When Painkiller arrived for the PC in April 2004 it was applauded for its no frills, back to basics, straightforward blasting. In a rather similar vein to the Serious Sam games, Painkiller did away with many of the realistic aspects that modern PC shooters were adopting, instead focussing on fast-paced action. Two years later and the Xbox version is almost upon us. Is it shaping up to be a hellish experience?
You play as Daniel Garner, a man killed in a horrific car accident and trapped in a disturbing world between heaven and hell, but the preview build gives away absolutely none of the storyline - if in fact the final game will include one at all. Presented with three random levels from the single-player campaign, however, it's clear that this is the same Painkiller experience that PC gamers enjoyed a few years back.
Painkiller's main hook is its fast gameplay, and that has been well retained in the Xbox version (which has been dubbed Painkiller Hell Wars). Character movement is lightning fast compared to most shooters on the platform and the constant onslaught of enemies is also something that's quite rare on the ageing black behemoth. Aside from the lack of option to invert vertical aiming control, there's really little that could go wrong to prevent the final release from playing very well indeed.
The three levels on offer saw Daniel fighting off hordes in a creepy town, blasting insane prisoners in a jail complex and a battling a giant monster in one of the game's many boss battles. The town level shows what Painkiller is best at, and that's creating genuinely unsettling environments and throwing wave after wave of freakish enemies at you. There's nothing clever about it; it's just good old-fashioned FPS fun. The prison level was less thrilling, throwing some fairly generic looking brutes at you, but the combat was still fast enough to remain entertaining.
The boss battles are a big part of the PC original and they return here, but in a rather less impressive state. Whether it's simply a case of time moving on or the lack of performance from an Xbox compared to a high-spec PC, the large boss in the level I played didn't have as great an impact as was clearly intended. In the wake of Sony's awesome Shadow of the Colossus (running on a lowly PlayStation 2) a giant ambling around and knocking over a few bricks simply doesn't excite that much. Hopefully the other boss battles in game spice things up a little.
Visually the game suffers when in direct comparison to the PC original, but it's by no means an ugly Xbox game. Even with a month until the game's release the frame rate holds up well and the engine is capable of displaying many enemies on screen at once. Many modern games skirt around ultra violent killing, but in Painkiller enemies will literally explode into meaty chunks, echoing back to the days of Quake. The Havok 2.0 physics engine is also put to good use, with enemies flying backwards after powerful hits and explosions sending them flying into the air.
As you'd expect from such a visceral game, the action-packed levels are accompanied by a heavy rock soundtrack and some rather grim sound effects. Over the course of the twenty-plus levels in the final game you'll encounter more than fifty hellish enemies, each one with its own unique set of unpleasant sound effects, doing their best to send shivers down your spine. Playing Painkiller with the volume turned up is quite an exhilarating experience, but can become too intense at times. Hopefully the final release will include some kind of story, breaking up the action a little and giving you a much needed rest.
Xbox Live support will be included in the final release, but it wasn't available to test in the preview build. The PC title has gained quite a cult following online, with the game being part of many professional gaming tournaments. While gamers using an Xbox controller won't be able to reach the dizzy heights of perfection that pro PC gamers achieve, the frenetic gameplay should translate well to 16-player Xbox Live matches.
Painkiller looks well on target to deliver an entertaining, if rather repetitive experience for Xbox owners. This late in the console's life true AAA titles are basically extinct, but with a substantial single-player campaign and full Xbox Live support Painkiller should please those who are yet to make the jump to Microsoft's next-generation console. Expect a full review near the game's March 10 UK release.