Game names can be deceiving. Painkiller, for instance, is not all about attacking pain where it hurts, but simply attacking anything that crosses your path. Just plain Killer would be a more accurate label for this PC firstperson shooter, but presumably that wouldn't sound nearly as 'cool' to the ears of those marketing it.
Wonky title aside, there are things here worth celebrating. This is the first title to come out of People Can Fly, a Polish developer set up in early 2002, and it has all the hallmarks of European codeshops down the ages, from ambitious proprietary graphics technology to some in-your-face, if familiar, gameplay.
You assume the role of Daniel Garner, a hero with the same scornful expression and long black leather jacket as so many game protagonists. His dilemma, however, is a little out of the ordinary: he's dead. What's worse, he's trapped in a realm somewhere between heaven and hell, having been denied entry upstairs. It seems that the only way to find out what he's done to deserve such treatment is to run, shoot and jump through 24 levels of twisted, stripped-down firstperson action.
While Half-Life 2's development continues to blend AI, narrative, physics and a whole lot more in an attempt to carve out the future of PC gaming, Painkiller is focusing on a narrower set of goals. Key among them is its use of the Havoc 2.0 physics code, which lends the game a weirdly organic feel. The best way to describe the game's physics is to run through a scene. One level, for example, has you starting out facing a large stone archway. As in every other level, the lighting here is subdued, but there's enough illumination to make visible a small rural cart up ahead. You aim your weapon - a steampunk-styled device capable of firing wooden stakes at high velocity - at it and loose off a projectile. 'Thunk' it goes as it hits home, embedding itself in a wheel, sending the cart flipping over and on to its back. But then you notice that the wheel is still spinning, the stake protruding from a spoke going around and around as it does so. Eventually it comes to rest. It's a tiny detail but one that immediately makes the gameworld feel like a place you haven't visited before. You fire off some more stakes and watch as the Havoc code does its thing, flopping the cart over with an addictive sense of inertia.
Rounding the corner you spy a tattered flag hanging from a pole. Another target. It too has been given remarkable physical properties - your stake snags into it, sending the cloth flapping around and in on itself, furling and unfurling in realtime.
Some of the developer's claims are less obvious to the naked eye. Its PAIN engine, for example, is purported to be capable of handling '100 times more polygons than other games', although it's not made clear which titles are being used as benchmarks against which to judge such an extravagant claim. The creatures you come up against within its large, crumbly environments are graduates from the Doom school of design, all skull heads, spikes and grey/brown flesh tones, and there are loads of the things. Their packlike attacks bring to mind Serious Sam.
And this is, after all, very much a straightforward firstperson shooter, despite the extravagant physics and other touches. In fact, think House of the Dead taken off of its rails and you're not far off in terms of feel.
But then there are the other weapons. And the multiplayer modes. And the 100- foot-tall, hammer-wielding boss...
Clearly there's a lot more to Painkiller than at first appears. We'll take another look at the game closer to its completion.
Painkiller is scheduled for release on PC in April