Painkiller Hell & Damnation [Review] – Clearing heads29 Oct 2012  by
I could say that Painkiller Hell & Damnation is a nuanced, clever, and witty game, with a surprising amount of heart. I could also say that I’m the King of Jupiter, and that would be just as true – which is to say, not true at all. (One day, though. One day.)
No, this latest entry into the Painkiller series is not a nuanced, clever, or witty game, and the only heart it has is pumping the blood you regularly spray all over the environment. It is very much a one-note game: you move forward (at speeds that, when compared to the rest of today’s shooter market, make you think you should be causing sonic booms) and shoot things. That singular note is “BANG”, and if you complain that the sound of gunfire isn’t a note then Painkiller will probably just shoot you in response. It’s that sort of game.
Hell & Damnation is a remix/remake/HD update of both 2004’s Painkiller and its expansion, Battle Out of Hell. It takes various levels from both titles, shunts them into Unreal Engine 3, throws in some extra weapons and enemies, and then lets you loose with an assorted variety of limb-shredding tools of destruction.
I’ll point out right now that my entire experience with the Painkiller franchise is with the demo of the first game, so if you’re looking for a description of what’s new and how this compares to its much-loved (and less-loved) predecessors, I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere. Sorry about that.
Bizarrely, Painkiller H&D also adds in a new story. Plot-wise, this isn’t a rehash of the older games – it instead appears to be set after them, with no real explanation as to why protagonist Daniel is charging through a bunch of the same areas he went through in past games. It features absolutely no likeable characters (in fact, “characters” is a bit of a stretch as that implies a level of personality) as well as some shonky voice-acting and writing that teeters towards the “mistranslation” end of the scale.
Happily, this is all utterly irrelevant. The plot is – at best – a slightly funny-looking garnish that you carefully move to the far side of the plate. The main meal is in the weapons, the enemies, and the utter carnage that erupts when the two are put together.
The weapons are glorious, ridiculous, and completely over-the-top, but this shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the old games. Gun that fires metre-long wooden stakes, capable of impaling enemies to walls? Check. Melee weapon that looks like someone took the safety guard off an industrial-size blender? Check. Rocket launcher with a chaingun around the barrel? Check.
The one definitely-new weapon is the Soulcatcher, which sums up the design ethos pretty well. Its primary fire hurls gigantic, appendage-cutting sawblades that rip through multiple enemies and bounce off the environment. Its secondary fire rips out the soul of the target and charges up the weapon itself, until it’s able to force enemies to fight for you. This is a game about killing things in flashy ways, and creating as much gore in the process as possible.
The enemies themselves are nothing overly spectacular – about half of them run towards you and try to punch you, and the other half sit at a preset distance lobbing ranged attacks at you – but some have neat quirks. There’s a Pinocchio-inspired doll enemy, for instance, which attacks by running up to you and then stabbing you with its elongated nose. That’s very, very nearly enough for an extra point to the score.
Really, they’re there to provide masses of fodder for you to blast through, which is a job description they fulfil admirably. You run into a room, and a few dozen enemies spawn. As you hack, blast, explode, ignite, electrocute, and just generally shoot through them, more spawn. So you run around killing them too. More spawn. You kill them. Then, when the arena is daubed in red and covered with dismembered limbs, you move onto the next room and repeat the process. Giggling manically is optional. Every now and then you’ll come across big enemies that take an impressive amount of pounding before going down, and each of the game’s four chapters is capped off with a giant boss of some sort.
Painkiller H&D does all of this well. The controls are tight and responsive, the game flies along at a consistently solid framerate, and letting rip with a sawblade that cuts through six enemies – sending arms, legs, and heads flying – before coming to rest in the body of a lumbering behemoth behind them is immensely satisfying.
These aren’t your only options, though. When killed, enemies drop souls, most of which are worth a single health point. Collect 66 souls and, for an all-too-short period, you morph into a nigh-indestructible demon capable of killing pretty much anything in a single hit. You’ve also got access to the Black Tarot, a set of cards (unlocked by fulfilling certain conditions throughout each level, like finishing within a seven minutes, finding all of the secrets, or destroying 25 enemies after freezing them) which can slow time, boost your firing speed, reduce the damage you take, and a whole lot more.
In short: Painkiller H&D offers you scores of enemies to kill, and scores of fun ways with which to kill them. It doesn’t quite have the panache or glossiness of the similarly-styled Serious Sam BFE - it’s occasionally a bit of a clunky beast, particularly when the cutscenes show off close-ups of some of the models and animations – but its “best of” setup lets it cherry-pick levels and enemies from the original Painkiller and its expansion, meaning that there’s plenty of visual variety. Few levels outstay their welcome.
In fact, I only have two real complaints. One’s minor, and that’s the fact that it’s hard to tell where damage is coming from, which can be an issue when enemies are able to spawn behind you or fire at you from vantage points, but as you should be moving constantly it’s not a huge problem. One’s a lot more serious. We’ll get to that shortly.
First, though, we need to address the multiplayer. The original Painkiller was, it appears, a fantastic multiplayer game – good enough that it was once featured in pro-gaming league CPL, which has historically tended towards Quake 2, Quake 3, Counter-Strike, and Unreal Tournament 2003. So, it’s in good company.
At the time of writing, this game’s multiplayer servers aren’t properly up and running, so offering a detailed critique on its fun and its foibles is completely impossible. I will note the apparent absence of ping rates on the server browser, which is a bit of an issue, and I’ll note that from what little I managed to try (with IncGamers’ Peter Parrish) it seems like good, fast-paced, retro fun. The maps are sharply designed and more than a little reminiscent of the original Quake, particularly considering the inclusion of power-ups, bounce-pads, and bunny-hopping. There aren’t a great deal of maps, however; Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch have a total of 10, and five of those are HD updates of the other five. So, yes.
Aside from the standard trifecta of Deathmatch/Team Deathmatch/Capture the Flag, there’s also Survival mode (which appears to be more of a competitive mode in which players race to kill a certain tally of monsters before the other players) and the entire single-player campaign is playable in co-op. There even appears to be local co-op, although I’m damned if I can figure out how it works.
So, that other problem to which I alluded: the length. I’ve finished the single-player campaign, I’ve redone a few levels on a higher difficulty, I’ve tooled about in multiplayer with Peter, I’ve blasted through a few Survival maps on my own, I’ve explored a number of the multiplayer maps to get a feel for the design, and I’ve redone yet more campaign levels to unlock further Black Tarot cards. I feel like I’m pretty much done. I have played for just over six hours.
This is where I did a little research.
The current asking price for Painkiller H&D on the UK Steam Store is £18, and honestly, it feels a little svelte and a little too singular in its focus to be easily recommendable at that expense. The price on the US Steam Store is $19.99, which equates to a much more reasonable £12.40. (Shop around a bit, and you should be able to find it for around that price even in the UK.)
Knocking the price down by a third makes it a lot harder for me, at least, to complain. After all, Painkiller H&D is a joyous, well-made slice of fast-paced blasting action that evokes a period when shooters had less polygons in an entire level than most current games do in individual character models.
The thing is, this is one of those occasions when score isn’t even close to being a concrete guide and it really comes down to what you want. If you played Painkiller, then you’ll already know if you’re in the mood for more of the same. If you didn’t, then you already know if you’re the type to go back through levels again and again to find secrets and unlockables. Either way, you almost certainly know what you’d consider paying for it. For just over a tenner, I’d say it’s absolutely worth a punt – but then, I’m not you.