The pulp action first-person shooter, Painkiller, draws its gothic curtains closed in Painkiller: Hell Wars. Combining scenarios from the original as well as the Battle Out of Hell expansion for the PC (albeit with notable levels missing), Hell Wars places a proper headstone on this highly-praised mini-series.
Running and gunning through Painkiller’s gameplay is like sleeping with an ex: It’s familiar territory, it skips a lot of foreplay, and it doesn’t expect you to call back too often. Unfortunately, unless this is breaking your virginal experience with Painkiller on the Xbox, then your heart’s probably moved on by now.
What makes this such an acclaimed success from the get-go is its old school Dick & Jane tactics. The Dick, in this case, is heaven-hired gunman Daniel Garner. Daniel gets tossed into a purgatorial lions’ den after a fatal car crash. His woman seemingly strolls through the pearly gates just fine, but the Alpha & Omega has a tiny favor to ask of Daniel first: Stop an imminent holy war from erupting between heaven and hell. Oh, and you have to do it alone. So, no pressure.
The levels’ settings jump incongruously over a metaphorical map of anywhere you might’ve felt like you were in purgatory. At an opera house. In an orphanage. And of course, General Sherman’s Civil War mantra lives on: “War is hell.” And it gives away nothing to say that the final stage is one of the most striking imaginings of hell ever depicted in a video game. What at first looks like a graphical glitch turns into a very chilling revelation about the history of man. Simultaneously, what at first looks like a climactic final battle turns into a hellish exercise in futility. When it comes to the final boss, all I’m saying is: Good friggin’ luck.
The stage bosses leading up to the end are huge, sit-back-in-your-seat encounters. They’re not Shadow of the Colossus huge, but they’re an FPS equivalent, and puzzling out how to take them down is the greatest challenge you’ll face. Again, there’s no continuity between the levels, and there’s often nothing connecting stage bosses to their own levels except a load screen. This doesn’t strip away the fun factor and attractive design, however, and watching these colossi topple is gratifyingly worth wiping the sweat off your forehead.
The other side of the boss coin, though, is the peon-packed stages leading up to them. A healthy menu of enemies roll out, a la carte, keeping target practice fast and furious. But target practice is fun for only so long before a glossy sheen formulates over your eyes. Enemies fly, topple, and get thrown backwards under your ceaseless hail of gunfire. And still, too much of this factory-line shooting gallery can weigh heavily on your eyelids.
Some reviewers have made it sound like the killing fields are populated nonstop, that you’re never entitled a breather between chapters. Actually, the opposite is showstoppingly true on multiple occasions. After decimating predetermined numbers of enemies (a superficial trigger for each level), the next progressive step sometimes proves elusive. The compass at the top of the screen only locates enemies, not save points and doorways. Despite the linearity of the level design, finding out where to go next becomes an unwelcome guessing game. (Now where did that glowy pentagram save point go? It leads to the next stage, but I’ve been running in circles for the last 20 minutes now….)
And running is your best friend in these gigantic, sprawling stages. The architecture is super-sized and squarely drawn out in a majority of the external and internal maps. Daniel Garner’s cheetah-like speeds become overly apparent inside of cramped quarters, like the orphanage, for instance; but his fast-forward running is oft balanced by the oversized, beautiful terrain and infrastructure designs. It gives you an appropriate feeling of smallness inside of a big, bad afterlife, and at the same time opens up wide, six-lane avenues of gory beast killing.
A literal “big” and “bad” usage of the gameplay mechanics falls through when platforming comes into play. Jumping is brutal to control, and getting to that extra special something over and above and between that fenced-in fire escape, or on top of that slippery steam pipe nearly three stories up … is going to try your patience. Anybody willing to tackle some of these maniacally difficult jumps 1,000 times over is getting their ADHD card revoked. I’m nowhere near having an attention deficit (nor am I a slouch with a gamepad), and I had to just move on after helplessly hopping at too many circus-clown jumps.
The multiplayer and online support make up for much, with well-designed battle arenas, appropriately tweaked weaponry, and tighter controlled platforming. Due to the nature of the multiplayer beast, the arenas are not as awe-inspiring art-wise, but they keep the adrenal flow high and sustained enough for an evening of deathmatch. For many, the multiplayer will pick up the ball where the single-player campaign dropped it.
Because Painkiller harkens back to the opening salvos of the golden age of original Doom and Quake, its simplistic level design and game technicalities have been forgiven much. A lot of shooters slather on manifold options and complicated tactical alternatives. Not so, here. A lot of shooters struggle with laborious pains to get out of the brain dead A.I. bucket. Not so here either. A lot of shooters carve away at linearity to provide a multiplicity of outcomes that foster emergent gameplay devices. In Painkiller? Huh-uh.
This is bread-and-butter gaming for FPS fans -- for better or for worse. Its slightly animated art style gives it some longevity in the design department, and, all in all, it’s aging gracefully. What it does, it does well, merely because it doesn’t do too much except punch you in the crotch with some shallow, hard-hitting action. So Painkiller and Battle Out of Hell created Hell Wars in their own image, and they saw that it was good.