A lot of pain happens to other people in the PlayStation Network game named PAIN. You were probably expecting that. It's been available in the US since late November, but should be launching in Europe and Asia in early 2008.
The ability to laugh at the misfortune of others is a universal experience, even if the Germans created an exclusive word for it (I've always wanted to use "schadenfreude" in a review). Infants who are barely able to walk and entirely unable to talk will still burst into laughter at the sight of their fathers knocking their heads on a low-hanging light fixture, walking into a wall, stubbing their toes on furniture, or slipping on a freshly-waxed linoleum floor. This I know from personal experience.
As children grow older, this instinct to laugh at the injury of others remains - hence the popularity of Saturday morning cartoons. Even adults laugh at the pain of others, even if we rename it "slapstick" in order to avoid appearing mean and heartless. Do you really think YouTube (or the Internet itself, frankly) would be nearly as popular without video clips of people injuring themselves?
I bring this up not merely to delay the writing of a review, but to point out that developer Idol Minds has tapped into something inherently funny.
Although some have tried to describe PAIN as a mere rag-doll physics tech demo, I found it to be more than that. Personally, I like to think of it as an art studio, with a slingshot for a paintbrush and a city district as the canvas. Load your character (one of four that can be unlocked and/or purchased) into the slingshot, adjust the angle and power level, and fire away! The city is loaded with items that can be knocked over, broken, blown up, or otherwise manipulated. There are elevated trains, cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians ranging from a mime to a walker-toting little old lady. Not only can your main character grab onto vehicles and toss many of these pedestrians and items, he (or she) can perform stunts in midair and can "scoot" along the ground to chain together collisions, provided that his or her body hasn't come to rest.
The object of the game - apart from revelling in the resulting chaos - is to cause as much damage as possible to the environment and to your character. This is where the creativity part comes in. Anyone can knock over a table and chairs, but it takes a true artist to smash through plate glass windows on the back of a truck, bounce into an exploding mailbox, take down a little old lady, crash through a vent, grab a swinging girder, hitch a ride on a passing police car, and take down a scaffolding before knocking down said table and chairs.
There are a handful of multiplayer modes, which include Fun with Explosives, Horse and Bowling. The Explosive mode fills the environment with crates, challenging you to blow up as many of them as possible by bouncing back and forth between them like a human pinball. Horse requires you to choose an initial target and cause as much damage as you can. As in the basketball game of the same name, your opponent must then hit the same initial target, but cause more damage than you did. If he doesn't, he gets a letter. If he does, you get one more chance to outscore him or else you get a letter. First person to collect all the letters in the word "horse" (or whatever vulgar alternative you decide to use) loses.
Bowling, my favourite, is just like the pastime, except that the pins are six-to-eight feet tall and arranged in a street, and instead of rolling a ball, you launch your character into the pins. Oh, and the player who is not bowling has the option of launching assorted items at his opponent. Let me tell you - nothing causes a 7-10 split more frequently than dropping an I-beam on someone's head. And just try to pick up a spare with manholes, phone booths, and little old ladies popping up to block your path. It's madness!
Mini-game challenges include Mime Tossing, the very name of which should convince you it is worth playing, and Spanking the Monkey, the very name of which might make you question the game's rating (as if you didn't already notice that the name of the HOTEL CORAL ESSEX can spell out something naughty if you strategically knock down five letters). Actually, Spanking the Monkey involves targeting simians that appear throughout the city, and once again it is a testament to the developer's genius. If watching people hurt themselves is a universal pleasure, knocking over monkeys must be a close second.
Despite the "plug and play" nature of most downloaded games, you'll want to check out the training mode. Actually, you are forced to play the training mode, which is a good idea because otherwise you wouldn't understand how to continue moving your character by vigorously shaking the Sixaxis. Lastly, there are trophies to be won for various achievements such as reaching a certain score, grabbing a specific item, reaching a certain height, etc.
Lest the monkey-spanking and launching people through plate glass windows cause you to believe that the game is strictly for adults, it maintains a Teen rating by eliminating any traces of blood or compound fractures. Sure, it is still violent - exploding gas pipes, crashing cars and trains - but it is cartoon violence, not Manhunt 2 violence.
PAIN includes an instant replay feature that lets you pause, rewind, and forward the action, moving the camera anywhere you want in the environment. This is quite helpful, as often you'll hear commotion going on in the distance. Only through the replay will you see that a small board which you dislodged during your last launch managed to strike a construction worker, who fell into an exploding tank and then landed in the street, causing a major pile-up. As for me, I like to place the camera at the point of view of an innocent bystander such as the guy at the cafe or the little old lady at the subway entrance, watching the chaos unfold around them.
Although it is not currently part of the game, the forum suggests that players will soon be able to take and share "snapshot" images or videos. Frankly, it can't come soon enough, as I've often left the PS3 paused for hours just so I could show my son my latest masterpiece as soon as he got home from school.
The city is currently the only environment available, although additional environments are on the way. A re-arranged version of the city can be unlocked, but the differences are minor. One character is open at the start, with additional costumes and a second character that can be unlocked. Two additional characters - a drunken mall Santa type and a Betty Page-ish Santa's helper (whose humourous quips alone make her worth the purchase) - have been made available for USD 1.99 each at the PlayStation store.
PAIN seems to be one of those games you'll either love or hate, as there is very little middle ground even for a game that retails for a mere USD 9.99. While the single stage may at first make PAIN seem very limited, the fact that you'll never end up with the exact same results more than once should be enticing. Even when you think you know every nook and cranny of the city stage, there are still a lot of things to try, trophies to earn, and pins to be bowled over.
So what are you waiting for? It's time to cause some pain!
With the Asian and European builds launching in early 2008, the developers have said that they will be synchronising the game. That is, modes and characters that were added onto the US version after launch will be available from the start in Europe and Asia. With the potential of new characters, scoring changes, and a new gameplay mode being made available, your enjoyment of PAIN should only increase.