Reviewed: August 15, 2006
Released: July 25, 2006
Painkiller: Hell Wars has been in the works for...well, I can't remember how long. I know I've played it at the last two E3 shows, so I guess that dates it in some fashion. Hell Wars is the console version (port if you will) of the gritty PC shooter that shattered the FPS genre back in 2004 with its rapid-fire approach pitting one lone soldier of heaven against impossible demonic odds. It was one of those games where if you weren't constantly climbing ontop of the dead bodies you would be buried alive in a single encounter.
Story is secondary in a game like Painkiller, but there is a feeble attempt to tie the 20 levels of bloodletting together with a plot. You play as Daniel Garner, killed in a car crash and sentenced to eternity in Purgatory, that is, until you make a deal to defeat Satan and his four generals. Why weren’t you allowed into Heaven? Why does God need a hitman? How many shotgun rounds does it take to kill the devil? These and other questions might just be answered if you have the skills required to rid the universe of the ultimate evil.
Painkiller’s gameplay falls in that comfortable area somewhere between Doom and Serious Sam. Using the arena model of level design, you move through some massive levels (no, seriously, these things are freaking HUGE) that are divided into areas that seal themselves off for battles ranging from 20 to 200 opponents before the door opens and you can continue to the next area and repeat the process.
The first thing you might notice (especially if you played the PC version) is that the Xbox can't swallow some of these levels whole, so you end up getting these short, but frequent load times as you pass from area to area. It's kind of like passing through a bloody version of the Stargate, only to arrive on the other side of a gate or door.
Levels are all fairly linear and there is no backtracking until you defeat the final boss at which point all doors open and you can freely explore the level and pick up anything you may have missed. A word of caution – souls and gold coins have an expiration date and will vanish from the level and your grasp if you aren’t quick enough, although there are way to keep these vanishing items on the screen just a bit longer...read on.
There are no puzzles, no adventure elements, no conversations, or characters to interact with, just good old-fashioned combat with more than 50 wildly creative monsters of demonic origins using some of the most original weapons ever seen in a FPS title.
That’s not to say Painkiller is lacking substance. For those up to the challenge there are all sorts of tasks that will keep the perfectionist gamer playing this game infinitely longer than the casual demon slayer. Each level has a laundry list of goals. There are secret areas, armor pick-ups, holy items, and of course the obligatory perfect scores for monsters, souls, and gold coins. Each level also has a “card challenge”, a specific task you must complete to earn a Black Tarot card.
The implementation of the Tarot cards is probably the most ingenious device ever added to a twitch-shooter such as this. Earning cards requires you to finish a level while meeting certain objectives or restrictions. You might have to kill all monsters, smash all breakable objects, find all secrets, or beat a boss within a certain time limit.
Once you earn a card it is added to your deck. There are 24 possible cards you can collect throughout the entire game but you may only have five of them activated at any time. Cards come in Silver and Gold. Silver cards give you permanent enhancements during the entire level while Gold cards give you a once-per-level use for a short duration. You can pre-load up to three cards in your “hand” but when you activate the cards all of them are activated at the same time. This encourages a bit of strategy in picking a good combination of cards that complement each other and the particular level you are playing.
Placing a card in the active “hand” costs a significant amount of gold, but you are refunded half the amount when you return the card to the deck. This deters casual card exchanges and makes you “think”. One of the silver cards allows souls to remain in the level longer giving you more time to collect them. This is a great card to keep installed until you get the challenge to “not” collect a single soul during the Train Station mission. Removing that card from the deck helps with this goal.
In addition to being just another collectible item, Souls also serve another important purpose. When you collect enough of them your character will temporarily morph into a powerful demon. During this short time the screen goes into a photo-negative mode where everything is black and white and enemies are bright red. You are invulnerable during this time and a single shot decimates any who stand before you. They are literally ripped to pieces with parts flying all over the room.
Even though the challenge is great the game design is surprisingly friendly. After you clear out each room a red pentagram appears. Pass through this to checkpoint your progress and if you are playing on either of the first two skill levels you will even get full health restored. The game also autosaves at the beginning of each level, making this one of the best saving system I’ve seen in a game. Once nice feature of the autosave is that it saves your game “before” you make changes to your deck of cards. That way if one combination of cards isn’t working out you can create a new combination without wasting precious gold.
While the concept of battling demons with shotguns, rocket launchers, stake guns, or any of several other wickedly cool weapons might not be the most realistic, the physics in this game certainly are. Using the Havok 2.0 physics engine, Painkiller sports some of the best physics I’ve seen in any FPS game to date. Explosions send bodies (or body parts) flying in all directions, even right at you and over your head, which can be quite unnerving. There are also explosive barrels and kegs that you can blast to create some impressive chain reactions. The Xbox version seems to reign back the physics a bit keeping things more "real" and from getting too "floppy" like they were on the PC.
While the enemy AI adheres to the “mob mentality” there are some impressive displays of simulated intelligence. Large groups of enemies will often break up and try to surround you. Various enemy types will combine their efforts and unique attacks. Snipers will take shots at you from above while closer targets distract you. Don’t be surprised to see rival monsters fighting each other at times. The enemy has uncanny accuracy but nothing a little nimble dodging can’t avoid. As with most games of this type, circle-strafe is your best tactic, at least until you’re surrounded.
Combat is exquisite thanks to the wonderful selection of well-balanced weaponry and unique firing modes. There are six weapons, each with two documented fire modes and a third “hidden” mode that you need to figure out. For example, your primary weapon, the Painkiller is a whirling blade of death that is great for mangling enemies up close and personal. The secondary fire shoots out a bladed hook that can yank an enemy towards you where you can finish them off. You can also lodge the hook into a wall and create a beam of deadly energy that rips through enemies. The “third” fire mode for the Painkiller weapon is a combination of spinning the blade with the primary fire then pressing secondary fire to launch a boomerang-style spinning blade that rips through enemies or ignites barrels or kegs before returning. There are even some combo attacks to master such as launching an enemy into the air then shooting them for bonus damage.
Painkiller offers a substantial multiplayer experience for up to 8 players over Xbox Live or system link. There are 7 game modes to choose from including your standard deathmatch and team deathmatch variations, as well as CTF, Duel, and Last Man Standing modes.
Voosh is another intriguing variation where everyone starts with the same weapon and there are no other weapon pick-ups. At predetermined intervals everyone’s’ weapons are replaced. You can setup the order of the weapons or have them picked at random.
The final mode is called Light Bearer and everyone scrambles to find the Rage power-up. This power-up is permanent for as long as your player is alive. When you are killed the power-up becomes available for someone else to get, and the person who is in Rage mode when the timer expires is the winner.
My only minor quibble is that the People Can Fly mode was removed or at least hidden so well I couldn't find it. This was one of my favorite PC multiplayer modes and put players in specially designed levels with rocket launchers and you only scored kills by hitting airborne opponents.
The net code is very solid and framerates are flawlessly smooth. The only downside to the multiplayer game at this time is an overall lack of available players, but it is still relatively early in this game's release cycle. Actually, I haven't even seen the game available at any major retailers in my area, outside of the specialty game shops. Once it catches on and people start playing anyone with Xbox Live should find some great online gameplay potential with Painkiller: Hell Wars.
There is a nice pre-rendered movie that open the game and sets the stage for the epic battle about to unfold. The quality is merely above-average, especially when compared to the blinding visuals of the current crop of Xbox titles. Actually, it looks a bit dated, perhaps because it was created more than two years ago.
The lip-synch is slightly off but when the primary female character only has a few wispy strands of hair standing between you and gratuitous nudity you probably aren’t looking at her lips. The movies do transition nicely with the gameplay, matching scenery and events, but the story often leaves gaps making you wonder how you got from a swamp to a train station.
Level design is spectacular with some massive levels that defy conventional FPS gameplay. There are 20 levels that are meticulously created with no shared textures between the stages. Every level it totally unique, both in design and artistry. Additionally, some levels are actually built brick by brick from the ground up so they can be torn down, brick by brick. Just watch a certain boss tear down his battle arena as bricks rain down on your head.
Monsters are ultra-cool and totally original with 75 variations in all. The axe-wielding monks are very sinister and the soldiers in gas masks are scary enough to cause nightmares. Then you have these insect-like creatures that skitter across the floor and when you shot them a face-hugger creature breaks off and continues the attack. And don’t even get me started on the massive bosses that cap off each chapter in the Painkiller story. These are perhaps the most frightening creatures ever created, and their massive size dwarfs your character making you feel very insignificant.
Painkiller uses a new proprietary 3D graphics engine, called "The Pain Engine", featuring all the next-gen graphics technology like: pixel shaders, volumetric lights, and particle effects. My one and only complaint with the visuals is that the lighting and shadows are not dynamic. The shadows are “painted” into the scenery, so while they look real, they don’t flicker or change against a moving light source.
Admittedly, these graphics were all much more amazing two years ago running at resolutions far beyond those capable on the Xbox, but given the limitations of the hardware, the Xbox manages to crank out some surprising graphics, and the framerate is so smooth I had a few boughts with motion-sickness, and I NEVER get motion-sick. The game is just that fast.
The Dolby Digital surround mix is put to excellent use, both for putting you in the action and scaring the living hell out of you. Not than anyone should be surprised given that the PC version was one of the first games to support 7.1 surround. Painkiller easily ranks as one of the best sounding games with some truly frightening noises and environmental effects.
The weapons are all perfectly enhanced with just the right reload and firing sounds starting with the wooden thunk of a stake slamming home followed by the twang of the bowstring as it launches followed by the sickening crunch as the stake impales a demon into a nearby wall with a subtle splash of blood. Explosions are loud and chain reactions are deafening.
You can’t have an ass-kicking game without a kick ass soundtrack and Painkiller delivers with a wild mix of high-energy acid rock, heavy metal, and some delightfully demented atmospheric tunes that reminded me of the NIN soundtrack from Quake. The music flares up in volume and intensity during combat then settles down to reveal the subtle environmental effects that bring these levels to unearthly life.
The voice acting is merely average with a few standout performances but none of them from the major characters. The story and script is admittedly filler material for those that require some continuity to their carnage, but overall it’s a solid sound package.
When you first start Painkiller you can choose Daydream or Insomnia difficulty levels. Once you earn all the Black Tarot cards in Insomnia the Nightmare skill level becomes available and if you beat that you can tackle the Trauma mode. The difficulty level not only affects checkpoints and souls, it also determines the availability of some maps.
Of course beating Painkiller at all the skill levels is only part of the challenge. You have more than a half-dozen statistical challenges for each level not to mention competing for best times. Winning Painkiller might take you 12-15 hours but “completing” Painkiller will take you weeks, perhaps months. Then you have all those wonderful online modes to keep you busy.
Painkiller: Hell Wars is an excellent mix of intense first person shooting combined with a sophisticated risk-reward system that actually integrates into the gameplay. The Tarot cards are pure genius and add a whole new level to the genre.
With killer weapons, frightening monsters, massive levels, and a bleeding edge audio-visual package, this is hardcore action at its finest. Check your brain at the door and polish up those reflexes. This is the fight of your life and the fate of heaven and hell rest squarely on your shoulders.