Heaven’s Hitman returns with his boomstick and a few new tricks up his sleeve.
Reviewed on the PC by Alex Trotter-Fernandez
Shooters have gotten seriously dull. Weighed down by their own pretentiousness and aspirations of being elevated into interactive Tom Clancy films with watered down mechanics and faux RPG systems, developers seem to have forgotten what makes a game fun. Everything including the kitchen sink is thrown into a first person shooter these days, leading to anarchic design decisions which in turn lead to unfocused games that can quickly become a chore to play. Everything is so unbelievably serious and gloomy with an emphasis on realistic war simulations, that it’s hard to smile playing a game that treats itself like Anne Frank’s Diary. Painkiller Hell & Damnation is not one of those games.
[pullquote]Painkiller Hell & Damnation is a hardcore title with a razor sharp focus on what it does best — shooting things in the face.[/pullquote]Stripping back all the razzle dazzle and useless mechanics that dominate the popular games of the genre today, Painkiller Hell & Damnation is a hardcore title with a razor sharp focus on what it does best — shooting things in the face. At times it’s deceptively simplistic, but like the golden age of FPS it hearkens back to, it requires skill and endurance to play. At the same time it caters for those who just want a little bit of ultra violence in their life, without forcing them to feel guilty about it by showing a passing shot of a Iraqi child with no arms wandering aimlessly around his burned down village. Violence is bad, games need not remind us of that. Painkiller reminds us that violence can be fun as well, as long as it involves demons and awesome supernatural weaponry.
You play as Daniel Garner – heaven’s hitman; a blue jean and leather jacket wearing badass. In order to be reunited with your wife Catherine, you must fight your way past demons and humongous bosses, all the while collecting their souls for the Grim Reaper. Seven thousand souls to be exact. It’s your classic Heaven vs Hell yarn, framed in an endearing B-Movie style plot that doesn’t need to be explored beyond its simple premise. The story isn’t important, and with cliches ahoy and terrible funny dialogue it does exactly what it needs to. Anything more would just slow down the lightning fast pace of the game.
[pullquote]Painkiller Hell & Damnation is at its best when it’s fast and furious. [/pullquote]Painkiller Hell & Damnation is at its best when it’s fast and furious. There’s an underlying momentum that drives everything forward in a streamlined fashion. Older than old school, you don’t actually manually reload in the game. Your clip size is as large as the ammo you’re carrying which keeps things going at an incredibly fast pace. Arenas are large and open, covering is a pointless exercise as the demons will come straight for you. The key to success the old fashioned circle strafe, a tactic that’s been replaced with the hide and seek variant over the past few years. Controlling crowds is key and it’s a very bad idea to stop and take a breather. You have to keep firing until your fingernails bleed or you drop dead from exhaustion. Think horde mode, except you have nowhere to hide, a sweet arsenal, and pretty much unlimited ammo as crates are plentiful.
It only falters when the pace is slowed. When collecting souls you have to wait until the decimated demon corpses explode leaving behind their green candy center. It’s not an instantaneous process, completionists who want to collect all of the souls will have to hang around the corpses for a few seconds. Alternatively you can zip back and forth in combat, tying to collect while taking out demons. The orbs themselves only appear for a limited amount of time and there’s a good chance you’ll get stuck behind a horde of tough enemies looking to rip you a new one, only to watch said orb vanish into nothingness.
Another issue is the arena by arena style of play. Progressing through a level consists of moving between checkpoints and clearing arenas one by one. While I don’t have a problem with this and actually enjoy this style of play, you can’t progress until you’ve killed every one of those demons. Occasionally they might get stuck behind a wall or spawn in far away places, meaning you’ll have to roam aimlessly looking for the stragglers after the initial battle is over. It slows things down when this happens, resulting in sections of the game where you may wander around empty corridors aimlessly, looking for that final kill to trip the next checkpoint.
Demon slaying has never felt more awesome. Painkiller’s controls are light and responsive and for the most part it handles like a dream. They need to as you’ll always be surrounded by a mob of vicious demons trying their best to destroy you. Weapons give a pleasing amount of feedback, each feeling wonderfully overpowered and causing the required amount of destruction to satisfy your bloodthirst. The physics of the game work well to keep things satisfying, a shotgun blast feels like a shotgun blast, sending enemies flying across the screen. It’s a rather full on experience with enemies exploding in front of you like gory fireworks. Once you’ve collected 65 souls you can become a demon, which consists of a black, white and red filter and the ability to blow enemies away instantly.
The weapons themselves remind me of the ridiculous arsenals of Doom and Serious Sam, each one unique in their own right with satisfying explosive secondary forms of fire. The weapon you start of with, the Soul Catcher, is wonderfully overpowered firing saws that cut through swathes of weak opponents like butter. It also drains their souls and can allow you to force enemies to switch sides and do your bidding. You also get a grenade launcher minigun, a stake weapon and various other insane weaponry which are all amazingly fun to use. My personal favorite is a shredder which, funnily enough shreds demons. Of course in a game like this the most important weapon is the shotgun, and it feels exactly how an old school shotgun should feel. It’s a shame that its secondary function isn’t exciting as the other weapon’s, allowing you to only freeze oncoming enemies rather than make them explode.
Painkiller Hell & Damnation is a very well designed game. A reswpan of the original classic and its expansion packs, it manages to retain the series’s unique style and enemies. Everything has a wonderfully Gothic twinge, having you fight skeletal warriors, monks and disemboweled specters. At first it can feel a little too generic, the Opera house giving a similar gothic vibe to the monasteries and cathedrals of the earlier stages. However mid game things start to open up with awesome levels like a creepy haunted orphanage filled with splayed demon children and an inspired carnival level. The latter includes a great on-the-rails sequence involving an insane roller-coaster ride complete with 360 loops and crazy drops. It’s thrilling stuff. The highlight of all of this is the amazing boss fights. Often standing as tall as a building, there’s a great feeling of accomplishment when you take down these enormous bullet sponges, especially in the higher difficulty levels.
As a HD update Painkiller Hell & Damnation looks fantastic, utilizing the Unreal Engine to great effect. It’s no Battlefield 3 or Metro 2033, but it still looks great and maintains its eerie Gothic atmosphere through its environments. Blood in particular looks lovely and gloopy with the new engine, having stylized physics which often look like liquid in space. All of this is complemented with a hilarious soundtrack that keeps the adrenaline pumping. I say hilarious because The Farm 51 use the same heavy metal loop over and over again whenever you enter battle. At first I found it annoying, but slowly I’ve come to love it, banging my head to the tune whenever I have to fight the demonic horde.
Painkiller Hell & Damnation is a very short game. With only fourteen levels it will only take you five hours or so to complete at the lower difficulties. However with leaderboards and collectibles there’s plenty of incentive to return over and over again. Tarot cards can be unlocked which give your character in-game perks through completing certain tasks, as well as there being plenty of hidden secret areas and objects to find. A new co-op mode is an excellent addition which suites the style well. On top of this you also get old school multiplayer in the form of deathmatch, Capture the Flag and a new horde mode, which is basically the single player game with more players.
For those who have never experienced the Painkiller series before, Hell & Damnation is an awesome way to start. It’s an experience geared towards those seeking old school boomstick carnage, and if that’s your bag you won’t be disappointed. It is however an acquired taste, those who yearn for something more straight faced and serious may find themselves with buyers remorse. A sense of humor is required as well as a love for old school shooters. Fans of the series need not worry, for Hell & Damnation makes up for the mistakes of the past, providing a HD highlight reel of what’s best about the series. Is it worth getting if you already have the cheaper Painkiller pack? Hard to say, but with great HD visuals bringing the series up to date and new multiplayer modes there is plenty of extra content that will appeal to long time fans for a reasonable price.