IGN Review of Painkiller: Hell Wars
It's been a tortuous development cycle, rife with delays, but People Can Fly's Painkiller: Hell Wars is finally on retail shelves. Basically the same thing as the 2004 PC version with a few extra levels, Painkiller offers first-person shooter fans a mindless, gory shooting experience. In addition to its 22 single player stages and four difficulty settings, the game provides seven multiplayer modes. While it definitely delivers plenty of gib-filled firefights with overpowered weaponry, the game falls flat after a few hours of play.
Though it's far from epic, there is a storyline mashed into the frantic shooting. Ripped violently from the mortal plane by a car crash, Daniel Garner is tossed inexplicably into a purgatorial dimension. The reasons for his presence there soon become clear: he must do away with all Lucifer's generals to gain entrance into heaven and meet up again with his wife. Told through grainy cinematic sequences, Garner greets a few demonic and heavenly characters that point him in the right direction. Having a story in a game like this is certainly a nice perk, but it does little to assuage the boredom that will eventually overcome players as they blast through the rest of Painkiller.
The levels are split up into five chapters, each culminating in a boss battle. Brutally butchering every last enemy in a stage is the only way to advance, and for this players have a number of options. Aside from the melee Painkiller buzzsaw, five weapons are eventually made available. Each has two fire modes, generally unrelated to each other. One armament, for instance, combines a machine gun and a flamethrower. Another weds an electrical discharge and a different kind of machine gun. The shotgun, acquired early in the game, proves to be the most effective against both grunt soldiers and bosses. Equipped with an alternate freeze ray, it proves especially deadly since most of the game's combat takes place at very close range.
Proving more than adequate for dismantling demons, there really weren't any issues with the game's weapon abilities. Choosing between them, however, is a pain. Instead of simply being able to cycle through each with the D-Pad, the game forces only two to be assigned at a time. To access any other weapons, it's necessary to hit the black button, reassign D-pad hotkeys, and head back into the action. It's a minor inconvenience, but aggravating nonetheless as it interrupts the otherwise fast-paced shooting action. Whenever players collect 33 souls from fallen enemies, this inconvenience can be bypassed momentarily, as players enter an invulnerable demon mode where every enemy can be dismembered with a flux of dimensional fabric.
Settling into Painkiller's groove over the first few stages is entertaining. Some of the locales are bizarre, the enemy designs intriguingly odd, and there's always heavy metal music raging during battle. Environments range from a cathedral early on, to a military base, haunted orphanage, and Leningrad. None of these areas really relate to each other or hook into a central theme, aside from being filled with bloodthirsty monstrosities. Enemy types include undead Nazis, tanks, ninjas, samurai, zombies, spectral children, giant mechanical spiders, inmates wrapped in electrified straightjackets, and various other types. Despite what may seem like a variety of locales and enemies when written out like above, Painkiller blends into an indistinguishable mess after a few hours of play.
This is partly due to the graphics, level design, and enemy A.I. Though each level has a different style, their colors are remarkably similar. Smatterings of brown, black, yellow, and grey are the primaries in each stage. Architecture does differ from stage to stage, but there's rarely a moment when a stage feels refreshingly different. Instead, most areas feel vaguely if not intensely familiar to territory previously visited. A few exceptions, such as the cathedral and the orphanage level, do exist.
Also functioning to try and break the environmental monotony are pieces of destructible architecture. By destroying explosive barrels or other unstable elements, it's possible to topple large stone columns or towers of boxes. The entertainment value derived is corrupted in some cases by the game's structure of player progression. Each stage is divided into smaller sections within which players must eliminate every enemy that appears. Initially, there are a ton of foes. For some reason, however, the respawn rates dwindle to pumping out only one or two foes at a time after the first few waves. Without huge masses of enemies onscreen, there's little challenge, forcing players to remain in a level section blasting away for far longer than seems necessary. In many areas, enemies will be perched up high or far in the distance. This requires more precision shots which in a grisly, adrenaline-charged game like Painkiller, seems out of place.
Doing more to hamper the gameplay is the enemy A.I. Despite their varying appearances and attacks, they do little to make combat more interesting as the game goes on. They may take more shots to die or be more plentiful in the later levels, but all enemies ever do is run straight at you or stand still and shoot. A few will use other monsters as shields, and set themselves or others on fire, but after a round of shotgun blasts it won't matter. Even in Leningrad, the final shootout stage, the Nazi zombies run directly at players while shooting, just like the enemies in the very first level. Firing a shotgun the first thousand times at mindless hordes may be entertaining, but it turns into a wearying chore afterwards. Were the enemies to display more interesting patterns of attack and engagement, this wouldn't have been a problem.
Boss fights are a bright spot, giving trigger happy gamers a change of pace. The first couple are brainless, but the endbosses of the third and fourth stages provide enjoyable challenges. Unfortunately, the final fight is terrible. It's not fun in any conceivable sense, and confoundingly frustrating in its design. It's actually one of the worst final levels I've ever played.
A few things keep the action from getting staggeringly stale. First are the tarot cards. Earned by meeting specific conditions on every stage, tarot cards can be employed as permanent or temporary boons in each single player stage. Between levels these can be activated by spending coins, which are acquired by breaking objects in levels. Some benefits include increased damage, reload time, and extra ammunition boxes.
Multiplayer modes provide more of a reason to own the game than any of the single player. Free for all, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and duel are the standard modes. Voosh, where everyone has infinite ammo but weapons switch at prearranged intervals, and The Light Bearer, where a quad-damage power-up passes around between players, are Painkiller's more exotic modes. From what we played, the game performed fine online, actually running more swiftly than many parts of the single player campaign. Unfortunately, during the numerous days where we ventured online for some stake-gunning action, hardly anyone was on at all. Every time we quick searched for all game types nothing game up. Being forced to create our own match any time, it took up to fifteen minutes before anyone joined, even longer for more. Of course, this is no fault of the game, just its sales. It's definitely something players should be aware of, though.
The game looked sharp on the PC back in 2004. On the Xbox, it's not so good. Animations and character designs are enjoyable to behold, but level textures are bland and repetitive. The game suffers from numerous bouts of slowdown. Enemies occasionally get stuck in walls and ceilings after they're killed, and sometimes even before. This gets annoying, as enemies that get stuck out of sight on a level mean you can't advance until you reload your game, or unless they become miraculously unstuck. At least the physics are good. Pinning enemies to walls with the stake gun is always fun, as is pulverizing their bodies with rockets and sending them sprawling around with a shotgun blast.
Painkiller's soundtrack is one of its strongest points. Heavy metal music blasts every time monsters appear, which complements the gory gameplay very well. Enemy utterances are occasionally humorous, but very much repetitive. Few foes say more than one thing, which gets annoying when you fight two hundred of them. Some of the weapons at least have some good sonic effects, though some, like the rocket launcher, are noticeably lacking.
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