Coming out of left field straight from Poland just eight months ago, Painkiller was an awesome surprise in what's turned out to be a great year for high-quality shooters. With its wildly varied environments, impressive physics, huge cast of creatures, creative weapon design, and a focus on pure action over exposition, it was both a throwback and a hair-raising step forward in relentless intensity. Battle out of Hell, the game's official expansion pack, doesn't mess around with the winning formula. It features 10 new levels (each with an original set of enemies and an unlockable tarot card), two new weapons, and some new multiplayer modes and maps. While some of the new levels match the quality of the original, roughly half of them feel like content that simply didn't pass muster the first time around. And now that the game's novelty has worn off a little, some of its design and technical flaws have become more glaring. It's still an impressive ride; it's just somewhat more sporadic than the original.
The game does get off to a terrific start. The first level is a variation on the original's creepy asylum level. This new one, which takes place in an abandoned orphanage, is even better. The ambient soundtrack of clanks, whooshes, and children's voices, combined with the army of little corpses that dog your every step, give it a nearly perfect haunted house atmosphere. There's even a nice homage to an eerie scene from The Changeling. The second level, set in a satanic theme park, continues the expansion's winning streak. It's visually striking, frenetic, and it features an action sequence that gives new meaning to the observation that heavily scripted shooters are turning into amusement park rides.
After these two levels, which are as good as anything in the original, things begin to slide gently downhill. There are a couple of other decent levels, like the one that takes place in a zombie-infested city. This level looks spectacular and makes good use of the physics engine with some car-tossing mayhem. Another level, set in war-torn, and, yes, zombie-infested, Leningrad, is equally intense. But for the most part, much of the rest of the game is kind of bland. Two levels take place in virtually identical-looking caves. Since one of the pleasures of the original was how visually different the levels were from one another, it's a disappointment that these two are not only virtually indistinguishable, but also placed one right after the other. Another of the 10 levels is only available on the Nightmare difficulty. Though, calling it a level may be giving it too much credit, since it's really just a square room with a monster (recycled from the zombie city level) stomping around in it.
The final conflict is better than the original in some ways and worse in other ways. The environment isn't nearly as remarkable as in the first game, though that's an admittedly tough act to follow. On the bright side, however, the boss itself is a lot less frustrating to fight. There's still a puzzle to killing him, but it's not as ridiculously counterintuitive. In fact, the developers appear to have gotten better at designing boss battles. The few boss battles that are scattered throughout the game's levels are still mostly puzzle-based, but the puzzles are a little more reasonable.
Unfortunately, the designers decided to replace the aggravating bosses with some even more aggravating jumping puzzles. One series of jumps over a deadly pool of lava is just an inexplicably bad design choice. Even worse, the game's unreasonably long loading times make the necessity of retrying the jump over and over again almost unbearable. Even though the game is being run on a machine that exceeds the recommended specs, many of the levels still take upwards of two minutes for both the initial and quick loads. The instant death followed by two minutes of waiting, which results from missing these aforementioned jumps, is overly punitive and it brings the entire game to a screeching halt.
The two new weapons are iconic of the whole game; one of them is great, the other one's kind of so-so. The great one combines a powerful rapid-fire machine gun with a really satisfying flamethrower. The other weapon is a scoped sniper rifle that fires a tight bundle of five stakes. In its alternate mode, it fires bursts of bouncing explosives. The sniper rifle occasionally comes in handy, but the bouncing bombs are a little too unpredictable for anything but backup crowd control.
Two new multiplayer modes have been added: capture the flag (no explanation required) and last man standing (deathmatch with limited lives). While the single-player game is a throwback enhanced by both the physics engine and relentless pacing, the multiplayer is pretty much just a throwback. It works, but it's hard to imagine anyone getting too worked up over it.
You still get two great levels, a few good levels, and then some other stuff for the reasonable price of $20. And if it seems like we're being overly harsh, it's only because we love Painkiller so much and just want the best for the franchise. So enough with the puzzle bosses! And fix the loading times! And get rid of the idiotic jumping puzzles! Make more levels like the orphanage! Please.