“The Road to Hell & Damnation is Paved With Good Intentions”


Game Info
Publisher: Nordic Games
Developer: The Farm 51
Genre: First Person Shooter
Release Date: 11/30/13 (PS3)

 

This pseudo-remake/sequel is a misappropriation of nostalgia, clumsy controls, and nonexistent storytelling. This is a review of the upcoming PS3 release which has been plagued by delays and is almost a year behind its PC released predecessor, but it maintains the same rebranding of the original Painkiller and its expansion Battle out of Hell. Like everything else about this game, this presents a confused identity crisis that seeps down into Painkiller‘s very soul, poisoning it against its own nostalgia and crippling its contemporary design decisions against letting the series grow into something bigger and better.

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STORY: You play Daniel Garner, a man condemned to do battle with lost souls in Purgatory following a fatal car accident that killed him and his wife, Catherine. Daniel is mourning his misfortune at a cemetery when he’s greeted by Death itself. Death assures him that despite the betrayals earlier on in Daniel’s adventures, he can still reunite with Catherine in Heaven. The catch? He’s got to collect 7,000 souls for Death as payment for a lost bet Death had made with Lucifer.

So with the new Soul Catcher in hand, Daniel sets off on a spastic, oft-random, quest to collect his 7,000 souls. The battles throughout the campaign hopscotch through a variety of locales, much like its original, favoring no particular time period and dropping you willy-nilly in Roman coliseums one minute and outside a New York apartment complex the next. This is to be expected of the Painkiller series, but interestingly enough, this “remake” abandons several levels from the original game, creating a disconnect despite the obvious homage its trying to pay. This would be forgivable if it wasn’t for the fact that the game attempts to tell a new story based off the first entry, while still relying on the first game’s levels and locations for its gameplay, further muddying the waters.

Eve, familiar to players of the originals, makes several appearances, urging Daniel to consider that Death may not be telling the whole truth, and even hinting at further complications in Daniel’s wish to get to Heaven. He might not even be dead! Of course, all of these moments take place in thirty second cut scenes with about four lines of dialogue a piece, so it’s hard to get a real strong bearing on where the plot wants to take you, or why you’re in any particular location at all. If you’re a newcomer to the Painkiller series, you’re going to be understandably confused when you’re looking for some kind of purpose behind several levels in a row of mowing down identical bad guys in a random location.

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In fact, my biggest qualm with the plot was that it was over before it felt like it began. Before I knew it I was in the final boss battle, and a short cutscene later, credits were rolling and I felt like I had actually missed something. At best, it felt like the entire campaign could’ve just been a glorified prologue to the real plot, but alas, its reed-thin structure was all I had to work with. The dialogue between Daniel and the various members of the afterlife are barely a collection of grunts, one-liners, and cryptic hinting that never amounts to anything more than an exercise in filling time with words.

On top of this, Daniel’s character is stereotypical beyond the point of being a throwback to the tacit protagonists of late 90s shooters. Instead he just comes across as being a leather-jacket wearing Anybody who’s as forgettable as the enemies you spend the entire campaign slaughtering.

GAMEPLAY: I’ll sum up any future experiences with Hell & Damnation right here. Pull the trigger. Keep pulling it. Turn around. Pull it again. That about sums it up. But that’s to be expected. This is a game without worries like plot or motivation, it focuses on bad guys and big guns to an almost obsessive extent. The gameplay calls upon the golden age of shooters. Exaggerated head-bobs, absolutely insane weapons, and hordes of minions pouring out of every orifice are ways of life here.

It’s almost nice to have this simple  of an arrangement. No matter where you are, it’s the same story: blow away demons. Use some crazy-ass weapons. But the novelty wears thin, turning a few hilarious moments pinning skeletons to the wall with stakes to simply mashing your trigger as often as possible, checking your compass (Yes, it points you to ENEMIES to give you an idea of the game’s focus) and then reorienting yourself so that your next trigger-mash will hit something evil. And with 66 dispatched souls, a refreshing Demon mode lets you take out your frustrations without worrying about ammo. Just aim and… well… you still have to pull that trigger.

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Luckily just pulling the trigger is usually enough. No matter what they look like, enemies have a one-minded obsession with charging you and clubbing you, or simply charging you and shooting you. The only difference between them is the distance they stand by to unleash their attacks. The bigger bosses aren’t much better, getting stuck on the environment or simply running around about as often as they target you.

There are some secondary goals, like collecting Holy Relics or beating a boss in under a certain time for bonus Tarot cards which offer specific boosts to gameplay like slower time, more ammo, etc. They’re so inconsequential, however, to surviving the game, that their only purpose is to aid you in beating your best time.

As far as the weapons are concerned, this is where Painkiller does something marvelously right. Each weapon is unique in appearance and effect, which is refreshing in the world of hyper-real weapon-fetishism in our military shooters. Just know which weapon fires lightning, which is half-sniper rifle, half angry rebar tosser, and which can suck the soul right out of an enemy’s face.

Each weapon follows this theme. It has an endearing primary mode of fire and a quizzical alternate fire option that seems to have just about nothing to do with the primary fire option. My personal favorite was the Chinese Star Thrower. I’m sure it has a fancy in-game name, but these are the kinds of details that Painkiller doesn’t lose any sleep over. That aforementioned Chinese Star Thrower also fires huge arcing bolts of lightning at enemies which can clear a room of a couple dozen enemies in a matter of seconds.

The repetitive nature of the game drags the overall sense of enjoyment down, despite the fact that its exactly what you’d expect (and want) out of this game, and it still falls short of offering quality enjoyment in this one regard. Perhaps that’s why the weapons make up what few good memories I have, because which each new gun, you’re offered a few moments of humorous surprise at learning its functions and then a few minutes of practice as you lay into the nearest band of ne’er-do-well-ers, but beyond that, everything else is a watered down experience without the cleverness or creativity of a true classic like Doom or Serious Sam. I’d recommend it solely for the abject insanity of some of the weapons and the briefly cathartic release one gets from unleashing them on the unwashed masses of Purgatory, but little else.

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GRAPHICS: This game has me a bit confused when it comes to its visuals. On the one hand, stage elements appear gorgeous and the refined details in some of the environments speak to a depth of character in Purgatory that is rarely justified by most everything else in the game. On the other hand, I encountered no shortage of glitches, un-rendered or lumpy textures, and bland art direction.

As in the story of this game, each well-executed element seemed only to highlight the weakened attention to detail around it. When the main menu popped up, I had a gorgeous vista of a ruined castle somewhere in Purgatory, cracked statues glaring down menacingly on a long-rotten skull in the foreground. The rumbling in the background heralded the monstrous Necrogiant who blocked out the sun’s rays for a few seconds as he passed in the background behind the ruins. It was beautiful. I thought to myself “That’s a sexy main menu right there.”

In game, though, I would’ve testified in court that some of the levels were built with textures from the original Xbox; they looked blocky and artificial, the enemy character models jerky and stiff. And despite the overwhelming evidence speaking to the contrary, I’d suddenly be reminded that the game could be beautiful with its gothic cathedrals and the rotting wood hallways of a forgotten mansion in the swamp, only to be once again thrown into a hashed together carnival where I felt like I was in Left 4 Dead as rendered by the PS2.

Sadly enough, even the well-done pieces blur into a whirlwind of drab coloring and monotony. Every level breaks down the exact same, no matter the set dressing, and soon you forget to even pay attention to the background and just blindly follow your compass to the next gaggle of demons.

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SOUND: Imagine if Metallica was contracted to do generic 90s metal Muzak for rock-n-roll elevators. That’s pretty much the soundtrack for Painkiller. Rocking away in the background, the music is as forgettable as some of the backdrops before. It doesn’t add to the experience or create emotional relevance to the story, and it’s not nearly loud nor well-produced to create that testosterone-high that makes people in the gym listen to hard rock.

For all intents and purposes, it’s only there to keep the silence of game play from driving you insane, though this is much more fitting of its old-school approach to the shooter genre, I suppose. It has much more in common with Doom than it does with a fully scored AAA title, and that’s respectable in its own way.

The voice-acting is cagey and melodramatic, not helping the fact that Daniel is already a walking throwback to 80s buff action game heroes: the classic brotagonist. The dialogue is kitschy and trite, and seemed so superfluous that even when I was starved for the slightest morsel of storytelling, I felt myself cringing and wondering why the cut scene was even necessary in the first place. The story is so straight-forward and unnecessary that all the dialogue and acting feels flawed before it’s ever uttered aloud.

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The sounds resonating in the eerie and varied arenas feels like its all coming out of your speakers at a lower resolution, like something you got on a burnt CD from a friend back in high school. Generic squishing sounds earmark dismembering bad guys, and vanilla explosions let you know when a rocket or major attack has struck its target. The whole thing has a blasé attitude about it, like it just doesn’t care that it has more in common with a soundboard of 80s action movie noises than properly produced sound effects for a release on major consoles.

Again, this draws attention to me as being a symptom of the schizophrenia of trying to appeal to this long-lost retro-shooter approach but instead of making me nostalgic for the good ol’ days (as the newest Wolfenstein did when I played it at E3), it made me wonder why the developers didn’t notice everything operating on a sub-par level. Some may find this appealing in the classic, unobtrusive style of yesteryear’s games, but I don’t get the sense that this was so much a conscious effort as it was a rushed and half-finished job.

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REPLAY: The game’s focus on retro-style shooter mechanics lends itself well to leaderboard rankings when it comes to the single-player campaign. Those that find immense joy in perfecting level after level and collecting hidden goodies and defeating bosses in certain time restrictions will find plenty of love in the many challenges that Painkiller throws their way. But if flying solo isn’t your thing, then this new version includes a 2-player co-op campaign that  mirrors the regular one. Naturally the difficulty is amped up to compensate for having two over-powered dudes running amok, but that basically means throwing even more bad guys at you.

There’s also an 8 player survival mode where players face down wave after endless wave of demons trying to last as long as they can, but when you can get a similar experience in games with better game play balance, then it hardly seems to be worth it here. I mean wading through the standard waves of enemies gets tedious enough as it is, it hardly seems like having 7 of your friends with you is going to improve the experience.

Naturally, deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and duels. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to try out these player-vs-player modes, but they should offer a more entertaining substitute for the blank AI that plagues every other arena of the game. Who knows, maybe a little human intelligence is just what this game needs to infuse it with that little extra pep in its step that it feels like its missing everywhere else.

UPDATE: This game has been delayed by the publishers until November 30th.

Painkiller: Hell & Damnation is a frenetic, flawed experience. It harkens to the days of uninhibited shooters and instead undermines its contemporary design decisions through blind nostalgia. It redeems itself with entertaining weapons and a basic arcade-like format, offering simple get-in get-out gameplay, though it does so without creating any sense of investment in its characters, settings, or plot.

This inFocus is based on a review copy of Painkiller: Hell & Damnation for the PS3. Singleplayer took 6 hours to complete.

Written by R. Burke Kearney

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