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Painkiller

Believe it or not, there are PC shooters out this year that aren't called Half-Life 2 or Doom III. And leading the way in non-sequel action-based FPSers is the intriguingly-titled Painkiller, currently nearing the end of development by Polish coders People Can Fly. We visited them in the somewhat chilly climes of Warsaw to see how the game is progressing and to play through the first few levels.

The game marks a return to the roots of FPSing: pure, arcade-style blasting, with nary a whiff of strategy or storyline in sight. OK, there is some sort of narrative relating to your character being trapped in purgatory following his death in a car crash but all that you really need to worry about is that this gives you the perfect excuse to blast your way through 19 levels of brain-wrong monsters - with impunity.

"We were looking for a theme and we realised that you don't really have a horror-shooter at the moment in a Doom or Serious Sam style," says the game's project leader Adrian Chmielarz. "I think that most PC games are boring and over-complicated. We wanted to make a game that you can jump straight into."

To begin with, the game is unnervingly simple: the first graveyard level offers hordes of enemies virtually queuing up to be blasted into oblivion with minimal resistance. Luckily, it's intended to serve as little more than a training stage and the challenge offered by the game is quickly ramped up.

Notes Adrian: "The levels you saw are fairly small. For example, I played the military base level yesterday, which appears later in the game. I was using cheat codes so I was immortal and had unlimited ammo and it still took me 45 minutes to complete. And I knew the level inside-out." So, aside from the slew of multiplayer modes, there's plenty to keep you busy in the single-player game.

Enemies are split into three types. There's the simple cannon fodder - including those zombies that hurl their own flesh at you - but the next tier of monsters possess far more sophisticated AI which obviously makes them trickier to defeat. One early favourite is the witch who speeds around on a flaming broomstick: never let it be said that this is a game without a sense of humour. But that's nothing compared to the five huge bosses - which, in addition to the main stages, each count as individual levels in their own right. Suffice to say that they're up to 50 times the size of your character.

Players progress by killing a given number of foes, which then results in a new area opening up. If you're in any doubt, an arrow at the top of the screen points to your nearest enemy, which comes in handy near the end of levels when there are only a handful left to slay. Arguably, this does mean that Painkiller is very linear but the pay-off is that the pace is reassuringly frantic. Accessibility and playability is clearly the focus here - as is a refreshing sense of variety in the opposition.

"The idea behind monster and level design is that we wanted absolutely no repetition, so no level re-uses a single texture from any other level," says Adrian. "The same goes for monsters. It's one of the ways to encourage the player to progress. When you know that every level will feature completely new graphics and completely new monsters, it's a great motivating factor. It was a crazy task. There are something like 40 monsters and, for example, if there is a guy who throws an axe at you, the next guy cannot just throw a knife at you because it's still the same thing."

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