Review: Painkiller: Hell and Damnation (PC)

2004′s Painkiller was an homage to the classics that pioneered the FPS genre, but more than that it was just about the simple visceral satisfaction of slaying hordes of demons. Like Serious Sam before it, Painkiller sought to fill the gaping hole torn open by fast-paced action games like Quake. Its emphasis was on killing large numbers of random enemies with a large array of  weapons.

The decidedly old school sensibilities of Painkiller were welcomed as a breath of fresh air by critics and fans alike.  Over the years since its release Painkiller saw a number of sequels and expansions — however, these were not considered to improve substantially on the original and were not received quite as well. The original development studio People Can Fly has since gone on to make such modern hits as Bulletstorm – however, they’re not responsible for this latest Painkiller entry. It turns out a few key developers of the original game have involved themselves in different studios, one of which being The Farm 51 which is responsible for Painkiller: Hell and Damnation.

So what is this new game exactly? Is it just another ham handed sequel? You would be forgiven for thinking so. There is very little up front to suggest otherwise. Hell and Damnation, however is actually a strange type of remake. Strange in that it awkwardly continues its plot from previous games, but at the same time re-uses most of the levels that were in the first game and a couple from its first expansion Battle out of Hell. For the most part the game doesn’t even try to justify this point.

In the first game protagonist Daniel Garner found himself in limbo after a car crash with his wife. An angel tasks him with killing four of Lucifer’s generals in order to help him see his wife in heaven. That, as you might expect, doesn’t quite go according to plan. Now in Hell and Damnation Daniel Garner (now suddenly voiced by John St. John, voice of Duke Nukem) is still hanging around in limbo, and Death shows up and tells him that if he collects 7000 souls he will let him see his wife again. Understandably, Daniel Garner reluctantly agrees and proceeds to basically do everything he did the first time around, but supposedly with a different motivation.

What is absolutely essential for you to understand is that Painkiller is not a thinking man’s game. The objective arrow that exists in this game is only pointing at the next wave of enemies for you to kill violently, or to conveniently point your way to the next portal out of there. That said, as far as old school killing simulators go, this is one of the more creative ones. The key is in variety. The enemies can be templar knights, headless zombies, creepy children, WW1 gas mask soldiers, witches wheeling garbage bins, or… well, anything really. They all show up in hordes, and they all have a unique way in which they attack you, be that melee or ranged.

 

To tear these hordes into a bloody mess you need weapons, and Painkiller’s arsenal is unlike any you have ever seen. Every weapon has two modes of fire, though often the “alternate” mode is just as useful as the primary fire. For example, the rocket launcher just so happens to also be a mini-gun, and the machinegun happens to have a flame thrower attachment. A fan favorite is the stake gun, which is back from the original game, though its trademark ability to stick enemies to any surface seems somewhat harder to pull off this time around. Hell and Damnation offers one completely new weapon called the Soulcatcher — this weapon can suck out the souls of enemies, and can also shoot giant saw blades that can cut through a line of enemies. The combination of these varied enemies and weapons creates a very fun experience of creatively killing hordes and changing up tactics when new tougher enemies show up.

The variety in this game even extends to its varied levels which aren’t content to keep you in the same type of environment for too long. You start in a graveyard, and will find yourself in opera houses, coliseums, creepy orphanages, swamps, and of course a circus. The game does a good job of keeping things interesting despite the repetition of killing one demon after another. One complaint about the levels may be that even with the addition of the Battle out of Hell Expansions levels, there are some levels from the original game not present. If this game is to be the definitive version of Painkiller, omitting these levels as well as the removal of a couple of the main boss encounters of the original game is a curious decision, though the game’s new story does not accommodate one of those bosses.

So the question presents itself: Is this really the definitive version of Painkiller? How does it stack up? Well, Hell and Damnation offers some minimally spruced up visuals due to its conversion to Unreal Engine 3, which has added various lighting effects. What seems most peculiar though is how little a visual difference there appears to between this new version and the 2004 original. The game doesn’t seem to have substantially improved its visuals beyond the clarity, lighting, and some detail improvements to characters.  The level designs are a note for note reproduction without any apparent visual re-imagining. As a result this game does not look very “modern” — it does, however, remind me of the recent spate of “HD remakes” that simply offer higher resolution versions of ancient games. Why any developer would go through the trouble of porting the original game to an entirely different game engine without substantially improving the game’s visuals is beyond me — I feel like there is wasted potential here. The game also has added a few new music loops to its library of metal “pump up” music, though this addition became less interesting when I remembered that this music will play every time a new horde of enemies appears in a level and will repeat constantly.

One of the few legitimate improvements Hell and Damnation offers over the original game is its inclusion of 2 player co-op for the entire campaign. This inclusion may well justify the purchase of this edition for many people eager to share the experience with a friend online. The game’s other multiplayer modes seem pretty standard. Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag. The one mode that seemed more suitable to this type of game was the Survival mode, which tasks players with fighting waves of enemies while competing for kills.

What truly matters here is that the game is fun. As lazy as the remake might seem, you will probably have a good time with it — particularly if you never played the original. But if you have never played a game in the Painkiller series, and are interested in doing so, here comes a rather interesting dilemma: which version should you buy? That really depends on how much you value co-op and slightly-improved “HD” graphics. You can find the original game paired with its first expansion digitally in the Painkiller Black compilation for less than half the price of Hell and Damnation. It includes all the same levels and then some, as well as a slightly less ridiculous storyline. I would recommend you play Painkiller in one form or another if you enjoy excessive violence, crazy weapons, and heavy metal, though — exactly which version depends on how much money you’re willing to spend and how much you value the few improvements over the original.

A fun if questionable remake that often misses the opportunity to improve on its source material. The addition of co-op is welcome, but you might prefer to stick to the original game, particularly if you’re a series veteran.

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