Painkiller is a game that's never really been away since it first appeared in 2004. While never actually receiving a formal sequel, there have been four more games since, each from a different developer, and each described as a standalone expansion. Which makes it all the more strange that Painkiller: Hell & Damnation is still not a sequel, but rather a remake. I've had my hands on five of the levels.
The original game and its first expansion were of course made by People Can Fly - they who went on to perfect the art in the far more sophisticated (and that's surely the first time anyone's used that word in association with it) Bulletstorm. Following on from them were Mindware Studios, Homegrown Games, and Eggtooth Team, each making an expandalone for publishers DreamCatcher, two of them originally fan-made mods made official. A fifth expansion appeared this year already, from Studio Med-Art, this time published by Nordic Games (who bought Dreamcatcher). They are also the publishers behind Hell & Damnation, now in the hands of a sixth studio, The Farm 51. However, it's important to note that this Polish indie features former members of the original Painkiller team from People Can Fly. Confused? Good.
It's being remade in the Unreal 3 engine (the original was their own proprietary PAIN Engine), with improvements made where they believe they're needed, and plans to include the levels from the first game, and PCF's expansion pack.
And as I loaded the preview version I thought, do I really want more Painkiller? And as I started playing in that familiar graveyard level, instantly being attacked by hordes of skellingtons I thought, do I really want more Painkiller? And as I finished the level having killed nearly 300 enemies I thought, do I really want more Painkiller? And loaded the next level.
I think that's the secret of Painkiller. No, we don't need it. It's never going to advance a medium, change the way we view gaming, nor probably make many games of the year list. But you try putting it down. Which means, yes, it absolutely manages to maintain an absolutely true-to-the-original feel, despite the move to Epic's engine.
One of the first things I tend to do when setting up the controls for an FPS is increase the mouse sensitivity - the default is never twitchy enough for me. Within about thirty seconds I'd pulled Painkiller H&D's back down again. This is, as the series has always been, a twitch-fest onslaught of frantic action, where there's no attempt at simulating human movement, no notion of mouse drag, no physics imposed upon you as a player. Push the mouse far enough and you'll spin on the ground like a top. It's about being attacked by wave after wave of enemies, gathering their souls, and then doing that some more. A lot. And from my early impressions, it does it exactly as it always did, but prettier.
Not exceptionally prettier, I should add. I don't know whether there has been deliberate effort involved to try to make the Unreal Engine look more like the original Painkiller, but it's safe to say you won't be wowed out of your chair. Brown on brown is rarely an engaging colour-palette, and here there are certainly some very poor textures. It's early code, of course, so that could all change before it's out. But in levels such as the large opera house, you can tell the issue is a lack of finesse more than anything. There's no doubting it looks crude. But then, it's Painkiller, and it always has.
Crude's a compliment as well as a criticism here. That sense of brain-free violence is all present and correct, enemies exploding into bloody blobs as you unthinkingly mow them down. The weapons are as meaty and over-generous, from flung spinning blades to shotguns, nail guns to mad spinny knives. The only disappointment is the new version of the stake-firing gun, which feels far less powerful now, and far too slow to reload in compensation. It'd be nice to see that get a bit beefed up. (Beefed? Stake? Geddit?)
Enemies do exactly what they should - they run toward you. The animations are all decent, and there's some lovely models in there. And it's great that despite the frenzy, each is cartoonishly distinct such that you can adopt micro-tactics for taking them out most efficiently. Aiming for the feet on those dudes with the big shields is always great, as is trapping a whole gang of hooded bastards with arcing electricity, and then slaughtering the lot of them. And the levels, as ever, are just the right size - linked by checkpoints earned by clearing each wave of enemies - but not over-staying their welcome in a game so clearly focused on those with the attention spans of a
Do I really want more Painkiller? Or in this case, want Painkiller again? If you stopped me in the street and asked me, I'd likely say no. But sit me down in front of it and I'll keep on playing and playing. I just don't know that I want it. I think that's the challenge in front of Nordic - convincing 2012 that it still wants Painkiller, because I reckon if they can get people to sit in front of it, they'll find an audience.
Painkiller: Hell & Damnation is due to appear on the 31st October this year, and you can pre-order it on Steam now.