Painkiller: Hell & Damnation PS3 Review
The original Painkiller, developed by People Can Fly, came out in 2004. For the time, the title looked fantastic, and for me, the game was not just its looks but also the speed and thrilling action that kept me alert. It was nonstop carnage – waves upon waves of enemies and gib-filled explosions that never stopped entertaining. Plenty of sequels followed, all created by other developers, and while I never played any of these, the general statement was that these were buggy follow-ups with bad design that did nothing more than frustrate the player. What caught my eye with Painkiller: Hell & Damnation was the fact that Nordic Games are advertising it as a reboot/remake of the original and is developed by The Farm 51, a game studio that contains three industry veterans who worked on Painkiller. That can only mean good things for this reboot, right?
It’s time for the consoles to receive the PC reboot, which was released on Steam before the end of last year. Hell & Damnation has been given a lower price than the norm, which is a plus because this title would probably upset a few people who would be paying £40 for it, especially when its release on Steam was at a much cheaper price point. Content is the same, except now you can play the campaign in split-screen mode rather than online, which is what the PC’s version of cooperative was. Cooperative play can be done for the entire single player campaign, but it feels slightly tacked on. There is no indication where your friend is, but, thanks to the wonders of local cooperative, that issue isn’t as bad as it was on PC, due to sitting next to your buddy.
This is a game that cares nothing for progression, sneaky tactics and enemy placement. As soon as you step into that first level, the player is blasted with shredding guitar music and surrounded by skeletons, all out to kill Daniel. This does not stop throughout the game’s 14 levels. Designers need a special set of skills to create a pure, action-FPS without making the player feel bored from repetition. Remember, all you do is run through environments and shoot, so why is Painkiller: Hell & Damnation fun to play? One of the reasons is the enemy design, which is made up of mostly close-range demons with a sole purpose to run at you as fast as possible. Skeletons drop down in one shot, but some of the bigger monsters, such as the fat guys with meat cleavers, take bullets as if they are plastic pellets. Before you know it, you have mastered the art of bunny hopping to get out of harm’s way, while at the same time strafing and shooting back at whatever demonic creature is tailing you.
Imaginative weapon design also helps keep the action entertaining. There are no M16s, SCAR-Ls or P90s here. Instead, this remake brings back Painkiller’s bizarre contraptions, like the stakegun (shoots out stakes), ice shotgun, a sniper that launches five bolts or ten exploding bombs, and a new weapon – the soul catcher – that spews out spinning blades and can suck the souls out of enemies. Every weapon has a secondary fire mode, making them over-the-top and very destructive. The shotgun secondary fire causes the enemy to freeze, allowing a follow-up blast that will shatter them into pieces, while the rocket launcher has a built-in mini-gun, causing for a display of gibs and blood as the bullets shred through hell’s demons. Mix this up with plenty of ammo to collect, and you can understand the sheer fun that is to be had from shooting rocket after rocket into a group of rotting beasts. Nothing comes in the way of the player and shooting a gun. Moving the controls to the PS3 seems intuitive after getting used to its layout. R2 and L2 are the fire and alt-fire buttons, then the face buttons are jump and alternative fires of melee-based weapons – such as the pike I like to call the blender swirl – which allows for quick access between shooting and grinding enemies.
It is a little disappointing that not all the levels return from the original and its expansion Painkiller: Battle out of Hell. The 14 levels included (plus one bonus PS3 level) are a selection from the titles mentioned, and while mostly intact with little changes here and there, they can feel disjointed when moving from stage to stage. The game can be completed in four to five hours, but those hours are always full of action and mostly contain good level design, making the time fly and the game feeling on the short side. One of my favourites is the roller coaster ride in Loony Park, where you are taken on a long ride with twists and turns while blasting enemies from afar. Another is the opera house, in which you are put up against head-banging witches and skeleton warriors. These moments add comical laughter to the already-amusing gameplay. Who has ever seen a granny attack with a garbage wheelie bin?
Fans will be happy to see that the tarot card feature is still here. Tarot cards can be equipped at the start of a level and will buff Daniel in some way. If you manage to meet the requirements in a level (some are annoying to beat), then you will unlock tarot cards that can increase health, deal double damage, stay active longer, or revive you. Unless modified with a tarot card, these effects can only be used once per level and are handy for the end-of-chapter bosses, which are beyond ridiculous in size.
Daniel can collect money from the ground, which is used to equip more tarot cards, as each one has an equipment cost. Souls can also be picked up from dead enemies. Collecting 66 souls activates demon mode, where the player becomes invincible and all the enemies are visibly highlighted in red and can be instantly killed with a demon blast. This is overpowered fun that you will get to use once or twice a level. I did have a slight problem with the souls: they do not spawn straight away when an enemy is killed; rather, they appear 3-4 seconds later. I did not want to wait around to stop the momentum and flow of the game, so I would ignore them and carry on moving.
Multiplayer contains Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Survival (four players vs. waves of enemies). I wish I could report on how well the multiplayer is, but sadly I could not find one single soul to play with online, which does not bode well for anyone who wants some old-school deathmatch action.
Unreal Engine 3 comes across as a good fit for the eerie designs of hell. While the graphics are not the best showcase of Epic’s engine, they do a good job of making the game look pleasant enough – in a dark and gritty sense – as you traverse through old castles, fairgrounds, cities and even an opera house. The game’s visuals are a downgrade from the PC. The texture work has lost some of its detail and the framerate can drop a little – or a lot if you’re playing the campaign in split-screen. I also ran into a couple of glitches that stopped me from progressing a level. One of them was simply bizarre: A crate had spawned and blocked off an area, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I had already played the game on PC, then I would have been confused by this. A restart fixed it, but I shouldn’t have to be doing that. If you have a PC, then there is no doubt that is the way to go for this game.
It is a bit of a shame that it has taken a remake to get the Painkiller series back on track, but the experience from the old People Can Fly veterans and a revisit to the series’ beginnings has shown them what made it so fun in the first place. Maybe the sequels that follow will stay true to Painkiller and improve on the original’s hectic gameplay and artistic design. In the end, this FPS is made for people who want to play something of old; for gamers fed up with military games and want something different. Bringing something from the past to the present can feel refreshing when its entire heritage is lost in the current version of the genre, and even though this version isn’t as polished, as good-looking or as smooth-running as the PC version, it’s still a blast to the past.