Painkiller Hands-On Preview

We get our hands on a playable version of Painkiller, including multiplayer. Details inside.

First-person shooters--the fast-paced action games that let you run through a level from a first-person perspective and blast enemies--seem to have gotten both more complicated and more focused on multiplayer action. Rather than focus on running around and blasting everything that isn't you, recent games like Call of Duty, Battlefield 1942, and America's Army have put you in a squad with other characters to take on team-based objectives. But other recent games, like Serious Sam and Unreal Tournament 2003, have proved that there's still room for fast-paced arcade-style shooters--especially ones that feature completely over-the-top action, like DreamCatcher and People Can Fly's Painkiller. We recently had a chance to try the action-packed shooter and have new details on the game.

You're in purgatory, which probably explains why you aren't surrounded by nice people.

Painkiller's story involves your character dying and being sent to purgatory (the divine "waiting room" for deceased people who aren't good enough to get into heaven), despite the fact that your character's deceased wife was immediately sent to the pearly gates. Later, your character is recruited by a saint to fight a holy war in purgatory against an army of demons. If you succeed, you'll gain admittance to heaven and will finally be reunited with your lost wife. Though the story may seem a bit thin, project lead Adrian Chmielarz assured us that it won't just be tacked on to the game as an excuse to shoot up a bunch of demons. Painkiller should actually have a few surprise twists and turns over the course of the single-player game, which is composed of more than 20 different levels.

Then again, much of Painkiller's action does consist of blasting demons and other foul creatures to kingdom come with the game's weapons. Each of these is equipped with a primary and secondary firing mode. We've been able to try three weapons, including the shotgun, the "stakegun," and the "painkiller" itself--the game's melee weapon. While the shotgun packs a good punch when firing, it doesn't seem quite as bizarre as the stakegun, which is a crossbow that fires thick wooden stakes at enemies and can pin them to walls or send them flying with a delayed-blast grenade from the alternate firing mode. The painkiller is even more unusual. This buzz saw-like weapon can be used as a damaging melee attack up close, but its alternate fire mode hurls the bladed tip like a boomerang. This ranged attack is fairly damaging, but it's a bit slow. However, if you fire the blade into a nearby wall, it will "stick" there until you recall it by firing again; though in the meantime, the blade creates a glowing trip wire that damages any enemies who blunder into it.

Surprisingly enough, this kind of absurd carnage is commonplace in Painkiller.

The single-player levels we've seen so far include gothic medieval areas, like an abandoned graveyard and a medieval village. Both of these were inhabited by seemingly traditional fantasy monsters, including angry hags that dissipate into a murder of crows when defeated, evil ram-headed sorcerers, and at least two kinds of skeleton. Though we've only been able to see the earlier parts of the game, some of the levels we've played through--like the starting level in the cemetery--just don't seem like straightforward run-and-gun levels. Instead, they feel more like something from a zombie horror movie. In the cemetery level, you're suddenly surrounded by continuous waves of armored skeletons who climb up out of graves and shamble toward you, and, after blasting one of them to bits, we found ourselves faced with two more. The town level is similarly populated, and it culminates in a trip, via teleporter, to the top of a tower that is set against a bloodred sky. Here you'll fight against an absolutely humongous fire-breathing, flying demon. Painkiller features five different major boss battles, and, according to Chmielarz, each of these bosses will present huge and dramatic challenges that players will, hopefully, find memorable.

After enemies are destroyed, they leave behind glowing green orbs--souls--which you can collect to eventually power yourself up. Once you've collected 100 of these orbs, you transform into an invincible demon who moves at lightning speed and does tremendous damage with each attack. Changing into a demon causes most of the color to immediately bleed out of your vision, leaving only black-and-white, and red, an interesting visual effect that makes the world around you look like an overexposed photograph. As a demon, you move much faster than your enemies--or rather, your enemies move much more slowly.

Painkiller isn't just about point-and-shoot gameplay, either. We were witness to this after sending our first skeleton flying across the graveyard. The developer has seemingly implemented the Havok 2 physics engine throughout the game, including its enemies--who die in rag-doll-style deaths, get flung high into the air, and get blown to pieces from point-blank shotgun blasts. The game also features destructible environments and environmental features, like collapsed columns and blocks of granite that can be pushed and moved by weapon fire.

The team is also attempting to make sure that Painkiller's multiplayer is enjoyable and balanced. DreamCatcher will open up the beta test for the game soon and has invited criticism from groups of hardcore multiplayer shooter fans. Interestingly, the development team at People Can Fly also includes itself among hardcore shooter fans; many of the team members have, according to Chmielarz, been playing Quakeworld regularly for the past six years and wish to reproduce the fast pace and competitive nature of that game in Painkiller's multiplayer.

It's all fun and games until the skeletons start flying. Actually, that's not too bad either.

Though the game has standard free-for-all and team deathmatch modes, it also features a few additional modes, like "voosh," in which all players have unlimited ammo and the same weapon, though the weapon gets automatically exchanged over time. There's also "light bearer" mode, in which a single player carries a damage-enhancement modifier and wins if time runs out while he's holding it. However, shooting the light bearer down lets another player pick up the item and extends the match by another 30 seconds. Painkiller also features the "people can fly" mode, which, in a nod to the original Rocket Arena modification for Quake, equips players with only rocket launchers. Interestingly, though, it adds another rule: Opponents can only be damaged after first being launched into the air by an initial rocket blast. Multiplayer matches seem extremely fast-paced, and the two multiplayer maps we've seen clearly draw inspiration from the deathmatch maps of Quake and Unreal Tournament. Both maps have accessible caches of ammo and weapons but are open enough to discourage the dreaded and cowardly act of "camping"--hiding in one place and taking potshots at your opponents.

At this point, Painkiller seems to be coming together extremely well, and its multiplayer gameplay should be tweaked once the game's closed beta begins in earnest in a week or two. Painkiller is scheduled for release next March on the PC, and the Xbox version of the game should be released afterward. The developer has stated that the Xbox version of the game will be optimized for the platform and will have additional features, like bonus levels not included in the PC game. The team also hopes to bring the Xbox game online with Microsoft's Xbox Live service. For now, be sure to take a look at our exclusive new direct-feed gameplay movies and video interview with People Can Fly's Adrian Chmielarz.

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jakeboudville
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