It's been a while since the demonic first-person shooter Painkiller and its expansion pack landed on the PC, and though its endless waves of Hell's minions, enormous boss monsters and reactive physics might've been the bee's knees then, the intervening years have taken some of the fire out of the Xbox edition, Painkiller: Hell Wars.
Our hero, unburdened with the trappings of personality, slaughters Lucifer's troops with weapons that sound more interesting than they are. Sure, pinning a goon to the side of a burning building with your stake gun or freezing an incoming assassin in his tracks is fun the first few times, but because not one of the seventy-odd enemy types does anything but charge mindlessly toward you, these strategic differences are moot. That's a good thing, in a way, as switching weapons is a pain in the neck. You're forced to pause the game and choose two, which can be toggled. That's not too different from Halo, but it's less elegantly done, and why the restriction in the first place?
Arenas vary wildly, with no regard for theme. You'll explore opera houses and asylums, prisons and townships. What scraping strait-jacketed mental patients from ceilings or blowing gatling-toting guards to chunks has to do with tracking down Satan's generals is anyone's guess, but at least there's a decent variety of good-looking architecture. (Unfortunately, the action chugs often, and taking damage subjects you to a migraine-inducing pixelating effect.) There are precisely zero puzzles to solve; you need only mop up every last witless goon and head for the door.
For what it's worth, the boss battles tend to be memorable, featuring demons many stories tall. It's the only time Painkiller ever instills any sense of wonder, which is pretty weak considering you're striking deep into hell's own heart. You could blame it on the wafer-thin story, the laughably poor cinematics or the bizarre and inconsistent level assortment, but nothing ever really seems to matter, let alone gel.
Captain Trigger Finger can gather cards for his Tarot deck by completing each level's arbitrary goal, and this helps lend a weak strategic element, especially if you're playing at the harder difficulty settings. On the other hand, by the time you've got enough of them to be useful you're practically finished, and there's precious little reason to play through again.
Painkiller: Hell Wars is the very definition of a mindless kill-crazy rampage, and while simple experiences certainly have their place, the time this game spent in development purgatory seems to have made even the high points feel limp. The variety of online multiplayer modes might make Hell Wars worth it for some, but the rote mechanics of the combat will quickly drive most shooter fans away. In the end, Painkiller's not hellacious; it's just too familiar, too little and too late.