It is easy to spend a large amount of time reminiscing while playing computer games. Sure, the industry is only a few decades old, but games from the past seem brighter, louder and more impressive. Everything today seems grey by comparison. In part it is just nostalgia, we remember items of the past with far more reverence than perhaps they deserve, but in other cases games made twenty years ago may just be better.
This essence was something the original Painkiller from 2004 wanted to capture, taking its format from classic first-person shooters such as Doom, Quake and Unreal. Having hordes of monsters charging towards meeting their end in front of an unending spray of shotgun shrapnel is a far more exciting prospect than the frustrating cunning of the enemies in Halo and Call Of Duty. Perhaps. Painkiller: Hell & Damnation takes this wonton reminiscing one step further with a re-imagination of the original Painkiller, including parts of the subsequent add-on Battle out of Hell, in the Unreal engine (the Hell & Damnation wording standing for HD in case you were wondering).
If this was all that the developers at The Farm 51 wished to achieve then they have certainly done their jobs. Painkiller: Hell & Damnation looks impressive, resplendent in high definition textures with corpses blasting to pieces with satisfying explosive aplomb and still running at blisteringly fast speeds on fairly low-spec machines. Anti-hero Daniel Garner’s own version of Hell, the setting for the game, has been faithfully recreated with the requisite fiery landscapes and cemeteries as well as the bizarre ruckus in an opera house and even the brilliant battle on the infernal rollercoaster of Loony Park from Battle out of Hell.
The original Painkiller prided itself on the entertaining and explosive deaths of the minions of hell. In Hell & Damnation the enemies still shatter into pieces, backflip violently, and amusingly collapse as they are cut down by a variety of impressive weapons, including the new Soulcatcher device that, as well as firing deadly shurikens from its main cannon, also has a secondary fire that rips the souls from their bodies and converts them to your cause. It is all a riotous rollic through eternal damnation with a soundtrack of heavy metal music pumping out the speakers.
The basic premise behind every Painkiller: Hell & Damnation level is to clear an area of monsters, collect the souls that rise from their corpse, then move on to the next section. The issue is that after rampaging through the first few levels, the entertaining sheen of nostalgia quickly becomes dulled. Monsters will mindlessly charge towards you, and while it remains slightly amusing to blow them back to oblivion, after some time it begins to lack any sense of purpose. Soon you will be wishing to get on with it and find the meaty centre of the game. Only that moment never comes. If anything the game gets in the way of progress, by forcing the player to hunt down every last foul beast before unlocking the next area, which can sometimes end up being a chore when that final monster can end up being half the map away.
The monstrous sized bosses provide some form of diversion from the daily shotgunning grind, often standing so tall that they can be seen across the other side of the map. Sadly they lack any real imagination or ingenuity, often turning out to merely be much larger representations of previously eviscerated foes. While it is difficult to criticise a remake of the original Painkiller for not breaking boundaries, it is a shame that the developers failed to take advantage of new technology to evolve these massive bosses into something more dynamic and impressive.
Those with astute memories may notice that the levels from Painkiller: Hell & Damnation are not exact replicas, with slight variances in order and layout, though it should not ruin the experience of any but the most devout Painkiller followers. That being said, even with levels from Battle out of Hell bundled in, the selection of fourteen levels included in Painkiller: Hell & Damnation do not make up a particularly long game with the possibility to complete the campaign in under six hours. The difficulty levels can massage this figure considerably with anything less than Nightmare mode a complete walk in the unconsecrated park, while the highest level, Trauma, (unlocked after completing all achievements in Nightmare) should only be attempted by those with a penchant for unrelenting pain. Tracking down secrets and holy relics, hidden in ways that only an old-school game knows how, also provides some longevity. Completing certain achievements in each level unlocks powerful Tarot cards that grant Daniel special abilities to aid in his fight through hell. While they provide an interesting change in style and approach, their use often seem overpowered and almost gamebreaking with skills ranging from health and speed bonuses to slowing down time.
The single player campaign may be flawed in many ways but it is still a barrel of old-school shooting fun, especially if you are old enough to remember the games Painkiller is attempting to impersonate. Playing along with a friend in cooperative mode adds some extra hilarity and entertainment as well as you watch your ally rip enemies apart before your eyes. The statistics provided at the end of each level, detailing kills and souls stolen, also provide a unique competitive edge. It is a shame however that this mode is limited to only one extra teammate, as it feels the action could become brilliantly insane with more players and extra monsters exploding all around.
The original Painkiller’s depth and staying power came not from the nostalgic battle through hell of the single player but in its ridiculously fast paced multiplayer. With its emphasis on twitch reactions and weapon hoarding it quickly grew a cult following which saw it become one of the main first-person shooters played in professional tournaments. This is still often the case today. Painkiller: Hell & Damnation’s multiplayer follows closely to the successful roots of its predecessor, with players bunny-hopping (a technique that involves timed jumping to achieve incredible speed) like mad across the map, chasing weapons and armour upgrades before ripping each other to shreds.
Multiplayer will drive you to scream at the screen or throw your head back with laughter, particularly if you can gather enough of your own buddies to battle against. Pulling off last minute kill steals, or punishing players with the titular Painkiller melee device is always good for bragging rights. Perhaps the biggest problem for this remake will be gathering the numbers to maintain a healthy community. With slight variances in the weight of the guns and the feel of the maps, it is hard to see the cult community migrating from their beloved original to this shiny remake. The Stakegun for example, a vicious one shot kill weapon that pins enemies to walls, lacks the original’s punch, while other weapons such as the Electrodriver which sends out shocking bursts of electricity is alarmingly overpowered, using up far less ammo than the original. With a community as tight-knit and devoted as Painkiller’s I can see this version struggling to reach the same heights, particularly since graphical overhauls will mean very little to them.
Painkiller: Hell & Damnation is being released as a budget title, meaning it can be picked up for relatively little expense (£18 on Steam at release). This makes the game far easier to recommend to players who simply want a dose of insanity, nostalgia and RSI inducing fun. Yes, it is mindless fun, but if your mind still suffers from fond memories of games long since buried in dust then it is certainly worth investigating. Sadly, that is all this remake really achieves. While it was never The Farm 51’s intention to reinvent or revolutionise the first-person genre, it feels like they could have strayed slightly further outside the tight remake boundaries that have been set and made a more impressive game. Cooperative and multiplayer add significant value to the game, but unless it is adopted by the community, it is possible that the mode will die a death only a few months after release.