Developer: The Farm 51
Publisher: Nordic Games
As I frequently like to say, Painkiller is one of 'those' games. Eight years ago, People Can Fly actively fought back against the increasingly po-faced shooters of the age, delivering an unapologetic love letter to outrageous guns and silly fun over grinding exposition. It's a fiercely old-school rumble, a blood-soaked selection of teeth-clenching arena battles against ludicrous numbers of slavering enemies. You can count on Painkiller being mentioned sooner rather than later when a learned PC gamer bemoans the state of the industry.
So, with military FPS games now dominating the shelves, Nordic Games reckoned that it's time for Painkiller to make a triumphant return. Hell & Damnation emulates a 'best of' selection of classic levels from the original game and its expansion in Unreal Engine 3, bringing the visuals up to date without tinkering with the classic formula. New cutscenes, cooperative functionality, fully-remodelled enemies and a powerful new weapon await existing fans and an entirely new generation of gamers.
Otherwise, though, Painkiller: Hell & Damnation is the devil you already know.
Painkiller still feels vital and relevant despite its age. Acting as a welcome breath of fresh air, Hell & Damnation strips away all but the bare minimum you'd expect from an FPS, centring its action squarely on massive pitched arena battles. As Daniel, an undead hitman on contract from Death himself, you're pulled from arena to arena by the skin of your teeth, bombarded by enormous hordes of truly ridiculous enemies.
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, for reasons. After 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.
Delightfully hammy new cutscenes (both FMV and in-engine) give players slightly more context for the action, but the boomsticks are very much still the star of the show. Painkiller's legendary arsenal makes a welcome return, featuring a ridiculous range of guns with wildly imaginative secondary fire modes. The eponymous Painkiller blade can mince enemies into mulch and project a tactical beam to cook entire enemy formations, or shoot out its wickedly sharp barbs like a deadly helicopter. The stake gun impales enemies to walls or fries them with grenades. Your minigun fires throwing stars and forks of lightning, because why the hell not. There's a gun for every situation, and plenty of scope for surprisingly tactical engagements.
By focusing squarely on hectic fun and eschewing the more complex gimmicks that have crept into the genre (no slow-motion breaching here, friend), Painkiller feels wholesome and meaty. Much like a thick juicy steak served up without poncy garnish or unnecessary niceties, it's simple and delicious. Some players enjoy the garnish, it must be said, but even newcomers will probably find Hell & Damnation a visceral history lesson if nothing else.
Sorry, fellow Painkiller fans, but I've got to share some uncomfortable home truths about the bosses. Despite impressing us eight years ago with their immense size, they're still as tedious to battle as ever thanks to their cheap-yet-easily-exploitable attacks. As an example: the first boss, NecroGiant, punishes players at long range with unfairly precise spikes that can only be dodged with ludicrous bunny hops... but is too slow to retaliate if you circle-strafe around its feet with a shotgun. Shooting a giant in the bum for thirty seconds isn't my idea of a climactic showdown. Considering the joyously raucous rumbling that leads up to them, it's difficult not to feel slightly disappointed.
By now, you've probably noticed that I could have copy/pasted most of that from any original Painkiller review.
So, what's new? Unreal Engine 3 is probably a good place to start. If you're able to run it on maximum settings, Hell & Damnation looks an absolute treat, with the classic levels given a new lick of paint (high-resolution textures) and featuring a few new secrets to collect. Sadly, their boxy architecture betrays the age of the original game. Weapon models have been brought up to snuff, as have particle effects and physics. However, the enemies steal the slow, since they've been rebuilt from the ground up with smoother animations, detailed models and what I can only describe as unnecessarily gratuitous gibbing. Feedback may be all or nothing, as foes either ignore your weapon impacts or explode into messy showers of chunky kibbles, but the visuals definitely impress despite not stacking up to the best that DICE and Crytek have to offer.
It's a different story on medium settings, though. If your PC doesn't meet the recommended system requirements, Hell & Damnation can become rather muddy and indistinct - so you might be better off sticking with the Black Edition.
The Soulcatcher is perhaps the most intriguing new addition to the original formula since it's effectively a double-edged sword. This new boomstick replaces the titular Painkiller as your starting weapon (don't worry, you'll be reunited with it later), and can shatter foes to pieces with massive spinning discs. Bizarrely, though, its secondary fire projects an infinite ammo beam that auto-aims at enemies, steals their souls for extra health and occasionally lets you brainwash them into joining your side. On normal difficulty, it's therefore incredibly overpowered and can make all but the most challenging engagements child's play. You could just turn the difficulty up, mind.
Some of the 14 levels (taken wholesale from Painkiller and its first expansion/semi-sequel) have been slightly altered with new encounters and secrets, but their simplistic architecture hasn't held up very well. Dull rectangular arenas abound, usually featuring boxy furniture, obstacles and adornments. As mentioned, the level geometry is primitive to the extreme, acting as a constant reminder that you're playing a game that released eight years ago. The action is still hectic enough to satisfy, but the stages themselves probably deserved a full architectural makeover instead of new wallpaper. Also, seeing as four of the fourteen levels are boss encounters, you'll complete your first playthrough in roughly five hours.
At this point, even loyal fans might be wondering exactly why they should buy Hell & Damnation. It's a fair question: after all, chances are that you already own the Black or even Complete editions.
Cooperative multiplayer will likely act as a tempting draw. Painkiller's campaign screamed for co-op back in the day, and now two players can get involved. What's fun and furious when played solo becomes doubly exciting with a friend, whether online, over LAN or in split-screen (which is always nice to have on PC). Some survival challenges are also up for grabs, providing some hectic if forgettable cooperative laughs. I'd highly recommend Hell & Damnation if you're looking for another cooperative fix, though the fact that progress doesn't unlock campaign levels for both players is admittedly fairly annoying.
Unfortunately, the competitive multiplayer feels like an afterthought. Solid yet uninspiring, this slippery old-school deathmatch mode revolves around memorising weapon spawn locations and bunny hopping about like a caffeine-fuelled dervish. You'll likely derive some fleeting enjoyment from its unpretentious pared-back action, but it feels ancient and flimsy with little unique personality of its own. All but the most hardcore clanners and eSports fans will likely abandon the servers fairly quickly.
At the end of the day, Painkiller: Hell & Damnation is still brutal and brilliant fun, but it's also remarkably unambitious. Staying true to the original is commendable, but there's not enough new content, improvements or new functionality on show to warrant a full retail price. Thankfully, it doesn't have one. £17.99 or less is an appropriate and tempting debut for Hell & Damnation, which allows me to give The Farm 51's effort a wholehearted recommendation to fans of good old-fashioned fun.
- Brutal, refreshing, balls-out action throughout a meaty emulated campaign
- Gratuitously fun campaign co-op
- Impressive visuals on maximum settings
- Intact classic gameplay will delight existing fans
- Archaic (unchanged) level design and surprisingly tedious bosses
- Forgettible competitive multiplayer lacks personality
- Soulcatcher secondary fire unbalances normal difficulty
- Lack of new content and modern concessions
The Short Version: Painkiller: Hell & Damnation is poised to offer us the same breath of fresh air as its predecessor did all those years ago. Because, basically, it's exactly the same game. Expect disarming simplicity and gleeful brutality, with just enough new features to warrant a purchase if you want to revisit the glory days of classic FPS gameplay.
Ultimately, thanks to its budget pricing and cooperative campaign funtimes, this raucous yet unambitious remake is still a seriously satisfying proposition.