Not every game that goes for over-the-top action can pull it off, but Painkiller seems to be on the right track. In development at Polish studio People Can Fly, Painkiller takes the frantic action formula of classic first-person shooters and the more recent Serious Sam and adds explosive physics effects. It's one thing to have a group of big, tattooed bikers charge at you with tommy guns blazing, but it's definitely something else to send them all flying crazily through the air with a volley of rockets. This insane carnage takes place in huge, good-looking locations throughout some of the not-so-nice parts of purgatory. However, the game doesn't focus on gruesome battles, but instead on fast-paced, addictive action, and from what we've seen, Painkiller might just succeed.
As you might expect, there is a reason you're stuck in purgatory. You play as Daniel Garner, a regular guy who was just killed in a car accident. As Garner, you need to find out why the gates of heaven are closed to you. In the meantime, there's a war brewing between heaven and hell, and you've been enlisted to slay endless hordes of demon soldiers.
While Painkiller doesn't seem to put too much emphasis on story development, the fact that it takes place in purgatory does play a role in the game. The bodies of your slain enemies don't linger long, and after they disappear, most enemies will leave behind balls of green mist--their souls, which Garner can pick up to add to his health points. However, as People Can Fly's project lead Adrian Chmielarz explained, "Because these are the souls of the damned...for every 100 souls [that Garner collects]...the darkness wins over, and for a short period of time he turns into a demon himself. We're planning some extremely cool effects for that, and of course our hero has different powers, a different view perspective, and more speed in his demon form."
The three levels in the demo provide a sample of some of the varied settings we can expect in the game. The first of the levels takes place in dark corridors that open up into an impossibly tall gothic cathedral. Several different types of enemies attack you in waves, and shortly after you enter the main cathedral, demonic priests rush up to you carrying scythes as a huge hulking creature appears in the distance. While the main bosses appear in five levels of their own, this mountainous rock-throwing monster is no pushover. We also got to play one boss level, a big arena with black clouds billowing overhead. The huge metal giant carries a hammer that he'll slam into the ground, sending parts of nearby stone columns flying up into the heavens.
The huge creatures you face are capable of incredible destruction, but you have plenty of destructive force at your fingertips as well. While the stone columns in one level weren't affected by the rocket launcher, in another level we found plenty of things to blow up with the rocket launcher built into Painkiller's dual-use minigun. From the first second you drop into the Venice-like city level, you'll find crates that you can blow up, which may or may not contain ammo, but you'll then enter into a courtyard where big tattooed biker demons are firing at you from distant buildings. You'll also find some demons perched on explosive barrels nearby, and it doesn't take more than a few rounds to set those off and send the demons flying incredibly high into the air. There are a few more examples of breakable objects in the level, and DreamCatcher says the final game's environments will be filled with things that can be destroyed in the course of a frenzied battle.
The game's exaggerated use of physics for the weapon effects may make you want to take a break from the action just to play around with the power of the combination minigun and rocket launcher. The game uses the Havok 2 physics engine for the rag-doll effects, and Painkiller uses them for dramatic, over-the-top death animations. Before enemies disappear in a puff of smoke, they'll fly through the air as a result of explosions, bounce around against each other, and cause big shiny splatterings of blood to temporarily appear on nearby surfaces. Even the minigun's bullets have enough force to knock creatures and objects back. Unfortunately the other weapon we got a chance to try, an automatic pistol that fires short bursts or lobs grenades, didn't seem capable of such dramatic effects. However, the final game will have a total of five weapons, each with two very different firing modes.
Painkiller uses a proprietary graphics engine that, judging from what we've seen, looks quite good. The environments are huge and made up of large numbers of polygons, the textures seem very sharp, and the early version of the game makes good use of special effects like bump mapping. On paper, these technical features may sound typical of many current first-person shooters, but the artistic style does stand out as being quite original, and DreamCatcher has proudly told us that none of the 19 levels use any shared textures, which will make them visually unique. The audio also seems solid and helps to create a suitably eerie atmosphere, including the occasional ambient sound of arcane chants.
When you're done battling the demonic hordes through the single-player game, you'll be able to try a handful of multiplayer modes with 32-player online support. Current multiplayer plans include deathmatch and capture-the-flag modes, plus a few others, including an original mode that requires you to launch opponents into the air before you can do any real damage to them. Painkiller is scheduled for release this October.