The original Painkiller came out for the PC back in 2004. It was very well received when released as it offered pure fun without the hassle. Now in 2006, Painkiller: Hellwars is trying to re-invent itself on the Xbox by combining expansion packs from the original and offering all of it in one package. While that sounds great in theory, there's still the fact that this is a game from 2004 being rehashed and a lot of the flaws of the original are still present here.
The story in Painkiller: Hellwars fits the title quite well. The opening FMV presents players with a glimpse at the past of Daniel Garner. It's a stormy night and while driving with his wife Catherine, a car crash unfolds. After the fact, Catherine is sent to heaven while Daniel remains in limbo land. But Limbo doesn't seem to be the most peaceful of places and that's when a representative of God named Sammael appears. Sammael gives Daniel the choice of remaining in Limbo or going to Heaven after defeating 4 of Lucifer's generals. Naturally, the main character accepts the offer after some convincing albeit oblivious as to why he's in limbo in the first place. This pretty much covers the whole story apart from the real identity of Lucifer (only plot twist). There is a heroic act at the end, but it is simply common sense in Daniel's part.
As the premise of this game suggests, pretty much all you do is kill demons and there are lots of them. The gameplay is so simple in fact, that it is what makes this game as fun as it is. The first couple of levels do tend to get a bit boring as a lot of the same enemies come at you over and over. But as players progress through the game, the assortment of different demons available for slaughter does not fail to impress. The enemies don't just look different but fight differently too. Some of the later stages, like the orphanage, are particularly disturbing when it comes to enemies and will keep players on their toes as the difficulty ramps up.
The way that players progress in Painkiller is also different from a lot of other FPS's out there. Whereas other games present players with puzzles to solve or keys to find, Painkiller just puts enemies on the screen. The system works by locking players into a particular area, and then placing a lot of enemies within the vicinity. Once all enemies are defeated, a door opens up which allows progression to the next area. That pretty much sums up the whole Painkiller experience. The game doesn't try to be a supersmart psychological thriller or throw a lot of puzzles at you. The weapons in Painkiller are also quite fun to wield and combine multiple functions into one firearm. Since most enemies drop souls during gameplay, Daniel has the ability to go into demon mode after gathering enough spirit and unleash a barrage of powerful attacks while being nearly invincible. While in normal mode however, the shotgun can also freeze enemies with secondary fire while the missile launcher also has a chaingun fire. The brutal weapon named the Painkiller also combines a sort of rotating blade with a laser weapon and can be quite deadly at close range. Besides, these wacky weapons the only gadget that players use is a sort of compass at the top of the screen that always points to the enemy or the entrance to the next area. That way, players always know where to go instead of bothering with exploration. Painkiller is a plain and simple FPS game and that's exactly what makes it fun.
The only time that Painkiller breaks from its simple nature is when a general shows up. These demons are huge and require quite a few hits to take down. This is also one of the few times when some strategy is needed for this game. Some of the generals are weak in certain spots while others require players to shoot at power sources or other places. The way to beat a boss is usually quite obvious however the weak spots or environment targets will make themselves quite apparent. The only time players may become frustrated is with the last boss fight in the game and without spoiling too much of it for you, it is quite possibly the most frustrating boss fight I've ever seen in a video game. So frustrating in fact, that it may leave you with a sour taste after playing a fun game.
Now as much as I am for simple gameplay and entertaining enemies, there's still the big fact that this game only has arenas. While the levels are well designed, a little bit of variety is still appreciated by a lot of FPS players. There's also the fact that Painkiller came out in 2004 and it shows. The graphics aren't nearly as polished as some of the other games on the Xbox and it's hard to compete with heavy weights like Halo. Moreover, the weapon switching is quite annoying in the game as players can only map two different weapons at a time besides the base Painkiller weapon. That can be quite frustrating when an enemy is approaching since players have to switch to the weapons menu, and map a different weapon to a different D-pad key to gain access. And while the concept of locking players within areas may seem okay, some of these areas are so small that there's almost no way to avoid getting hit by enemies. Demon mode would help greatly in some of these areas, but it is triggered automatically after enough souls are acquired instead of letting the player choose when to unleash the power.
Other than the standard gameplay, Painkiller also employs a tarot card system. Depending on which card is placed on a board before each level, players may gain special abilities during gameplay such as increased damage and others. Acquiring tarot cards requires completing certain objectives while playing a level and gold for card placement. While some effects will last for the entire level, others can only be triggered for a short time with the tarot card button. These do add a nice amount of strategy before going into levels but are nothing more than a replacement for power-ups (which are still present in multiplayer for example). The other feature that Painkiller has is online play where players can choose from different avatars and fight their way through Xbox Live or System Link. While the game can be a lot of fun in multiplayer, the novelty wears off quite fast as there are no unique modes to play with and the amount of weapons in the game is somewhat limited. Not to mention some of the difficulty with finding someone who's actually playing this game online.
Overall, Painkiller is still a fun experience on the Xbox. With the sudden switch to 360 development, it's hard to even find a new Xbox game nowadays and this might be a welcome addition to those still hanging on to their dear console. The game does away with all the complications presented by other FPS shooters and lets players just duke it out for dear life. That can be a good or a bad thing depending on the sort of player that tries this game. And for as much fun as it is, the game just doesn't have the same amount of polish as a lot of other games available for the Xbox on the bargain bin. Despite all of that, this is still a very fun FPS that keeps the action going from start to finish. It's certainly not perfect, but it's still worth a look for those FPS fans looking for mindless fun.