Painkiller HD - Bulletstorm's ancestor shows that old school isn't better school

Backpedal to victory!

The first thing that strikes you about Hell and Damnation - a remake of the original Painkiller which includes content from the sequel, Battle Out Of Hell - is how much it resembles the thuggishly creative Bulletstorm. The guns all have the same, convenient case of multiple-personality disorder: the default is a sawed-off shotgun whose alternate fire freezes enemies to smashable statues, and in short order you're handed an ultra-precise crossbow which doubles as an ultra-imprecise grenade launcher. Messy.

Similarities accrue swiftly. There's the same tank-like feel to movement, a heftiness that's at odds with the precision the game asks of you; characters all appear to be built of Frankenstein props and engine parts; and Painkiller's underworld is every bit as chipped and intricately tooled as Bulletstorm's Stygia, a similarity The Farm 51's up-rezzed visuals make plain.


The second thing that strikes you about Hell and Damnation, however, is how painfully unlike Bulletstorm it seems. It's Bulletstorm without the narrative trappings, the crass yet appealing characterisations, the whimsical terrain set-ups and progress ladders - a barely iterated-upon rendition of a decade-old shooter template that trades almost exclusively on nostalgia.

The opening cutscene makes no bones (badumtish) of the iterative thinking which guides the enterprise: protagonist Daniel Gardner is sitting on a rock in Hell, contemplating the fact that killing thousands of demons has somehow not resulted in a joyous reunion with his long-dead wife, when the Grim Reaper shows up to promise a joyous reunion with his long-dead wife, providing he kills thousands of demons.

A right-thinking man might have cried out for a diplomatic solution, but Daniel Gardner is a heavyset, stubbly Anglo-Saxon guy wearing a leather jacket. Slaying diabolical agents is all he knows. I guess it's that or do a kart-racing spin-off.

The other parallel for Painkiller is Serious Sam, inasmuch as victory is to be obtained not by pushing forward to seize tactical hotspots in the face of survival-minded enemy resistance, but by giving ground indefinitely to hordes of yelling, suicidal, over-dressed idiots. Other than chaining weapon usage to create rudimentary versions of Bulletstorm's Skillshots, strategy basically comes down to having eyes in the back of your head, navigating unseen terrain while firing endlessly at what's right in front of you.

In Painkiller's defence, there are stabs at variety within this otherwise dreadfully out-dated mould. The enemies are a colourful lot on the surface, and not all of them are hell-bent on meeting your bullets halfway - there are goblin creatures that hang to the rear, for instance, blinding you with spells. Levels are boxy, uninteresting assemblages of hand-me-down props and checkpoints that trigger the next enemy wave, but there are, at least, terrain dynamics like exploding barrels to exploit. You can also equip Tarot cards to access powers like slowed-down time, letting you tailor the experience a bit.


In general, though, Hell and Damnation feels less like a "throwback" right now as a reminder of what first-person shooting boils down to once you remove all direction and structure. Perhaps the multiplayer component - which I've yet to sample - will save it, but given this year's surfeit of genuinely experimental shooters, it's hard to do more than yawn at this one.