Painkiller: Overdose

Review

posted 1/29/2008 by Sean Colleli
other articles by Sean Colleli
The original Painkiller appeared on the FPS scene a few years back as the rebellious kid who bucked the establishment. Published by Dreamcatcher Interactive, Painkiller eschewed heavily scripted sequences and dialogue laden cutscenes for pure down n’ dirty action. It was a throwback to Doom, Quake and Duke Nukem, to the good old days where you didn’t need to be a crowbar wielding scientist fighting Orwellian cops to have fun. The story was simple, and clearly expressed by the game’s tagline—“heaven has a hitman.”

An expansion pack and an Xbox port followed, but no official sequel. Czech developer Mindware Studios liked the series so much that they started work on an unofficial expansion of their own. Dreamcatcher Interactive took notice and, rather than issue a cease-and-desist, they licensed Mindware’s project and gave them full support. The resulting half-sequel is Painkiller Overdose, a different take on the original formula, with a new story and main character.

The opening cutscene plays like a page out of an angry emo kid’s diary, repeating such words as “hate,” “fury,” “pain” and “death” numerous times. The protagonist is Belial, an angel/demon hybrid who’s been imprisoned for centuries, escapes and is seriously pissed off. He sets out on a revenge quest, hell-bent on slaughtering the demons that locked him up and cut off his wings. Overdose supposedly ties up some loose ends from the first game and acts as an “interquel,” with the promise of a sequel sometime in the future. All of this plot business need not concern you, because Overdose is basically Serious Sam in hell.

Seriously (no pun intended), that’s what it reminds me of. Overdose drops you into a sequence of seemingly unrelated levels—a demon city, an Eastern/Japanese neighborhood, a desert, outer space—and sets you off gibbing demons of various shapes and sizes. Overdose is an unabashed old-school shooter, and the whole point of the game is to splatter monsters. There’s not a lot of thinking involved and it’s a formula you’ve no doubt seen innumerable times before, but it still works.

Floods of bad guys spawn and rush you in each room of every level, with little thought to their own preservation or tactical strategy. They can range from a flimsy skeleton to a hulking demon lord, but their means of attack is always a straight charge, and the means of dealing with them is invariably lead.

Or, a reasonable facsimile of lead. The enemies you face are only different in appearance and strength, but Overdose does do a decent job of mixing up the ways you kill them. The weapon you start with is a severed demon head, which presumably belonged to the unfortunate guard posted outside Belial’s cell. You quickly locate a fragmented cube that can spin like a buzz saw or latch onto enemies like a grappling hook. The third gun you find is a shotgun that fires bones…and is made of bones too. The obligatory crossbow shoots darts, but also launches exploding shrunken heads. These somewhat creative weapons are joined by FPS staples, including a rocket launcher and an automatic rifle.
Even if the guns are creative in concept, there really isn’t an innovative way to use them. Overdose isn’t shy about being a straight-up FPS—the gameplay consists mainly of blasting everything that moves. Even the more unique guns are cleverly disguised generic shooter fare. The demon head is a laser gun, the hell cube is essentially a chainsaw, and the bone gun is really just a shotgun.

A few of the guns tend to be a bit erratic, which breaks the run and gun pace sometimes. The bone shotgun’s damage feels random; sometimes it’ll shred a bigger demon or send him flying, but a weaker baddy will take two or three close-range shots before he dies. Most of the other guns have this apparent randomness in their damage level and accuracy.

The uneven gunplay is one of many flaws that break the pace of the game. Overdose is at its best when you’re running along, guns blazing, your screen splattered with gibs, but this adrenaline-fueled gameplay just isn’t consistent enough to keep the game interesting. The levels are broken up into small bite-sized rooms, where you’ll clear out a hoard of hellspawn in cramped quarters. Ammo is littered about, but the only health you get are measly pickups that demon corpses leave behind. These swirling “souls” only remain for a few brief seconds and restore very little health, so you’ll often find yourself scrambling for these meager scraps while enemies beat on you. Clearing out a room will give you a more substantial health powerup, but at that point the action is over, and this health refill doesn’t even appear on harder difficulties.

The souls do play another role that adds a little depth. Once you collect 66 of them Belial will go full demon; his screen turns white, enemies glow red, he becomes invulnerable and can kill anything with a glance. This hypermode only lasts a few seconds, but it is exhilarating and does a good job of clearing out a room full of tougher enemies.

I just wish there was some more space to use this power, or to shoot it out in general. Serious Sam was noteworthy for its absolutely massive outdoor environments, which it populated with dozens, sometimes hundreds of enemies at a time. Overdose tries to emulate that style of play, but wide open spaces are few and far between. The levels are segmented into small chunks, so you rarely get the sense of fighting an epic battle in the underworld.

Even if they aren’t huge, the environments are at least pretty, in a fire and brimstone way. Overdose has quality art direction that makes its rather generic shooter world into the world of the damned. You’ll encounter your typical hell levels, which are scorched by persistent flames and blanketed in ash, but this hellish theme carries over to the other levels too. The Asian dojo level is obvious in its Japanese influences, from enemies to architecture, but these elements also have a demonic flair. Each level manages to have its own personality, but stays within the framework of the game’s premise. I appreciated this synergy, even if most of the graphics were eye candy that didn’t do much to liven up the gameplay.

I didn’t notice many shader effects, if there were any at all, so it’s impressive that Overdose manages to look good without normal-mapping everything. On the downside, the levels take a long time to load, even from quick-loads. I could forgive this in a high polygon, shader-heavy resource hog like Crysis, but Overdose is running on older technology, and slow load times is evidence of sloppy programming.

The sound work isn’t bad, but it won’t impress either. Overdose’s music is a collection of steady beats and instrumentals that quicken when the action heats up. The music never really got my attention; it was there mostly as an undercurrent, and each piece fit the corresponding level’s theme. Sound effects follow suit, matching each level’s stereotypical setting and enemies. The weapons sounded a little underpowered—none of them had very satisfying effects, which added to their sense of weakness. Belial occasionally utters wisecracks when toasting a demon or grabbing some health, but Duke Nukem he isn’t. His lines aren’t all that original (or, at least they don’t reference Evil Dead) and he tends to repeat them too much. I appreciate the attempt to give Belial some personality, but I’d prefer if he took some pointers from Dr. Freeman.

The one element that keeps Overdose from being completely derivative is its Tarot Card system, a holdover from the first Painkiller. By completing certain requirements in a level, you get a special card, which you can organize on a board for some really cool powers. Getting these cards is the hard part—the requirements are usually tedious, like finding every last scrap of ammo in a level, or breaking all of the clay pots you find. Overdose gets difficult quickly, and on the harder settings these cards can be a lifesaver. I just wish I didn’t have to obsessive-compulsively scour a level to unlock them.

Overdose also has a multiplayer mode, so when you tire of the intentionally mindless solo campaign you can slug it out with other humans. You’d think that an old-school FPS like Overdose would lend itself well to multiplayer, but the available maps hinder the experience. They’re all quite small, so if you have eight or more people running around there’s rarely a second to catch your breath, much less plan any kind of strategy. I quickly found myself longing for some Team Fortress 2, and with very few people playing Overdose in the first place, that’s where I ended up.

It’s probably just as well. Painkiller Overdose is primarily a single player experience. It’s linear, derivative and straightforward, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. Overdose is an exercise in just how much dumb, old fashioned shooter you can stand. Its creative art direction makes it surprisingly pretty, and the hoards of hell denizens to blow away keep the action at a continuous, if not consistent pace. As an expansion pack, Overdose does its job but adds its own sense of style to the Painkiller series. If it were budget priced, I’d have no problem recommending it to fans of classic FPSs, but with a standing MSRP of $40, Painkiller Overdose is just a little too pricey for what it offers.




C-
I could’ve been corny and given this game a 6.6, but it deserves a little more than that. Sure it’s mindless action that gets a little monotonous, but sometimes it’s relaxing to blast some demons without any pesky story or gameplay gimmicks getting in the way. For a brainless shooter the price tag is a bit high, but at least you know exactly what you’re getting.