Painkiller was a game that resonated with audiences primarily because of its retro throwbacks. Dressed up in heavy metal, its gory brand of shooting had a pure, unadulterated quality that provided a bloody refuge in a world increasingly filled with chest-high walls. Not only was it a smash hit back in 2004, but it also spawned five expansion packs. Developer The Farm 51, who previously made Necrovision, their own demonic shooter (in the Painkiller engine, no less), is now remaking the original game, with shiny new graphics and a co-op mode. However, it seems that Painkiller: Hell and Damnation’s greatest enemy just might be itself.
While technically a reboot, Hell and Damnation tries to tell a continuation of the original story. Daniel Garner is a normal dude who’s killed along with his wife in a tragic car accident. While she goes to heaven, Daniel is stuck in purgatory, where he becomes “heaven’s hitman” and shoots up all kinds of demonic baddies in his beatific quest to get her back. That was the first game. Now, he’s making some sort of deal with Death (who disappointingly doesn’t speak in all capital letters) to collect souls or something. This is all told in throw-away cutscenes periodically sprinkled between levels. The very fact that Farm 51 changed the cutscenes but used the exact same maps from the previous adventure demonstrates just how disposable the story is.
But you didn’t show up for the story; you came for the action. There’s not much to Painkiller, and that’s OK. Enemies spawn, you shoot them to bloody bits and move on to the next room. You usually spend most of your mental energies balancing ammo, prioritizing targets and not getting stuck in corners as you run backwards. That’s the formula for a good retro FPS, and you can tell it works when it becomes a frictionless thrillride of exploding limbs. There are a few extra goodies tacked on for good measure. For instance, every enemy killed drops a soul. Once you collect 66 of them you can turn into a super demon beast that makes the baddies go boom just by looking at them. Then there are the tarot cards, which are both unlockable collectables and powerups that can help you out of a jam. At this point, its just icing on the offal cake.
The strengths of Painkiller remain the atmosphere and the weapons. When the story goes and hides during the actual game, the art and level design comes out to play. Almost any screenshot could be an Iron Maiden cover, with zombie bikers, flying witches, and skeleton troopers swarming at you in bombed-out train stations, opera houses and the like. The weapons aren’t just clever, but also darn fun. Why snipe an enemy when you can impale him with a massive 6-foot stake instead? And of course, who can forget “the gun that shoots shurikens and lightning”? However, the downfalls remain. While the massive bosses are impressive-looking, they usually requires some stupid, non-obvious trick to bring them down, which really takes you out of the mindless violence and into the realm of temporary frustration.
Overall, the feel of the game is either identical to, or improved from, the original. Movement speed is just as fast, and you still find yourself exploiting the jumping momentum to quickly bunny hop around the map. Thankfully, the Unreal 3 engine isn’t anywhere nearly as finicky about collisions as the PainEngine was. While the original treated stairs like an octogenarian might, Hell and Damnation lets you freely glide around the hellish landscapes at your leisure.
The rub is that Painkiller: Hell and Damnation is only a “greatest hits” compilation and includes only 14 of the 34 levels included in Painkiller Black Edition. Even worse, because there are fewer levels, the terrible boss fights are less diluted. Sure, it’s good-looking, feels smoother, and includes co-op play, but at twice the price for half the levels, it’s a tough bargain for PC players. Those still tied down to a console, however, will get their first, true taste of Painkiller (aside from that one Xbox port back on ‘06). Hell and Damnation is such a good remake that it doesn’t measurably improve on the the original. Perhaps in another five years, Painkiller might look dated enough to warrant a cut-down HD remake, but right now, you’ll be better off picking up the original.
Publisher: Nordic Games
Developer: The Farm 51
System requirements: Windows XP SP3/Vista/Win 7, 2.0 GHz Core2Duo/Athlon 64 X2 or better CPU, 2 GB RAM, 256 MB GeForce 8600/Radeon HD 2600XT or better graphics card, DirectX-compatible sound device, DirectX 9.0c, 5 GB hard-drive space
ESRB rating: Mature
Release date: Available now