This week, a Painkiller retrospective.
Now that we've left GTA IV in the dust and MGS4 is still an overly verbose speck on the horizon, we've entered a time of year known as "The Season of Bugger All's Coming Out," too far from Christmas to be of any interest to publishers. So the flow of big-name titles slows to the point that internet game critics can relax a bit and indulge themselves with reviews of old games that interest them and no one else, either to bring exposure to an underappreciated gem or add a few bitchslaps that it managed to escape the first time around. So let's talk about a game I found in a bin.
Painkiller is a first-person shooter from 2004 by Polish developer People Can Fly, perhaps best known for their previous title E.T. for the Atari 2600. Not really, of course. Painkiller is the only game by People Can Fly, which makes it all the more amazing that Painkiller is fucking awesome and can kick the arse of most big-name mainstream titles and have them for breakfast afterwards. Which is a shame, because if the game blew goats, I could have made a funny joke like, "Painkiller, you'll certainly need one." Painkiller is in the same bucket as Serious Sam and the original Dooms in that it serves as an antidote to fancy-pants, complex, modern FPSing. There are no stealth elements, no key hunting, no escort quests, no dorky support characters dribbling in your earhole, no mission objectives besides "kill everyone"; there's just you, some guns, and the entire population of Murdertown between you and where you need to be. It's pure genocidal fun, which many FPS developers these days seem to think is somehow beneath them.
Some people refer to Painkiller as the unofficial Doom 3, since the actual Doom 3 tripped over something in the dark, banged its head, and forgot that it wasn't System Shock . I'm not about to shake my walking stick and say FPSes were a lot better before they started putting on airs, but it is worth remembering that sometimes all we want is the relentless catharsis of old-school action gaming, blended with the immersive greyish-brown of current-generation technology, and that's a niche Painkiller fills beautifully. It hangs out in the rough side of FPS Town, where keycard puzzles don't venture for fear of getting curbstomped. That's not to say Painkiller is nothing but murdering tons of dudes; there's a series of unlockable bonus cards that make it easier to murder tons of dudes, there's a soul-collecting gameplay element that results in a new and interesting way to murder tons of dudes... OK, so maybe it is nothing but murdering tons of dudes, but it does it so well what more could you want? You could explore the levels and hunt for secret rooms and treasures if you really must, but if more than a minute passes without a dude and a murder, you're not playing it right.
It's like after the developers were resigned to making an unsophisticated shooter, they vowed to make it the most stylish unsophisticated shooter ever, and spent all the leftover escort mission and fetch-quest money on tarting it up. Levels range disjointedly from giant cathedrals to military bases, and the level design gives me a big fat architectural stiffy. There are over 50 distinct varieties of dude to murder, all amazingly well-designed (they don't give me any kind of stiffy, though; that would be gay.) The weapons are a bold effort to escape the usual line-up of melee, pistol, shotgun, machine gun, rocket launcher, overpowered exotic thing that you never get ammo for and only use in boss fights anyway. The default melee weapon is the titular Painkiller, a rotating blade arrangement perfect for forecasting light showers of body parts and reenacting the lawnmower scene from the movie Braindead (that's Dead-Alive if you're American and fat.) As for the guns, I could mention the hugely satisfying penis-extension gun that pins baddies to walls with entire trees, but all you really need to know is that there's a gun that shoots shurikens and lightning. I wish I could make something like that up. It shoots shurikens and lightning; it could only be more awesome if it had tits and was on fire.
Amazingly, there is a story, contained entirely within overlong between-mission cinematics and which concern a man resembling a shaved bear, whose life is a cavalcade of success and happiness and sunshine and flowers before he takes one too many lingering looks at his sexy wife and smacks straight into a truck. Wifey goes to heaven, while our hero goes to Purgatory, because God wants him to kill the generals of Satan's army, who are trying to invade through some graves, and blahdy-blahdy-blah. The story is entirely needless and entirely forgotten during the actual gameplay, but you wouldn't think it the way the cinematics bang on and on, emptying huge dustbins full of half-baked expositional dialogue into our screaming faces because they were determined to crowbar this shit in somewhere. Now, I'm one of the first advocates of games-as-art, so I like a good narrative, but any game in which you can make all of an enemy's limbs fly off in different directions is already a work of art.
There are certainly plenty of criticisms, aside from the fact that the storyline can go fuck itself: the criteria to unlock the bonus cards are obnoxiously difficult in some levels; souls take ages to emerge from the corpses, so if you're trying to collect them, then you have to hang around your conquered foes twiddling your thumbs, which breaks the flow somewhat; the AI is pathetic, with enemies often getting stuck behind scenery while you throw bits of rolled-up newspaper and laugh; but any criticism I find is immediately quashed when I remember that one of the guns shoots shurikens and lightning.
So that's Painkiller; more proof that the best way to blow off steam is to blow off someone's nadgers.
Sold his soul to Santa: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Keep going on about Mario Kart motherfuckers it only strengthens my resolve
Phew crikey I've been waiting eight months to use this review