Developer: The Farm 51
Publisher: Nordic Games
Painkiller is as magnificent as it ever was. People Can Fly's old-school gothic masterpiece stripped first person shooting down to its fundamental core: outrageous guns, huge hordes of enemies to pulverise into cat food and your own twitchy reflexes; creating an orgy of skilful ultraviolence free of cover systems, progression and all the bumf that crept its way into the genre over the years. Just you, your boomsticks, the armies of hell and a soundtrack of grinding generic metal to bunny hop to. Glorious.
With People Can Fly now safely ensconced in the Epic skunkworks (and an armada of terrible fan-made expansions forgotten), The Farm 51 made a fun yet unambitious attempt to drag Painkiller back into the spotlight last year with Hell & Damnation, an Unreal Engine-powered total remake that brought the action up to date. After several months of optimisation and tweaking, it has now finally made its way to home consoles.
It turns out that Painkiller is still incredibly intense, but this comfortably familiar port may already be starting to show its age.
Players assume the role of Daniel Garner, a dead hitman so lethal that even hell has trouble holding him. Following an eternity of giving Satan the runaround, Death calls upon the contractor to pull off one last job: reaping several thousand souls in exchange for freedom and his lost love. Some awkward and poorly-voiced (if pleasingly hammy) cutscenes flesh out the plot over the bare-bones original, but it's basically just an excuse to engage massive demonic armies in totally untenable situations.
You'll fend off waves of demonic clowns in an opera house. You'll butcher leering skeletons and knights in a schlock-horror graveyard. You'll murder a coven of witches pushing wheelie bins around a railway station, just for the hell of it. Once players unlearn the methodical cover-based conditioning of recent years, circle-strafing, running backwards and bunny hopping becomes the norm as the odds rack up and the gameplay delights in numerous silly showdowns. Painkiller makes no apologies or excuses, instead revelling in its retro-tough outrageousness just because it can. Though the main boss fights actually disappoint once you realise that their attacks are either incredibly easy to avoid with bunny-hopping or outrageously cheap, somewhat disarming their enormous size, your heart will still be racing for most of the game.
Your enemies may be as numerous as they are totally brainless (to the point where they can easily get hung up on level geometry), but Garner's arsenal is still as potent as it ever was. The shotgun's secondary fire freezes and shatters foes, while the minigun fires both shuriken and bolts of electricity. Stakes pin enemies to walls. The titular Painkiller shreds foes to tiny tatters, or sets up a vicious tripwire to control entire crowds with enough practice. Brilliantly, even the once-overpowered new Soulcatcher has been rebalanced, stopping us from relying on its infinite-ammo secondary fire. There are many reasons why Painkiller has become such an enduring classic, and most of them are mapped to the D-Pad.
Painkiller handles surprisingly well on a console controller, which accents the arcade nature of the gameplay, and you'll soon enter into a zen state halfway between meditation where you become the weapon, when time slows down and muscle memory takes over in a blur of total situational awareness. It's rather wonderful, though the same could be said of last year's PC version or the 2004 original.
In fairness, I even lifted a couple of sentences from my PC version review. Because it's effectively the same game, and I don't charge by the word.
Feature-wise, Hell & Damnation is practically identical regardless of platform, save for a relatively short console-exclusive level, two new tarot cards (limited boosts bought with in-game currency) and the welcome addition of riotous split-screen campaign co-op. Butchering the hordes on a single couch is by far the most fun of the multiplayer modes, far outstripping the basic survival gametype and the incredibly bare-bones competitive suite. Though some players still swear by the slippery, lightning-fast bunny-hopping action of Painkiller multiplayer on PC (think a more basic and drab version of Quake III Arena, but with better weapons), it feels utterly primitive on consoles, and will almost certainly fail to attract much of a community over the coming weeks.
Unfortunately, the home console port has inherited some of its predecessor's flaws. An aggravating save file glitch has thankfully been sorted out, but the console version doesn't quite address one of the major niggling issues that many players had with Hell & Damnation: value. Once you've stripped out the boss arenas, you're left with ten levels; many of which are fairly expansive but leave out plenty of the best maps the series had to offer. More to the point, these maps are essentially just lifted straight from Painkiller and Battle Out Out Hell expansion, exhibiting surprisingly basic and boxy geometry that ages the entire experience. It's sometimes hard to believe that this is a total rebuild in a new engine.
Since a steady stream of DLC packs has been trickling onto Steam over the last few months, it's a shame that some of these levels weren't optimised and spliced into the campaign to pad out the £25 price tag. Personally, I wonder whether Hell & Damnation might have been better served as a singleplayer/co-op only experience aimed at the 1200-1600 Microsoft Point bracket rather than a boxed title in its own right. The superior Serious Sam series managed it, after all, even including last year's sequel.
Indeed, Hell & Damnation is graphically on par with a marketplace title, which is where this console port finds flaws all of its own. Textures are muddy and models appear noticeably less detailed than the 2012 PC version on medium/high settings, especially obvious in some embarrassing in-engine cutscenes, while performance is incredibly inconsistent. Or consistent, perhaps, considering that the same set pieces and even particular boss attacks herald 100% repeatable slowdown every time they occur on Xbox 360.
There's also one last little niggle; despite ostensibly not being the "toned down" German version, the standard console editon still features far less in the way of gore, gibs and dismemberment, with many enemies just bloodlessly ragdolling away after a gruesome impact rather than ruining the decor. At the risk of sounding like an immature gore junkie, I can't help but feel that this is a step in the wrong direction for a franchise that's all about grim satisfaction, robbing many of your kills of the visceral feedback they once had. Don't get me wrong, there's still plenty of claret and the occasional limb flying merrily across the room - just not as much.
Unless your rose-tinted spectacles are particularly thick, it's probably worth going for the original remake... or, better yet, the original game. After all, the massive Black Edition frequently goes for less than £4 in Steam and GamersGate flash sales.
- Double-barrelled bun
- Mediocre visuals and performance, toned-down gore and gibs
- Boxy level geometry and little in the way of new content
- Primitive competitive multiplayer feels totally vestigial
- Questionable value even at budget RRP
The Short Version: Painkiller is still an essential and utterly outrageous FPS experience, but one best enjoyed on PC courtesy of the Black Edition or last year's full-fat version of Hell & Damnation. Consider a deal or rental when approaching this frantically fun if underwhelming console port.