Given the arguable glut of first person shooters in the PC gaming market today, we gamers find ourselves being tossed skyward as many interactive aspects of the genre continue to grow in complexity. It seems that the days when we roller-skated down the bright blue halls in Wolfenstein 3D, killing Nazis, their dogs, and (when floundering at 2% health) drinking their blood, are long behind us. When we compare Wolfenstein 3D, the genre's first breakthrough title, to its modern counterparts (or at least, those that receive critical acclaim), it is very common for players to now have to work with tactical layers, inventory management, the presence of team mates, scoped or guided projectiles, or storylines that branch and change based on their in-game actions.

Although the evolution of the genre has certainly been a good thing (punctuated by milestone titles such as System Shock, Half-Life, and Battlefield 1942), it would be naive to think all that is old is no longer relevant or fun. For those who experienced Wolfenstein 3D or Doom as their first FPS experience, many will agree that the real thrill of FPS gaming in those days came not only from the shock of the new, but also because it depended entirely on stimuli that provoked us not as sophisticated thinking creatures, but as wild, fearful animals.

Given that today's developers continue to raise the bar and place heavier interactive demands on gamers with each subsequent FPS hit, one has to wonder if there is still room for a gaming experience that is far more primal; one that evokes the mood found in the earlier days before bloodlust was traded in for a more complex set of keyboard commands. For those FPS gamers who are aching for a visceral thrill ride that offers a high-tempo pace and unapologetic carnage, it looks like a Painkiller has been prescribed. Developer People Can Fly, and publisher Dreamcatcher are working on an upcoming "first-person horror shooter," full of "adrenaline-rush style gameplay" that looks to reunite gamers with the twitch mentality of the genre's roots.

The Painkiller preview CD's three demo levels confirms that the game's character, storyline, or anything else that may assist in your cultural refinement are of no consequence; Painkiller is about surviving the hordes of undead that are hell-bent on destroying you. In light of this, it's no coincidence that the story synopsis on the Painkiller Web site Overview page is shorter than the game engine summary. Given the kill-or-be-killed approach of Painkiller, People Can Fly are relying and focusing on their proprietary engine as the vehicle that will deliver the game's thrills. The 3D PAIN Engine can allegedly crank out 100 times the number of polygons of its current counterparts, employs the Havoc physics engine, boasts unique textures for each level, uses dynamic lighting... the works. At this early stage, the levels presented on the preview CD were a bit raw and unoptimized, and I had to play at a lower resolution with shadows turned off in order to maintain a steady frame rate (the game's early state was explicitly pointed out in the preview CD readme). Despite this, the preview levels still gave a strong indication of what the final product will be like, whose envisioning is further assisted by glancing at the screenshots on the Painkiller Web site.

When crafting a "fear" themed game world, there are basic ingredients that can often contribute to its effectiveness: claustrophobic environments, hideous/intimidating foes, and most important in my books, uncertainty. The preview levels hinted at good use of all of these elements, although it's far too early to tell how well they will be implemented in the final product. Having said that, I did find myself panicking at times while playing through them. In one case, I was backing up while firing at a fast-approaching mob of cloaked foes, only to turn around and discover a bat-wielding freak directly behind me. In another situation, I was a tad distressed to find myself trapped in the middle of a very narrow staircase, with mobs of enemies at both ends making their way toward me. In both examples, the bodies of the nearly dead blocked my rounds from hitting those behind them, which adds to the sense of desperation as you're being rushed, and the sample weapons had a short delay between reloads for both the primary and secondary fire modes. You really lose precious time when you miss, and when being mobbed by a wild pack of undead, time is something you cannot afford to lose. Although the demo used a lot of spawning to create these predicaments, the Painkiller marketing material promises that enemies will not spawn, but instead patrol, and coordinate their attacks. In light of this, it would be nice to see hordes of enemies that don't simply run at you (a la Serious Sam), but make you entirely unsure whether they'll take a direct route, flank, hide and wait, or a combination of those actions.

Enemy spawning and AI aside, it would be wrong to not mention the encounters with some of the "bosses." Although I was far too busy losing my composure to really try to estimate, they must be several storeys tall! One in particular gave me an initial scare that I haven't experienced since encountering the Barons of Hell in the first episode of Doom. You stand alone amidst ruins against a four-storey-tall monster that wields a giant hammer. Every time it brought its weapon down to earth, the shockwave would send me and a pile of stone blocks sailing into the air. Not only did its massive size allow it to catch up to me in a few short steps, but as it continued to smash the earth, the more ruined the play area became, making it that much more difficult to evade it. Often, I would be moving backwards or laterally, frantically firing my weapon, only to run into a giant stone that wasn't there the last time I glanced in that direction. It was quite a rush!

As a final observation on creating a fear-themed environment, the choice of setting and characters so far in the preview levels were at times, dubious, although I honestly don't see them detracting from the experience for the game's target audience. Although the story world is not intended to carry this game, I've always been a big stickler for consistency in the creation of fantasy settings, and it would be nice if all environments and characters are connected in some meaningful way. Given the game setting's religious overtones, as outrageous as they are, the use of gothic architecture and the demonic axe-wielding monks and scythe-swinging nuns do play into the purgatory-like world the developers are trying to create. What confuses me a bit is how classical ruins and a Minotaur-like creature fits into this scheme. Or even worse, how obese, gun-toting bikers fit into the water city level that strongly resembles Venice. (Perhaps the developers mixed it up with Venice Beach?) Since there will be some 20-odd levels, it will be interesting to see what other environments they end up creating.

Overall, there is little doubt that Painkiller is going to be a fun game for lovers of FPS action, particularly since the FPS experience as of late has turned into a more methodical (and multiplayer) affair. Although multiplayer modes will exist in Painkiller, as far as a single player experience goes, does it have what it takes to make it a true "first-person horror shooter" as its creators claim? If it succeeds, it will need to be accomplished by more than just the game engine; the way levels are designed, and the manner in which enemies attack you will have just as much an influence on how much fear is instilled in the gamer. Fortunately, I have seen glimpses of that indicate this is likely to happen. Let's hope the final product manages to distinguish itself; otherwise, the often habitual gaming public may only see it as a tie-over until (the far more high profile) Doom 3 is released.


dec 2003

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