'Painkiller' is one of those rare FPS's which isn't satisfied with being just like every other game that came before it. It may not quite herald the next generation of shooters, but 'Painkiller' brings a hell of a lot of creativity and fun to the table. Its plot seems formulaic enough - you play the role of Daniel Garner, reluctant soldier in God's service. Killed in a car accident, you're desperate to be reunited with your wife in heaven. However, you don't quite qualify to stroll through the pearly gates, so now you have to to God's dirty work. Lucifer needs a spanking, and you're the one holding the paddle.
'Painkiller' actually puts some effort into creating a plot, with a few CG cutscenes thrown in at the end of every chapter. As you might expect though, it's not fleshed out much at all, and takes a distant backseat to the meat of the game. Which is of course, tromping around and killing things in particularly gruesome ways.
In general, gameplay consists of battling through huge levels. Each one is divided into a series of zones, culminating in a checkpoint. It's your job to inch your way towards these clearly marked (for the most part) points. You can count on being ambushed by large number of monsters, and the fighting is furious, and often bordering on pandemonium. There are plenty of ways to deal death, and it's best to be familiar with all of them. If you survive the onslaught you find your way to a save point. From here a new door opens up, usually close by, and it's time to move into a new section of the level while you work towards another checkpoint. This apporach is an excellent way to avoid having to traverse the same level a number of times flipping switches, or spending frustrating periods of time figuring out where to go. The sheer size of the levels means you'll be traversing several checkpoints and fighting rougly three hundred enemies (although it feels like thousands at times) before you make it to the end. Once an enemy is dispatched you can collect his soul for an extra point of health. This can be tricky at times as you need to physically pick them up before the evaporate. Once you've collected 66 souls, you morph into a demon (cause uh, an angel wouldn't make more sense?). In demon mode, it's basically a free for all as you move much faster than your enemies and can launch devestating attacks from a distance. To make things more interesting, the image inverts into coloured negatives. It's really quite an experience, and you often come to surrounded by heaps of corpses.
The sprawling battles are huge amounts of fun and can be very challenging. To add replay value and make the hard difficulty levels actually manageable, 'Painkiller' sports a handy powerup system. Each level has a Black Tarot card, which you can receive by finishing the level with certain conditions. IE, find all secret places, don't use any armor, only use the stakegun - and other tasks in that vein. Once you've collected cards you can place them for a given level. A permanent card is in effect for the entire level, such as a base health increase. Other cards can only be used once, such as endurance - which allows you take only half damage for a certain amount of time. The system works wonderfully and makes it possible to prepare your character for specific situations, such as Boss fights.
The game's 24 levels are delightfully creative and varied, and enjoyable massive. Instead of making you trudge through a number of industrial complexes or variations on hell, 'Painkiller' throws pretty well every kind of level imaginable at the player. This includes, but is in no way limited to: a floating aquatic city reminiscent of Venice, a military base complete with tanks and cargo planes, a Persian palace, an absolutely creepy asylum, old-school castles, eerie cathedrals, and perhaps one of the most visually imaginative levels out there - the final interpretation of Hell itself. Each of these maps has a unique feel to it, and a truly epic scope. On the snowy bridge you can perch on the very top of the supports with the wind whipping around you, and truly get a feel for the altitude and weather. The medieval castle is surrounded by seige weapons (some of which fire at you) and imposing battlements. It's a tremendous relief to see such variety in the levels, and 'Painkiller' keeps these enjoyable surprises coming right up until the end.
As you battle your way through these levels you'll also run into a host of enemies, most of which are specific to a few areas. The character designers over at 'People Can Fly' have have done a superlative job designing these monsters. From World War I era skeleton soldiers complete with gas masks to Crusaders sporting crossbows, the diversity of the vilains is on par with the range of levels. Stronger monsters are more than willing to use their underlings to gain the upper hand, and you'll often see Skulls picking up Hell Bikers and holding them as 'meat shields'. Enemy interactions are great, although a few more would have been appreciated. The real monsters however, are the bosses. It's hard to describe in a few words how huge Satan's generals are, but the game does an excellent job of communicating their size. You get the impression they're hundreds of feet tall as massive feet (or hooves, spikes, swamp-booties) come thundering down inches from your running body. These bosses take a lot of damage, and a little bit of intelligence as well. You won't be able to defeat them just by pumping them full of bullets (although that's pretty helful too) as you usually need to pinpoint a weakness and exploit it. This can be difficult when you're busy dodging massive attacks and meteor showers. It's an intimidating an exciting experience everytime you face off against a leviathan of this size.
With so many monsters running around, it's important to take some time and get to know your trusty weapons. Unlike most shooters, which tend to include about ten weapons (two of which you'll use), 'Painkiller' cuts the count down to five, and makes them all indispensable. Each of these five has a completely different secondary fire, so in essence you've got at least ten weapons anyways. The first is the Painkiller itself, which is hard to accurately describe. It's primarily a weapon with a spinning blade, which does an excellent job of tearing monsters apart in a bloody shower of bone and gristle. The secondary mode sends the head of the weapon flying off until it lodges in something solid, and then sends a laser beam back to the main body of the weapon. Any monster crossing this beam or hit by the head is in for a rough time. Using both modes together, it's possible to send the spinning blades flying, gruesomely maiming any monsters in the path of return. Next up is the workhorse of a shotgun, a weapon that no FPS is complete without. It does an excellent job of kicking the enemy back and its extremely useful secondary mode freezes enemies and allows you to shatter them with a blow. Especially useful for stronger monsters. The third weapon is the extraordinarily gratifying stake gun. Firing long wooden stakes is fun enough, but the real enjoyment comes in pinning enemies to walls and ceilings. In its secondary mode, the stake-gun dispenses very handy grenades which are great for clearing an area. Coming in at number four is the straightforward chaingun/rocket launcher. Useful, if you can find enough ammo for it. And finally we have the electrodriver. In primary mode this rapidly fires a number of shurikens for all your long range shredding needs, and also doubles as a very useful and visually impressive means of electrocuting your enemies. Using these modes together, you can launch an electrified shuriken grenade which will zap anyone unlucky enough to stumble across it, or even near it.
One of 'Painkiller's strenghts are its excellent graphics. They're some of the best seen in an recent FPS, rivalled only perhaps by 'Far Cry'. Actually, although 'Far Cry' may look a bit better, 'Painkiller' manages to flawlessly animate dozens of detailed enemies at the same time. Even on mid-range machines the game runs well on lower resolution settings, but there's bound to be some slowdown in frantic situations. Nevertheless, if you have the hardware it's truly a stunning experience to play through 'Painkiller' on maximum detail settings. The dynamic lighting effects are done especially well, and it shows when you're running through the dark asylum with only your flickering flashlight and the electrocuted freaks to light your way. The characters are beautifully modelled with a high number of polygons, enough so that you can get right up to them without being subjected to a mass of pixelated mush or hard angles. The graphics pair nicely with the strong physics engine, and this makes for some great visuals. Hanging bodies bounce around realistically (or so uh, we would imagine) when they're shot, and you can see the rope twist and the limbs flail. Long chains dangling from the ceilings act in the same way, and it's impressive to watch a fire fight where the chains are dancing around from the fire even as boxes explode and monsters get gunned down in in fountaining gouts of blood. Sweet!
Multiplayer mode in 'Painkiller' has been done well, although it's not exactly exceptional. The modes include basic (team)Deathmatch, and three other modes. In 'People Can Fly' you can only damage your opponents in the air, 'Voosh' gives everyone the same weapons for set periods of time, and 'Light Bearer' is like King of the Hill - with the King getting the use of quad damage power-up. The most prominent mode on the servers is easily Deathmatch, with the other three serving as largely extraneous. It's a pity more modes weren't included, such as 'Capture the Flag' or 'Bag Tag'. Support for a few player vehicles would have been very appreciated, if not quite as important. As it is the game pretty well comes down to straightforward shooting matches. Although the weapons in 'Painkiller' are great against monsters, they don't work as well against humans. The stake gun is best against predictable enemies, and with its long reload time it is best reserved only for experts. The Painkiller itself is too limited against humans, and most fights are settled by rocket launchers or the shotgun. 'Painkiller' would have been a perfect game for Cooperative mode, but unfortunately this feature is not included in the release. In general, 'Painkiller's Multiplayer is enjoyable, but it doesn't add much extra to the gaming experience as a whole.
All in all, 'Painkiller' is a truly refreshing gaming experience. It looks great, and plays even better. There's obviously a lot of creativity and effort sunk into the weapons, monsters, and levels - and these all combine to create a intense game with a driving pace. The action never lets up, and it's always finding ways to improve itself. You owe it to yourself to give this one a try.