Genre : Action
Release Date: Q1 2005
If you were at THQ’s press event on Tuesday night, I’ve got to apologize to you. Y’see, I’d had what is, even for me, an epic amount of vodka, and every time I looked at the projection TV that was showing the demo of The Punisher, someone had found a fresh red horror, gleaming wetly on the gallery wall. So I might’ve been screaming a little bit.
I’m used to seeing guys getting shot in video games. I’m even used to their bits exploding in gory Technicolor, like a wet red fireworks display. I am not used to the sadistic paean to violent death that is The Punisher.
On the face of it, the game is a hardcore third-person shooter, with all that implies. You are Frank Castle, the Punisher; specifically, you’re the Punisher as seen in his recent Marvel Knights series of comic books (as opposed to the current MAX book, which is somewhat more extreme). After the death of his family at the hands of mobsters, the Punisher fights a never-ending war against criminals, but at this point, he appears to be less motivated by a desire for revenge than by the fact that he likes killing people.
Go ahead. Hand this game to children. It’ll be funny.
The Punisher in the game is voiced by Thomas Jane, who played Frank in the recent movie, but is visually based off of the broad-shouldered and square-jawed ex-Marine of the comics. He’s even got the Steve Dillon narrow mouth and perpetual sneer. The mobsters you fight are a series of individuals, each well-modeled and distinct despite being designed to be sort of forgettable. They’ve put a lot of care into putting faces on your faceless victims.
In a series of running gun battles, with plot and dialogue provided by “Punisher” writer Garth Ennis and comic-book writer Jimmy Palmiotti, you’ll encounter several of the Punisher’s traditional villains, such as Jigsaw, Bushwhacker (…I’m still in shock), the Kingpin, and the Russian. (Yes, that Russian, the nearly-indestructible transsexual cyborg. Yes, the developers are bastards; no, I do not know how you’re supposed to beat him.)
You’ll also dispatch several thousand mob soldiers, which is where the fun really starts. When you get within melee range of an enemy, you can press the X button to take him prisoner. At this point, you can use him as a human shield, but that’s only the beginning.
Once you’re done shielding, you can opt to Interrogate or Swift Kill your captive. The former is a method of pummeling information out of him, by slamming him into the floor, or closing a cell door on his groin, or whatever else is handy. Hit him too often and he’s dead, but he may give you important tips before he goes. More importantly, the Punisher operates on an adrenaline meter rather than a health system, so viciously maiming a thug will get his blood pumping, thus restoring some of his lost life.
Swift Kills are simple, quick fatalities, which’ll instantly get the target out of your hair. There are a surprising number of animations for Swift Kills, from simple shotgun decapitations to relatively elaborate combinations; my favorite is one where the Punisher throws his rifle to a surprised gunsel before pulling a knife and jamming it into the surprised mook’s eye. Swift Kills are inescapable, instant, and don’t use up ammo, but they’re mostly great for style points.
Most importantly, depending on where you are when you grab a goon, you can opt for a Special Interrogation or Kill, by using whatever’s nearby to murder or torture him. Appropriate objects will be clearly labeled by a glowing Punisher logo, so you don’t have to guess what in the area can be used as a murder weapon.
The first thing I saw in this game was the Punisher shoving a guy legs-first into a log shredder. The game didn’t hint at what was going on or cut away right before the crunch; he went screaming into the rotating jaws of the machine, where he was reduced into soup stock and blood spray.
Some of the more vicious deaths may fade to black and white right at the moment of impact, such as when Frank jams a lit blowtorch into a man’s open mouth, but many of them don’t. Hence the screaming, as mentioned above; every time I thought the game had hit some kind of zero point, beyond which the violence could not get any more graphic, it surpassed it within about a minute and a half. There are over a hundred points in the game where you can get a special environmental kill, and each one’s unique.
The interrogation system requires the most explanation, but the focus of The Punisher is still squarely on gun battles. Frank’s got all the tricks from the good third-person shooter handbook, like an evasion roll, ducking behind cover, switching to a manual aim mode by clicking the right control stick, and tossing grenades. As you kill people, you’ll fill up his special Slaughter Mode meter, which lets you enter a slow-motion killing frenzy where the Punisher moves twice as fast as his opponents, blazing away with his twin .45s.
One hallmark of the comics, especially when Ennis is writing them, is that people take the Punisher very seriously. Your enemies aren’t stupid; they’ll take cover, run away, provide suppressive fire for their buddies, and if you catch them flat-footed, they’ll actually surrender. If you’re outside, you can expect to be routinely caught in a crossfire from men both on the ground and positioned above you, and indoors, you more or less live in a hail of bullets.
You can collect and upgrade weapons over the course of each mission and take them back to the arsenal in the Punisher’s New York apartment. Frank’s place forms the central hub of the game, from which you can choose your next missions on a map of New York City. You can investigate whatever cases you choose as they’re unlocked on the map.
Among the usable weapons in the build were dual pistols, a pump shotgun, an Uzi, an M-16, frag grenades, a combat knife (used mostly for Swift Kills), and a meat cleaver, all of which are realistically modeled. You can select a few items from your armory to take into a mission or swipe guns from dead enemies.
Most of the environments you’ll explore and subsequently blow to hell are taken from great Punisher storylines of the recent past, such as the Central Park shootout and invasion of Ma Gnucci’s mansion from the Marvel Knights series. You’ll also investigate what looked like a chop shop, complete with running machine tools to throw goons at, and shoot your way out of the middle of a violent prison riot.
You can also gather items from the Punisher’s history, which’ll unlock a variety of extras in the Punisher War Journal. Some of those extras will include bonus DVD footage, but I’m told you can also find pages from various comic books.
The Punisher doesn’t have a long video game history; I think the last one he was in was a decent arcade beat-‘em-up from Capcom that was ported to the Genesis. With The Punisher, he’s now got more decent games to his credit than almost any other comic book character out there, which is really kind of odd.
Bottom line: The Punisher is intense, bloody, and satisfyingly violent. It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you can handle some serious gore, then this is a game you should be keeping your eye on.
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