Overdose. It's a suggestive word, dripping with the promise of lethal excess. The original Painkiller was a glorious throwback of a shooter, a game that followed the likes of Serious Sam in favouring relentless violence and ludicrous gibbing over narrative sophistication. When you apply the phrase "overdose" to such a prospect, the result should be pure gaming adrenalin.
So why does this belated semi-sequel pack a punch like a sickly gerbil?
It talks the talk, at least when it comes to press release bullet points. Forty new monsters. Sixteen new levels. Six new weapons. What more could a growing boy need? In theory, nothing. In practice, the array of newness is hobbled by some lumpy design decisions and a generally underwhelming feel. Chief among Overdose's shortcomings are the weak new weapon-set and some amateurishly hamfisted pacing. Not only is the new arsenal rather vague in purpose and effect - monsters tend to explode messily regardless of what weapon you use - but none of them really pack any oomph. Tradition dictates that FPS weapons follow an escalating arc of destruction, usually from a weak but accurate pistol (or equivalent) to something stupidly explosive, usually based loosely on a rocket launcher.
Breaking with tradition is fine, but Overdose (a game otherwise completely beholden to the traditions of 1993) simply offers six weapons that all fall roughly in the middle of that scale. The explosive crossbow is fun, but the ray-shooting demon head is rather useless, while a sort of three-way grenade launcher sounds cool but fizzles in reality. The shotgun is particularly disappointing - especially as it's your default weapon for most of the early stages. There's a weird inconsistency to the damage you inflict as well - sometimes an enemy can fly apart with one shot, other times the exact same enemy type will soak up three, four, even five shots at the same range before keeling over. As each new weapon is made available you excitedly await the apocalypse you're about to unleash...only to discover that it's much the same as the others. Once you realise that, the urge to keep playing dips sharply. Six weapons isn't exactly generous, and you'll have grown bored of them all long before the end.
As for the pacing, the game takes the perplexing decision to break each level up into a series of small self-contained sections which must be cleared before continuing. So you enter a new area, you get sealed in, and then strafe around, blasting the onslaught of monsters until the doorway opens up again. As you enter the next area your health is refilled and the game autosaves, so there's no sense of continuity, or strategy, or even what the level is actually like.
It doesn't help that the levels are blandly constructed, making little use of elevated areas, stairways or indeed any architectural features of interest. It's just a procession of short mindless bursts of shooting in flat gore-soaked arenas, draped in different skins depending on what theme the level is supposed to follow. Had a friend knocked it together using the Source engine, you'd probably be impressed. When you're being asked to pay actual grown-up money, there's less reason to be forgiving.
Compared to the original Painkiller, a game I unironically loved, this is a huge step backwards. That game was retro in its aesthetic, but it had a lot of fun with physics (I still giggle at the enormous stake-gun which sent enemies flying across the level and impaled them on walls) and boasted some smart level design with a shrewdly gauged build-up to each new wave of bad guys. It was dumb, but dumb in a purposeful and clever way. In Overdose the generic enemies just swarm as you plug away, hoping to scrape by with enough health to make it through to the next bit. After two levels, whatever buzz the ultra-violence elicits has almost completely faded. There's dumb fun, and there's just dumb.
There is other stuff we could talk about - the enormous bosses, the tarot card power-ups and the multiplayer, for instance - but all are sunk by the same flatline game design. For a game built on grr scary demon stuff and ooh blood and guts this is an astonishingly tame and middle-of-the-road experience. The violence might be of concern if you're still shocked by Mortal Kombat fatalities, but it frankly looks rather quaint compared to, well, everything else on the shelves right now. "Tastes like chicken!" growls Belial, your half-angel/half-demon character (whose florid back-story is far too insipid and clichéd to recount here) as he mangles another predictable hellish foe into red gooey polygons. Yeah, even his quips feel like Diet Duke Nukem.
Overdose started life as a fan-made mod and it shows. While it's since gained official approval and funding, Counter-Strike this ain't. Its slender charms would probably be enough to earn a small PayPal donation if it had fulfilled its destiny as a shareware download, but as a professional mid-price release it just isn't up to the job. They say an overdose is usually a cry for attention. This is one you can safely ignore without feeling guilty.