Painkiller: Black Edition Review

20 Apr

On a gaming landscape consisting highly of pseudo-realistic first-person shooters, Painkiller’s nudge-nudge wink-wink back to more old-skool first-person shooters like Quake and Doom is both unusual and refreshing. It’s strange to see a modern game herald back to the 90’s so much and yet be as surprisingly fun as Painkiller has been. You’ll either find the fast-paced shooting exciting and fun or, if you’re maybe younger than 12 years old, find the unconventional gameplay frustrating, but for the record, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

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Old-skool right down to the floating armour pick-ups

Story

I’ll start with the shortest and simplest bit, the story. Don’t worry, there’s no spoilers here, because for all intents and purposes, there’s no story. Or, what’s there is pretty laughable.

The story is, you died and have been sent by God to end a war between Heaven and Hell with his most divine of heavenly instruments. That is, a chainsaw and a shotgun. Whoever it was that imagined this version of God up needs a gold star: I like Him already. You’ve been sent to cut through Hell’s hoards to kill Hell’s generals, and… well, that’s pretty much all there is to it. There was also something about a girl you love, but it didn’t seem important enough to dwell on.

Gameplay

Singly Player

So when you start your first game, it shows a cinematic scene to explain the dead-simple story above, which can thankfully be skipped. You select your level, the level loads and you’re ready to gun.

When you move, jump and shoot you’ll likely be struck by nostalgia. You run fast, don’t have to reload, can’t crouch, strafe-jump to slightly lower than the speed of sound and don’t have to ram the butt of your gun into your cheek to shoot. The mouse sensitivity is nice and high and, straight away, you get to start blasting away your first hoard.

One of the first things I noticed was that Hell wasn’t feeling very creative and decided that, instead of mutants or horrors from beyond imagination, they went with skeletons with swords and armour. Cliché, perhaps, but for all I care they could have been bunny rabbits that fart rainbows when they hop: blasting them away with the shotgun is made satisfying by ragdoll physics, bodies being blown apart and blood splattering everywhere, rather than because of any real challenge. They do also drop Souls, represented as little green floating blobs of light, which heal you up one point each. Talk about harsh.

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So you’ve killed about 20 skeletons and a wall slides down, letting you proceed. You move past the wall, it slides back up and more monsters spawn.

Level progression is pretty similar all the way through, onslaught after onslaught of hoards of enemies with nearly every new encounter introducing some new enemy with some new feature that makes things more challenging. This makes the first few rooms pretty boring, but it does give the game pacing and you find yourself moving, jumping, shooting and twitching more after the first level. You end up finding a weird flow, a kind of rhythm during the fights thanks to levels that aren’t broken up by overly-long loading screens or drab dialogue. You do also end up finding a crossbow which shoots wooden stakes and explosive shells because screw realism blowing up hoards of demons is fun. Other weapons include a chain gun/rocket-launcher combo and a lightning gun.

The music switches between spooky for out-of-combat and awesome rocking guitar riffs for you to blast stuff away to, and I did jump more than a few times when someone spoke to me thanks to the ambient music and artwork. Though, you won’t be some of the artwork very well or very often because they’ve gone for quite a few dark levels with Scooby-doo style torchlight. It sounds like a knock, but it’s quite tastefully done and, combined with the ambient music, sets a good atmosphere for making you cack yourself at every corner.

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The levels are nicely varied, often taking multiple floors and a good mix of multiple corridors vs. wide open spaces. The variety of the monsters, including monsters with exploding barrels, knife-throwers and monsters that slow you down when they hit you, mean you find yourself switching your priorities, tactics and weapons quite often, and quite quickly. Or, dying, though the game doesn’t really seem to acknowledge that too well. Less, “You plonker! What did you go doing that for?” and more, “Oof, sorry about that. Here, I’ll just spawn you back in that room again.” The fact that you can so quickly resume the killing tells of the game’s greatest strength: it doesn’t waste time. Oh, and those Souls I mentioned earlier? Turns out, if you collect enough, it’ll put you into, “God-mode”, where the screen goes all grey, highlights enemies in red and gives you a super-powerful one-hit-from-any-distance-kill blast. Why God didn’t just let you stay in God-mode to destroy everything is beyond me, but whatever.

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The bosses are also quite creative and varied, some requiring the simple blast-it-until-it-goes-boom method where others require a more specific strategy.

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This guy, in particular, was a pain.

Then finally, when you reach the end of the chapter, you get to the final boss and your jaw hits the ground. Killing it is a damn-sight more difficult and satisfying than any of the challenges in any number of military-style shooters, and these bosses are worth buying the game for alone. Seriously, they’re that good.

Spoiler:When you defeat it, you complete the chapter and get a cut scene in which a beautiful nude woman caresses you. Eh? Stop looking at me like that, it’s true!

Multiplayer

My multiplayer experience, on the other hand, was bananas awful. The strength of the single player is that you’re fighting hoards of dumb AI that just run vaguely in your direction and predicting their movements is easy enough that you can get used to the half-second-long-or-so delay between shooting the crossbow and hitting the target. It makes it challenging but fun. It also helps that they’re not breaking the sound barrier while Sir Strafe Jumper VII can.

Against other players, though, the delay makes the gun completely worthless, and given that it’s your starting weapon until you pick up more it’s just plain stupid. No, I don’t have clairvoyance enough to know where the other player is going to be a full second in the future, especially given that they haven’t even decided themselves, and I don’t have the patience to train long enough to be able to cope. As if simply keeping your aim on them long enough to kill isn’t hard enough itself, given how fast people move.

Talking of speed, the issue was enhanced massively by the fact the game ran at something like 10x the speed it did in single player. When I can’t navigate through a doorway because my character moves too fast, it’s time to tone it down a notch. This seemed to be a result of the world’s worst network compensation method rather than design, but it was still completely breaking of the multiplayer.

Besides the broken stuff, it was just Quake Live CTRL+C/CTRL+V. Running Strafe-jumping around, grabbing guns, armour and life, shooting at targets that are too fast for you and getting destroyed by some comp player. Winning a battle felt completely token: a result of sheer dumb luck rather than skill, given that learning to kill skilfully would take more man-hours than most people have spare in their lives, and in the end the only people that might possibly enjoy it are Quake veterans, and they’ve all subscribed to Quake Live.

Conclusion

This game isn’t going to be winning any awards for creativity any time soon, and it won’t blow the doors of your heart open or make you question your very existence, but then, it’s not really trying to do that. The single-player is refreshing and fun, and for £6 on Steam, it’s been more satisfying than more expensive games in my game library. The multiplayer, however, is infuriatingly broken and made me switch off the entire game. If you want to replicate how I felt, try clipping your toenails with a hammer. If you decide you like that, play Quake Live for free instead. The single-player alone is enough to warrant buying this game, but if you’re looking for a good multiplayer game, walk right along.

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