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Submitted by Chris Leyton on April 20 2004 - 00:00

Painkiller offers simple run-and-gun gameplay, but can it hold up to today's offerings...

Billed as a throwback to days gone by, Painkiller is an attempt at recapturing the essence of first-person-shooters prior to the release of Valveâ??s Half Life. Back then FPS were very simple, tasking the player with getting from one end of a level to another, whilst destroying everything that comes in your way.

Painkiller is styled like this, attempting to excite players by throwing dozens upon dozens of un-dead creatures in your quest to simulate the fast and frantic gameplay of such classics such as Doom and Quake.

As youâ??d expect the story take a side seat compared to the actual action, and youâ??ll never encounter anything within the actual levels to progress the story, however bizarrely youâ??ll find yourself sitting through some extremely drawn-out story sections prior to each level. Players assume the role of Daniel Garner, who having died in a car accident finds himself at the Gates of Purgatory; unfortunately it doesnâ??t appear to be the day to die, as Garner learns that the forces of Hell are staging an attack on Heaven, and youâ??re tasked with not only stopping them but also taking out the four generalâ??s of Satanâ??s army.

Painkiller features 19 levels, and as youâ??d expect thereâ??s nothing particularly stunning from these â?“ theyâ??re simply the backdrop for throwing more and more enemies in your way. Progress through them typically tasks you with destroying a batch of enemies, and then moving onto another area to do exactly the same via an on-screen compass. As weâ??ve said thereâ??s nothing clever about the actual stages and how theyâ??re designed, so you wonâ??t find multiple paths or branching stories, simply itâ??s destroy a group of the undead, take a breather and then move on to the next area to do the same.

Whilst this simple concept had us enthralled to begin with, itâ??s only a short amount of time before the misgivings begin to appear. Weâ??d be the first to tuck into a frenzied action-fest and are hoping that id can manage to incorporate the same level into the forthcoming Doom3 (it wouldnâ??t be Doom otherwise), however thereâ??s one or two problems that stop Painkiller becoming the all-out action extravaganza that we were hoping for.

Firstly the enemy characters feature some appalling AI traits, in so fact that youâ??ll constantly find them getting stuck against walls and other objects whilst they try to chase after you; itâ??s so bad that itâ??s entirely possible to hide yourself into a corner and take them off, whilst they try comically to find you. Once this aspect becomes painfully aware, a lot of the initial excitement and suspense begins to come crumbling down. Not that we were expecting the smartest opponents weâ??ve ever seen in a videogame, however it has to be said that on more then a handful of occasions the enemies youâ??ll come across are dumber then cannon-fodder â?“ it certainly breaks the illusion and is hard to make apologies for.

Thankfully the boss battles provide more of a challenge, and certainly leave a mark on you. Players have to work out the correct strategy to employ on each boss, with weak points having to be identified â?“ however itâ??s entirely possible that youâ??ll just stare with your jaw touching the floor to begin with, some of the bosses are truly astounding.

Painkiller certainly does a good job of mixing up numerous different styles within the different stages, with players taking in such events as blasting loons in an asylum to mad-monks in a medieval castle; sadly the variety between different creatures is minimal to say the least.

Another aspect that Painkiller is surprisingly weak in is the weapon count, with only five weapons available throughout the entire game; sure make a game thatâ??s all about action, but letâ??s at least have some great firepower to take them out with. To be fair each weapon does have a secondary fire, and in the most cases this is as diverse from the primary as you could expect â?“ a rocket launcher that doubles up as a chaingun anybody, but once again this affects the game thanks to balancing issues and creates a gun that few players will be able to resist.

The feeling we get when playing Painkiller is very much one of an extremely impressive tech-demo, thatâ??s had a game designed around it; sure the developers can claim that itâ??s all about simplicity, but in our opinion some cases just smack of unfinished business â?“ the woeful AI, no weapon switching animations, etcâ?¦

The tech-demo description comes from the fact that Painkiller is doing lots of impressive things; not only is it chucking around dozens of admittedly stupid opponents, but thanks to the Havok 2.0 physics engine, objects and building collapse when theyâ??ve received enough damage, whilst fallen opponents bend crazily thanks to the implementation of rag-doll physics. To be fair the biggest enjoyment to be gained from Painkiller comes from the crunching realism of blowing a shotgun blast into a pack of oncoming zombies, and watching them as bodies blow apart, whilst weapons fling from their hands and fly into the sky.

In an effort to give the game a shred of depth, Daniel can collect souls from vanquished enemies; initially these add a single point of health, however if you collect enough youâ??ll enter a state of enraged anger, able to move quicker, invincible to attacks and powerful enough to destroy anyone whoâ??s near enough. Itâ??s a nice dynamic that adds suitably to the pacing of the game, whilst the visual effect is unsurprisingly neat.

In addition players can also collect coins throughout the game, which can be used to purchase â??Black Tarot Cardsâ?? at the start of each level. You must firstly unlock these cards by completing set objectives, such as only using a single weapon or collecting a certain amount of souls; once done youâ??ll access a wide variety of special moves such as being able to run fast, increased power or slow down everybody else to mention but a few. Players can combine cards to link different types of moves; itâ??s a great little feature but sadly not a lot is made of it, and the truth is that most players will likely finish Painkiller before they even knew anything about it.

The most entertainment without doubt comes from the multiplayer, which pans out much like idâ??s classics such as Quake; itâ??s simple yet effective - fun, fast brutal and bloody. Thereâ??s a nice variation of game modes, however the total number of maps is a slight let down and become extremely cluttered when 8 players are playing let alone the fully supported 16 players â?“ hopefully weâ??ll see new maps soon.

As youâ??d expect Painkiller certainly looks the part, thanks to the developers own proprietary engine; the various environments throughout the game are diverse and packed full of little details, whilst the enemies look simple brilliant in a deranged and slightly macabre way. Thereâ??s a nice selection of visual effects on offer, particularly taking use of pixel and vertex shaders and some nice volumetric fog to create that spooky feel. As weâ??ve said before in the review, Painkiller incorporates the Havok 2.0 physics engine to fantastic effect; itâ??s no over-statement to say that Painkiller represent some of the finest real-time physics weâ??ve seen in a videogame, as building collapse under damage and bodies fly realistically after taking a blast from a shotgun.

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  • Graphics: 93%
  • Sound: 88%
  • Gameplay: 63%
  • Originality: 62%
  • Longevity: 77%
Overall Score: 7/10
All in all, Painkiller offers enjoyment, but sadly only for a limited time. We were massively disappointed by the comical AI, which definitely has a substantial impact on the game – Serious Sam has shown that run-and-gun games can be fun, but this seriously detracts from the overall experience.

There’s certainly fun to be had by seeing the physics engine and startling graphics come to life, but for most this may not be enough; the end result feels very much like a rough-around-the-edges videogame adapted from a startling tech-demo.

Thankfully the multiplayer aspects hold up; so if you’re prepared to overlook the shallow single-player mode, there’s certainly some fun to be had in the old-school multiplayer approach.

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