Reviewing video games for a living, I've had the opportunity to witness all sorts of sadistic acts on my television. Nothing, however, has quite measured up to THQ's The Punisher
. This is the type of game media watchgroups love to loathe. It's so violent, so bloody, that the ESRB forced developer Volition to snuff some of the gorier moments, muting violent interrogations in black and white. Despite the ESRB's efforts, The Punisher
remains gleefully violent with more than 100 inventive methods for torture and death.
Based on the comic book of the same name, you play as Frank Castle, an ex-marine who witnessed his families murder at the hand of drug dealers. Sworn to punish all criminals, Frank goes to war against the underworld. The game takes place several years into the Punisher's vigilante career and features some of the Punisher's greatest foes, including Bullseye and the Russian. With an eerily accurate character model, an exorbitant amount of violence, and a story written by comic-scribes Garth Ennis and Jimmy Palmiotti, this is as authentic a Punisher game as you may ever see.
Make My F------ Day, Punk!
The Punisher is not a particularly complex game. Each of the 16 missions features the same basic concept: Go from point A to point B and kill every single thing in your path. You can heft two weapons, crouch to gain some protection, and nab bad guys to use as body armor while unleashing a hail of bullets on his buddies. If that's all there was to The Punisher, this would be a pretty mediocre effort. Fortunately, Volition was committed to showing the brutal nature of the Punisher.
With this commitment brought the need not only for an excessive number of armaments (more than 20 weapons) but for the brand of over-the-top murder seen in the pages of the comic book. The Punisher's great innovation is in its interrogations and special kills. These grandiose moments often make use of the environment to offer creative ways for the Punisher to force information from criminals or to simply off them with aplomb.
Most people could come up with a few different interesting ways to kill someone in a video game. Put a guy in a wood chipper? Yeah, I saw that move. Hang a guy out a window and drop him? Sure, did that to my accountant once. I don't doubt there's a gamer who couldn't think up a few of these on his or her own, but to do it 100 times? That requires an incredible amount of creativity and probably a few years of living in a basement. It's a joy, a true and giddy joy to come across specially areas marked for death. White skulls hover for special interrogations, gold for special instant-kills.
To interrogate, grab a criminal and take them to the marker, where an icon appears letting you know you can do your business. Each victim is resistant at first, but they all have a breaking point. When an interrogation begins, a meter appears at the bottom of the screen. Using the Thumbstick, it's your job to frighten the subject and maintain their fear level within the marked section of the meter for three seconds. Some crooks have smaller zones than others and some interrogation zones can kill quickly if you push too hard on the Thumbstick. It's a slight learning curve to get the hang of interrogation, but well worth the practice.
Once broken, criminals give up something, either a plea for their life, some background info, or something truly useful, like the location of a weapons cache. After being broken, you can finish your captive off as a special thank you. Though sawing someone in half is certainly enjoyable (though not too exciting to watch thanks to the black-and-white effect), there are times when keeping someone alive is actually beneficial.
The Merits of Mercy
The Punisher is not meant to be taken seriously. It's over-the-top for a reason. That's likely why Volition included an arcade score. The odd thing is, killing someone after an interrogation costs you points. I guess it's not particularly nice to murder those who've cracked under your influence. Aside from losing some points (which are used to determine your ranking in each mission), there are times when broken crooks can actually assist the Punisher.
"L-let me go and I'll show you w-where I keep my special gun." Oh sure, it would be fun to execute someone who says this, but you can let the person go, follow them to the flamethrower, and then toast them with the new toy. This actually earns you points! Of course, some crooks are going to screw you over. One may claim they are going to tell their buddies in the next room to lay down their weapons, only to tell them to shoot you down instead. Those are the risks of putting your trust in people you've threatened to saw in half. Beyond the points, keeping a crook alive isn't a bad idea if you want some extra body armor. Criminals make for excellent human shields and though they force the Punisher to wield only one weapon. There are dozens of enemies in every level and it seems five or six around every corner, so human shields are very important. Should you decide you want to discard your shield, you can always go for a quick kill. These murders cycle randomly and depend on the type of weapon you're wielding, but most involve a bullet in your human shield's noggin.
Though human shields are essential to survival and also fun to use, there are some issues. First, you can't change weapons with a human shield in hand, meaning you have to kill them if you want to change guns. The more pressing problem is the inability to aim low. Sure, you can aim the reticule down, but when it gets below the waist, the reticule stops making any sense at all. This can become a real problem in the later levels that feature a lot of stairs. The reticule and the muzzle do not synch up at a certain point unless you ditch your shield, which can be pretty annoying. Fortunately, the Punisher is a relatively easy game, so even with a shield, you can get through almost any situation.
The problem with special locations for interrogations is that they can't be in every single room you enter. This means that for much of The Punisher you must resort to old-fashioned killing. Thank goodness you can heft two .50 caliber machineguns! Look forward to grenades, a flamethrower, a shotgun, a half-dozen different side arms, a grenade launcher and many more tools of destruction.
Though it can be a hoot to char-broil an enemy or to mow down some goons with your AK, it feels incredibly ordinary in comparison to those "special" moments. There are times when you go through chucks of game without any sweet ways to lay down death. Since there's no location-specific damage, you can't amuse yourself with shooting people in the kneecap.
Fortunately, there are still a few ways to get up-close and personal with someone's face and have some amusement. Get near any enemy at any time and you can perform a quick kill. Like the quick kills performed on hostages, these are randomly selected based on the weapon at hand. Most of these murders involve your knife -- either sticking it in the top of someone's head or turning a dude's melon into a corn on the cob with your two blades. These are pretty humorous and gloriously bloody, but there aren't that many of them, so over time they actually become sort of tame. "Oh, just stuck my knife through a guy's forehead, sigh."
One of the best slayings around comes when you pick up a butcher knife off a table. Quick kill an enemy and you bury the knife halfway in his face, leaving him to stumble a moment and fall. It's quite a riot. And really, if you aren't laughing by now, then The Punisher is definitely not the game for you.
Your last hope for causing widespread death is to become enraged. As the punisher kills and interrogates, his rage meter builds. At any time you can hit the proper button and go into berserker mode. This turns the screen black and white (yes, I know it sucks, but learn to deal) and turns the Punisher into an unbelievable force to be reckoned with. Wielding his knives, the Punisher moves quickly and provides head-popping deaths and savage stabbings. The more you kill, the longer you stage enraged and the more you heal.
You know, it's kind of amazing with all his killing that the Punisher never gets a smidge of blood on his cool leather jacket.
You're Not the Boss of Me
Though The Punisher features some inspired scenes of death, it is still designed as your standard action game. As such, there are a number of bosses that must be fought at the end of different missions. Most of the boss battles tend to be pretty boring, but there are a few that manage to deliver on the visceral excitement seen throughout the rest of The Punisher. The best of the boss battles is your first encounter with the Russian. The battle begins with the muscle-bound ruskie slamming Punisher to the ground in his apartment. You have no guns and the items around the apartment (crowbars and butcher knives) do no damage. However, you can get behind the Russian and ride him towards special interrogation zones. But instead of interrogating the baddie, you just have to hurt him. First up, you shove his head in the fridge and use the thumbstick to bash him with the door. Each section ends with a nice piece of cinema showing the Russian launching Punisher through a section of the apartment. It fits in perfectly with the gameplay and is one of the most memorable moments in the entire game.
If only other boss battles were handled as deftly. Instead, many of the other fights involve you running in circles and shooting at a boss who follows a predictable pattern. There are many moments like this in the Punisher, where it feels like Volition just ran out of creative steam.
Vengeance is Beautiful
Killing people wouldn't be any fun if the visuals couldn't keep up. Fortunately, The Punisher is a pretty good-looking game. The model for the Punisher is absolutely incredible, as perfect as could possibly be. You literally could not make a better model of the Punisher. The animations are all focused on killings and the more extreme the death, it seems the more attention was paid to realizing it. This results in plenty of "Holy crap" moments where you have to call your friend to tell them about the brutality you've just witnessed.
On the downside, most enemies and even the Punisher seems to have a lot of upper-body motion but barely any articulation below the waste. Some animations just look very stiff, though I suppose the Punisher is supposed to be very much like the Terminator. Though there's a variety of environments, most of them are too lifeless, too ordinary. Take the zoo level. While there's a Rhino that helps with an interrogation, the rest of the area feels more like a graveyard than a place that should be full of animals.
The heightened level of violence and the superb voice-acting make some of the lesser visuals acceptable. Truly you will be spending too much time searching for new ways to kill than worrying about the marvels of a tropical island. The violence and the dialogue are equally funny and if it weren't for the black-and-white death scenes, this would likely be a true horror classic.
©2005, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved