The Blair Hippo Project (blairhippo) wrote,

Game About Ass-Kicking Wants You Feeling Inadequate

Tina and I went to Half Price Books on a date earlier this week. I saw "Painkiller" and its first expansion bundled on sale for $10, so naturally I gobbled it right up.

"Painkiller" is a five-year-old game most notable for earning the effusive praise of one Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, one of the internet's best (and most hilariously profane) video game reviewers. It's a first-person shoot-em-up that has all the depth of a cup of spilled tea, but is alleged to do the ultra-violence thing so well as to be a rollicking great blood-spattered time. So I've been meaning to give it a look for a while, and finally played it for a few hours last night.

Short version: What the hell was Yahtzee on about, anyway?

Long version: Okay, there were some technical issues, and those didn't help. Even after I'd downloaded and installed the 300-meg patch, the game decided it didn't like my computer (which is about three years old) and wasn't going to play nice with it. The physics engine would occasionally go a bit stupid, most notably at what I called The Bridge of Madness. I ran into a wobbly rope-and-plank bridge that was supposed to get more wobbly as you walked across it. By the time I got about a third of the way over, it had become not so much "wobbly" as "swirling vortex of pixelated insanity," which caused me to die. (Though I'm not sure whether it was from plummeting into the abyss or having chunks of bridge where vital organs used to be.) The only way I found across it was to hop along like a bunny. A very heavily armed bunny.

More problematic was when the game would, without warning and for no reason I could ever suss out, start running twice as fast. Since my reflexes and mouse-clicking remained stuck at the same rate, this presented a wholly undesired challenge. I spent about half of the game trapped in fast-forward mode, and no amount of twiddling the video settings seemed to make any difference; there was no "Benny Hill" box for me to uncheck.

But even if I was prepared to forgive the bugs (which I'm not), it's just not that great a game. Sure, the titular Painkiller, a combination five-bladed chopper-upper and mystic ranged weapon/tripwire thing, was a lot of fun to play with. (At least, when "Yackity Sax" wasn't playing in my head.) But starting with the second map, the enemies started spawning out of thin air at arbitrary points, which was annoying as fuck. If you want to avoid being surrounded (and you do), you need to remember where they start popping up and be someplace else, replacing the key strategic elements of Situational Awareness and Terrain Management with Rote Memorization.

My fun level bottomed out on the third map. The larger game appears to rely on the twin themes of "Insane Frenzied Combat" and "Kick-Ass Weaponry," so designing an entire map that rubs the players' noses in the inadequacy of their weapons seems a curious choice. In his review, Yahtzee was blown away by the awesomeness of the weapons -- and for the Painkiller, I have to agree. But this level gives you access to a cannon that fires telephone poles into your enemies and forces you to use it, and left me wishing I was using something else. When you first get the thing, you're being shot at by a bunch of pricks standing on inaccessible platforms chucking an inexhaustible supply straight-flying axes at your face. (And doing so very, very quickly, thanks to Mr. Hill's contribution to the game.) They're out of range of the shotgun and Painkiller, so time to bust out the stake cannon!

... except they're only nominally within range of that thing, too. In order to hit them, you have to arc the shots into them, as though you're playing an unusually bloodthirsty game of football. I very much wanted something that fired lethal projectiles in a more-or-less straight line. I'm told such devices are actually quite common in the Real World.

The Stake Cannon (or whatever it's called) also had a grenade "launcher." When used, grenades just sort of plop out of it, like shots out of those ping-pong-ball guns I used to play with as a kid, and then finally get around to exploding. You need very precise timing to get clusters of enemies to be near exploding grenades you just "launched".

Later in the level, I had to take on a swarm of enemies WITHOUT just chopping them all to bits, as the suicide bombers among them made this a losing proposition. Fair enough, it's the game's job to provide me with challenges. But it's also the game's job to provide me with means of overcoming those challenges, and this is where it was a bit lacking. I needed to take them down from range, but the Stake Cannon is more of a boss-killer than horde-of-mooks disposal system, the grenade launcher was a joke, and the shotgun lacked the range, stopping power, and rate of fire I needed. I finally settled on using the Painkiller's "tripwire" feature, but had to be so precise with it that I had to reload the fight a few dozen times to get past it. (And once things started going tits-up I just let the suicide bombers waste me, because I knew I'd need all my health to get past the hyperactive axe-flinging cokeheads waiting for me in the next room.)

The level left me longing for something that 1) shoots straight and 2) shoots lots of bullets. In short, an AK-47.

When one of your game's selling points is the awesome weaponry yet you leave the player craving a sixty-year-old assault rife instead, you're doing it wrong.

The level came to its natural conclusion with a Boss Fight where all my weapons were utterly useless, and I had to lure Mr. Indestructible into a pit of lava using only arbitrary quirks of that last room. A game that prides itself on high testosterone ass-kickery had just handed me a custom-made boss-killing weapon and chucked me into a room with a fucking Puzzle Boss.

"This shit," I said, "is to be fucked." So I emailed my girlfriend and went to bed.

I own games much more fun than this. Next time, I'll play one of them instead.
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