offered a one-time or
permanent benefit. In Battle out of Hell, you begin with
quite a collection and can again pick up other cards along the way.
There's only one problem: while the prerequisites to get cards in
Painkiller ranged from simple to reasonably challenging,
in Battle out of Hell they range from nearly impossible to
absolutely impossible. Gold, also, is scarce. You find gold coins
in most destroyable objects, and though level descriptions always
indicated huge amounts of gold, I never found more than a handful.
I later learned that this is because you receive large gold bonuses
for the holy items hidden in each level, but they're so well concealed
that you'd need a dowsing rod to find them. These flaws drastically
reduce the influence that Black Tarot has on the game, since you're
not likely to acquire new cards and you'll rarely have enough cash
to play the ones you've got.
Generally speaking, though, the gameplay of Battle out of Hell
has the same adrenaline-soaked excitement of the original. Wild
firefights, huge minibosses and the occasional challenging puzzle
are rolled up into the same tight, clean, delicious package. If
video games were desserts, Painkiller and Battle out of
Hell would be baklava. I cannot stress enough, however, the
point I made at the beginning: if you liked Painkiller, you'll
like the expansion. If not, there's nothing here that will change
your mind. The same goes for the updated multiplayera few
enhancements are included, but nothing that will convert a naysayer.
I'm very eager to see what People Can Fly plan to do now. They're
on solid financial ground, since Painkiller sold quite well.
A sequel is conceivable, though personally I hope they try something
entirely different. The core team at the studio created a game called
Odium (Gorky-17 outside the US) at another studio
in the 90s. Odium was a tactical, turn-based game along the
lines of X-Com; like Painkiller it was rich in artistic
and thematic syrup. I'd love to see People Can Fly do another game
like this, because Odium was rushed and flawed and deserved
better treatment. Besides, the shooter genre is plenty crowded.
We're seeing a major rise in eastern European game development,
as studios from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic and
others turn out unique, compelling games with a decidedly different
flavor than their western counterparts. A lot of their originality
has to do, once again, with the differing artistic viewpoints of
separated cultures. If this trend continues, the region will soon
be a major development capital.
I was almost as impressed with Battle out of Hell as I was
with the original Painkiller, due in no small part to the
fact that the developers very consciously stuck to a proven formula.
"More of the same" has come to have a negative connotation,
but if "the same" is good, how can more of it be bad?
Battle out of Hell fits this argument nicely. While it's
not quite as good as the original, it is only an expansion pack,
and expansions aren't really expected to shoulder the same responsibilities
as full-fledged games. At the very least it's about eight hours
of extreme fun, and you can't really say no to that.
Release Date: December 2004
Four Fat Chicks Links
1.5 GHz PIII or AMD Athlon
384 MB RAM
1.2 GB available 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