Painkiller: Heaven's Got a Hitman
Painkiller, released for the PC in the first quarter of 2004, was created by Warsaw developer People Can Fly. In terms of genre and gameplay, it is a fairly standard first-person shooter(FPS) featuring excellent graphics and a fast-paced style of play. However, despite all it has going for it from a technological point of view, it lacks depth or an engaging storyline. It seems to be a throwback to games such as id software's Quake and Doom series where having much of a storyline takes a backseat to the action. The game itself is fairly mindless; an introductory sequence establishes where the game is set and there are more cutscenes in between chapters to give the game some semblance of a story. An X-Box version is in the making, and an expansion pack is planned.
The easiest way to sum up the story behind the game is to use the game's tag line: "Heaven's got a Hitman." Essentially the protagonist Daniel Garner is killed in a car accident, instead of going to heaven or hell he find himself in purgatory without knowing why. He remains here for a substantial amount of time before eventually being approached by an angel who offers him the chance to atone for his past sins and thereby be granted entrance to heaven.
The armies of hell are preparing to wage war on heaven, and Garner must single-handedly defeat them before they are able to do so. His main targets are the four generals of Lucifer's army, killing them will cripple the upcoming offensive and thereby prevent it. Each chapter has you going after one of the generals in question and between chapters a cut scene has someone giving you to directions to where the next target will be, as well as generally elaborate what basic plot exists.
The game is pretty straightforwards; enter an area, shoot all the enemies in the area, move to the next area and shoot some more. Factor in a couple of things that you should try to collect (gold, treasure, and souls mainly) and that pretty adequately sums up the entire game. Just in case it wasn't already simple enough - a compass at the top of your screen will always point to the nearest enemy, or once all the enemies in the current area are dispatched, it will point to the entrance to the next area. Just to make sure you don't get too lost, the doorways to the next area and the previous area are closed until you finish the current one.
Despite the fact that each basic level is based upon the exact same formula described above, the developers have done an admirable job in ensuring that the game does not become monotonous or dull. In other FPSs this is achieved by having different objectives for different levels, Painkiller accomplishes this by having incredible differences in the scenery and enemies present in one level to the next. In one level for instance you will be fighting hordes of skeletons armed with melee weapons in a graveyard, and in the next you may be fighting large groups of ninjas and samurai armed with throwing stars and swords on a ice-covered suspension bridge. Different enemies have preferred methods of attacking you; some will just run in a straight line at you and try to hit you with (insert weapon here) while others may play dead until you come into range and then jump out at you.
There are also a number of power-ups, in the form of "Black Tarot Cards" that can be found and used in the game. By meeting certain parameters when you complete a level, meeting a certain time limit or collecting a certain number of gold coins for instance, you unlock the Black Tarot Card for that level. Each card has a different effect, for instance lowering damage taken or increasing speed. Before you start a level, you can choose to play these cards and their effects are in place until that mission is completed. To play a card also requires a certain amount of gold to have been collected in the game so far.
When you kill an enemy, their 'soul' remains - basically a swirly green thing left there after their body disappears. Collecting one of these will raise your health by one point. Collect a certain number of these and you will enter 'demon mode.' Your view will change to black and white with enemies displayed in red, the game will slow down, and you will be able to turn large groups of enemies into a splatter of blood and body parts with a single shot. 'Demon mode' only lasts a short time, but in it you can probably destroy all the enemies present in the area at the time.
Aside from the shotgun, the weapons in the game are relatively novel. A 'stake-gun' fires a foot long piece of wood at an enemy with excellent accuracy - extremely fun to use to nail enemies to walls and ceilings. A combination rocket-launcher and minigun is probably the best weapon in the game- primary fire is the rocket-launcher and secondary the minigun. There a ninja-star launcher which fires bolts of electricity as a secondary fire- a good idea, but the ninja-stars travel too slowly and the secondary fire burns through ammo too quickly. The other weapons are not particularly noteworthy.
There are several bosses and sub-bosses in the game, and often these are made more challenging because the formula for these levels is slightly different. While you still defeat them by shooting, one particular level has you shooting the weapon out of their hands before you can damage them themselves. Another boss level has you shooting things around the boss to make them explode and damage him, and yet another has you luring him onto a certain area to shoot something to fall on him. These levels are made more challenging by these slight variations present in them, and they contain the closest thing the game has to a puzzle.
The graphics and sound effects in the game are very well done, the former substantially raising the bar by which future games will be judged. Sound effects are well done and the game makes good use of EAX. The music in the game is a kind of bland heavy-metal, and it doesn't really add much to the atmosphere of the game. The complex physics effects in the game are excellent and well implemented.
Some people may welcome the game for it's variety of excellently crafted levels and monsters. Others, like myself, may feel that the failings in storyline and lack of depth severely detract from what is otherwise an excellent game. The game is simply superb in almost every other aspect, but one can't help but think that it could have made a far better game if more time was invested into the storyline or inserting more variety into the gameplay rather than eye-candy.