Review: Painkiller Triple Dose (PC)

Painkiller Triple Dose
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Developer: People Can Fly
Publisher: Dreamcatcher
Release Date: 07/08/08
Minimum System Requirements: OS: Windows Vista/XP/2000, Processor: 1.5Ghz Pentium 3/Athlon or better, Memory: 512MB or more, Video Card: Any 128MB DirectX 9.0 compatible or better.

Generally speaking, most games are trying to do one of five things when they’re created: create a new genre, reinvent a genre, refine elements of the genre, crossbreed elements of multiple genres, or simply exist. Take “survival horror” for example. Alone in the Dark (the original one) “created” the genre, Resident Evil and several of its sequels refined the genre, Silent Hill, Fatal Frame and Resident Evil 4 reinvented the genre in different ways, Dead Rising and Resident Evil: Survivor crossbred elements into the genre, and Resident Evil 3 basically existed. This is common across all genres, from survival horror to fighting games to RPGs to first-person shooters, and depending on how old you are, you’ve probably seen it too many times to count.

The point of the above is this: around the time games like Half-Life 2 and Halo and such were reinventing the way FPS titles worked, adding in copious amounts of scripted scenarios, atmosphere and story exposition to draw players into the single player experience, People Can Fly opted to sit down and refine the “old-school” FPS design that players had been plugging away at since the days of Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake and Rise of the Triad into what would be the “essence” of the experience, IE cool weapons, large bloody battles, an abundance of combat with a general minimum of story, and giant monsters looking to eat you alive.

This game was Painkiller, and it was awesome.

So, four years later, Dreamcatcher has gathered up the original Painkiller game along with its expansion, Battle Out of Hell, and its stand-alone sorta-sequel, Overdose, into one package, Painkiller Triple Dose. For the low asking price of twenty dollars, you get a ton of stages, weapons, monsters, online play, and general amusement, as well as a “Making Of” video, a CD soundtrack, and a cartoon poster. This is certainly a great deal, to be sure, but if you’ve never played the game, it’s been four years since its initial release. How does it hold up in the wake of all of the metric tons of FPS titles that have come since?

As it turns out, Painkiller is still pretty good. It’s not what it was back then, of course, but it’s still a good time, especially for the price.

There are two different storylines at work in Painkiller, depending on if you’re playing the “Black Edition” that is made up of the original game and BOoH, or if you’re playing Overdose. The original storyline sees you taking on the role of one Daniel Garner, a generally okay guy who loves his wife very much, who ends up ramming his car head-on into a delivery truck, thus killing them both. The wife goes to Heaven while Daniel gets to putter around in Purgatory for a significantly long period of time before the agents of Heaven come to him and basically hand him a hit list of Satan’s minions before returning to Heaven to go on about their business. The story of Overdose casts you as Belial, a half-angel/half-demon outcast who’s been shunned by society and locked away for hundreds of years, until the completion of Daniel’s quest frees him, allowing him to basically run about seeking vengeance against everyone who wronged him way back when. In both cases, the storyline bits pop up here and there in such a way so as not to be overly complex or annoying, as the purpose of the game is less “exposition” and more “explosions”, and for what it’s worth, the stories in both games are generally pretty decent. The story of Painkiller is generally more interesting, all in all, than the story in Overdose, largely because it’s easier to empathize with a dude who wants to see his wife again than it is to empathize with the demonic Duke Nukem, as Belial is more of a throwback to characters like Duke and the guy from Blood, as he spends most of his time cracking wise and such, making Daniel’s “strong, silent protagonist” presentation more interesting and enjoyable in general. Still, with a game like this the story comes second to the carnage, and the story never becomes annoying or invasive, so all in all, it’s not bad.

Visually, well, Painkiller is a four year old game and it shows. Artistically, the enemy models are diverse and colorful, and generally are impressive in their variety, and the environments are atmospheric and often quite pleasant to look at. The weapon special effects are still fairly impressive, as are the after-effects of enemies exploding into paste and bits. That said, the enemy models are often a bit blocky up-close and look generally “square”, as it were, though this is not a huge problem because 1.) most enemies will be obliterated long before they get close enough for you to notice, and 2.) the pace of the game is so frantic you most likely won’t even stop to look. Also, the game generally runs smoothly on a system that’s equipped to handle it, and even with exceptionally huge bosses stomping about there’s no noticeable slowdown or frame rate issues. Aurally, time has done nothing to dull the music and sound quality of the game, as the sound presentation in Painkiller is still awesome. The ambient music tracks are haunting and creepy in most cases, and the battle music consists of a bunch of wholly appropriate non-vocalized heavy metal tracks that compliment the carnage nicely. The various sound effects are all spot-on, and the few instances of voice acting (besides the constant quips from Belial and the grunts and groans used when taking damage) are generally quite well done, all in all. The only audio complaint to be made, in all honesty, is that when playing Overdose, Belial feels the need to offer up snarky comments a tiny bit too often, which becomes annoying after the tenth time he has informed a dead enemy to kiss his ass in some form or fashion.

The gameplay of Painkiller essentially apes old-school FPS titles, in that you’re placed in a location with a ton of ammo, weapons and monsters, and your goal is to systematically depopulate the location until you reach the exit. This is literally the entirety of the experience; enter a room, kill everything you see, repeat until the level is over. Those looking for key-card hunts, escort missions, and narrative advancements mid-mission will need to look elsewhere, as Painkiller is about instant gratification. The name of the game here is combat, and lots of it, and Painkiller excels at this for two reasons: first, because the combat is generally fun and exciting because of how it is done, and second, because sometimes the whole “let’s cram thirty hours of talking into our forty hour game” mentality is JUST NOT WELCOME, because we have come to PLAY A GAME, not to be assaulted by your third-grade creative writing essay that you turned into a video game plot.

Part of the reason the combat works so well is because the weapons are absolutely awesome and legitimately fun to play with. Now, most games start you off with some sort of silly melee weapon that’s vaguely useful so long as you’re fighting weaker enemies, but Painkiller ignores this way of thinking by providing you with the titular Painkiller, a weapon so awesome that it’s desirable to use even AFTER you get your hands on some of the cooler weapons. Now, each gun in the game offers primary and secondary attack modes (and a few offer tertiary fire modes as well), and the Painkiller is no exception: the primary fire mode extends four spinning blades from the device that essentially slice and dice anything that gets in your path, like a medieval weed whacker, while the secondary fire mode launches the top of the device forward, either to hit/kill whatever it touches or, if it contacts a wall, to make a beam of energy between the head and the base that damages anything that steps into it, so long as you’re aiming at the head. There is then a THIRD fire mode that launches the spinning blades forward to eviscerate anything in their path. Now stop and consider the facts that

1.) this weapon has infinite ammunition, and
2.) THIS IS THE WEAKEST WEAPON IN THE GAME,

and you can, I think, figure out how awesome the rest of the game is from there. Now, there are the usual compliment of chainguns and shotguns and such, of course, but as the game really seems to be intent upon finding the most insane weaponry imaginable, these sorts of weapons actually end up being weapons like “a shotgun that’s equipped with a freeze ray”, or “a chaingun that’s equipped with a rocket launcher”, or “A GUN THAT FIRES WOODEN STAKES AS THICK AS YOUR ARM that happens to be equipped with a grenade launcher” and such. Overdose also has a ton of wacky weapons, and while most of them are palette swaps for original Painkiller weapons (IE the Razor Cube instead of the Painkiller, in a possible homage to Hellraiser, or the Bone Thrower instead of the Shotgun), it still has a few neat tricks up its sleeve (the severed head of a demon as a laser gun, for instance).

Weaponry isn’t the only thing you have on your side, however, as you also have the Black Tarot to assist you in your battles. As you complete levels, there will be objectives to complete as well, like “kill every enemy in the level” or “find all of the secrets” or “break/collect everything” or whatever. Completing these conditions unlocks cards that can be used to augment your stats, either as Silver Cards (which basically enchant you and work passively) or Gold Cards (which either modify other Gold Cards or can be used at a keystroke for a temporary boost of some sort or another). The various Black Tarot cards have all sorts of useful effects, from slowing down time to boosting your health and damage output and beyond, which makes them almost essential in some of the later game levels depending on the difficulty level chosen. You’re also able to collect the souls of fallen enemies in battle, which does two things; first, it boosts your health a bit (depending on the enemy slain, with the usual amount being one point) to keep you going, and second, after collecting enough of them you turn into a demon, which basically means that you become more or less invincible and can kill most enemies in one hit for a brief period of time. This mode is generally pretty powerful, and quite useful in heavily populated areas, though without careful planning you may well find yourself enabling it when there are no enemies around, so strategy is the key.

You’ll certainly need these weapons and abilities, because the enemies hit hard and pour into battle by the dozens. While the game isn’t quite as ridiculous as something like a Serious Sam with its enemy counts, make no mistake: you will be battling large groups of enemies of all shapes and sizes who hit hard and frequently and want you dead. The variety of enemies in the Painkiller series is one of its major strong points, as you’ll often see new enemies pop up every few stages or so, thus meaning you’re not fighting the same four or five enemies over and over again. Ninjas, cloaked druids with battleaxes, zombified mental patients and more assault you across the various stages, each with different behavior patterns and attack methods that will keep you busy trying to survive, making each stage a bit more interesting in the process. The various bosses you’ll face down across the different chapters are also quite interesting, and most of them are several stories tall and hit like a freight train, making these battles interesting and hectic as well. In short: lots of enemies, lots of fun.

There are four different difficulty levels to tear through for those looking for a challenge, and each is significantly different from the other, making each playthrough more than just a slight change. Daydream, the lowest difficulty level, is perfect for unskilled new players, as it’s nearly impossible to die while playing, though you aren’t given access to the Black Tarot and can’t unlock cards for it. Trauma, the hardest difficulty level, removes the ability to acquire souls while playing (thus removing the health boost they provide as well as the ability to change to a demon) as well as the ability to quicksave, thus making the Black Tarot and your own skills invaluable as you play through. In the original Painkiller, certain levels are locked between difficulties and completing the game on Trauma with all Black Tarot cards unlocked reveals a hidden ending, but in BOoH and Overdose there aren’t any such unlockables, though for hardcore players looking for a challenge, this will be its own reward. Both games offer online multiplayer with up to sixteen players, though the amount of people playing online at the moment is a little low. This isn’t a big problem, though; for one thing, the matches can support up to sixteen players simultaneously, meaning that within a few matches you’ll probably be able to get a decent sized group together, and with the large variety of game modes, there’s plenty to do even in small groups. For another, the single player campaign between the two games will probably take you twenty or thirty hours to complete in any case, which should keep you plenty busy regardless.

If there are any criticisms to be laid at the feet of Painkiller, aside from the obvious “it’s too basic” complaint one might make (which isn’t really a fair criticism, as that’s really part of the appeal), the largest one would be that with nearly sixty levels of content to cut through, the whole experience begins to run together after a while. It’s a fun experience, make no mistake, but after the first twenty-five or so stages of Painkiller (depending on if you go through the extra stages in Nightmare and Trauma difficulty or not), and you realize that you’re only halfway through the game, that’s kind of a downer. I mean, hey, nearly sixty levels of shredding monstrosities is great, sure, but the major problem is that Painkiller doesn’t have enough content to really support that; many of the same enemies and weapons from Painkiller pop up in BOoH and Overdose (if not in pattern, than in actual action), making the experience seem sort of repetitive when you get down to it.

The AI is also somewhat… stupid. Monsters will bumble blissfully up against walls, wholly unaware that they need to walk AROUND the small obstruction in their path to get to you. In fairness, this isn’t obvious often because of the sheer volume of enemies and the fact that you’ll be cutting down enemies long before you begin looking to see if they’re stuck on an obstacle, but it does happen, and it bears noting. Also, while Overdose is still generally a fun game, it treads most of the same ground as the original game and its expansion, making it feel less like an actual GAME and more like another series of expansion levels; the enemies are the same, the weapons are largely similar if not wholly identical, and aside from a few layout changes here and there and a wisecracking main character whose biological origin seems silly (how exactly do angels and demons mate, anyway?), it’s largely the same experience all in all. It also bears noting, in the minor complaints department, that some of the Black Tarot cards are a pain in the ass to unlock, meaning if you want all of the cards you’re going to have your work cut out for you, though how much of a problem this is largely depends on what cards you want and if you plan on going against Trauma difficulty or not.

But frankly, for twenty dollars there are few FPS games that are as fun and as worth playing as the Painkiller games, and the fact that you’re getting so much for such a low price makes this something you really SHOULD own if you’ve never played the games before. This version comes with a neat documentary, a soundtrack disc, and a poster introducing the storyline done by Mike Krahulik, AKA Gabe, of Penny Arcade fame, making it worthwhile to fans of the franchise who might want this thing, as well as all three Painkiller products in one box. If you’ve never played the games before, they’re an awesome action-packed FPS experience that is a lot of fun to tear through and offers plenty of challenge and visceral excitement, as well as a whole lot of novelty and innovation. Those who already own the games probably won’t need to pick up this version, though, and it bears noting that the AI is not so bright, the game might wear out its welcome before you’re through with it, and Overdose isn’t as interesting as the original game when comparing the two, but frankly, for twenty dollars, if you’ve never played Painkiller and you like old-school FPS action, you’d be insane not to pick this up.

The Scores:
Story: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: GOOD
Balance: GREAT
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: GREAT
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: GREAT

Final Score: VERY GOOD.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Painkiller Triple Dose is a cheap compilation that’s worth every penny and then some. Focusing on action over storytelling, Painkiller provides a visceral, action-packed experience that’s every bit as fun as the old classics it attempts to emulate, while also providing its own unique touches, like ability enhancing tarot cards, soul collecting, ten-story tall bosses and guns that shoot giant stakes or lightning shurikens. It can get a little repetitive after the tenth or fifteenth hour of playing (which says less against the variety and more about HOW MUCH CONTENT is here), the AI isn’t the best, and it’s not as technologically advanced as more modern shooters, but for twenty bucks, Painkiller Triple Dose is something every FPS lover NEEDS to play, if only to cleanse the palette between overly vocal games stuffed with unwarranted self-importance. If you’re just looking to get down and shoot a lot of stuff for an hour or two, look no further: Painkiller has your hook-up.

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