Genre : Action
Release Date: January 17, 2005
THQ’s The Punisher goes to great lengths to perfectly emulate the feel of reading a recent Punisher comic, while also doing its best to push the envelope when it comes to just how violent a video game can be. This might seem to be shameless sensationalism, if not for the sort of character the Punisher is. An angry, vicious anti-hero, the pages of a Punisher comic – especially recent ones – will always be full of depictions of socially reprehensible acts, usually being committed by the titular character. For a character that is so completely an exercise in violent excess, the remarkable sadism inherent in this title’s gameplay was simply a must.
A large part of what makes this game really remarkable is that it manages to have a cinematic storyline whose gritty feel comes right out of the comics, while the game objectives remain entirely reasonable as things to do in a video game. The game opens with several cinemas that establish what sort of a character The Punisher is, and that the Punisher’s New York is a nasty, nasty place that could use a violent cleaning-up. Each section of New York you visit is represented by a different level, each of them with unique and interesting designs that express the sort of horrid cesspool of crime you’re exploring. You’ll start with fairly mundane stuff like a decrepit crack house and an auto repair shop that’s a cover for a chop shop, but before long you’ll be fighting insane CIA cyborgs in the zoo and nuke-mongering Russian gangsters at the docks. As you progress through each level, you’ll try to rack up points by doing things exactly as the Punisher of the comics would: dodging bullets, executing bad guys, brutally interrogating thugs, and fastidiously avoiding hurting any innocent victims. The more perfect your run through a given level, the higher you’ll score when your performance is evaluated when you finish. You’ll also be able to unlock cut scene movies, comic book covers, and bonus art from the comics, along with tons of other goodies. Between levels, you’ll go to the Punisher’s apartment, where you’ll be able to save your progress, spend points you’ve earned on upgrades for the Punisher’s abilities, or look at all the data you’ve unlocked during the course of your game.
The emphasis on putting yourself in the Punisher’s mindset and his customizable abilities lend an interesting RPG-like flavor to what is otherwise a fairly standard third-person shooter, and certainly makes playing a more disturbing experience than it might be otherwise. For the action portions of the game, the Punisher can wield up to two rifles, two pistols, and either flash or fragmentation grenades. Things get interesting when you get close to enemies, and can opt to either dispatch them with a “quick kill” maneuver or to grab hold of them. Once you’ve gotten an enemy in your clutches, you can enter the interrogation minigame to try and get some information out of them. This involves carefully abusing your thug by moving the right analog stick up and down, so that the thug’s tension gauge is kept in the “orange zone” for about three seconds. If you can’t get it high enough your interrogation techniques will have no effect, while boosting it into the “red zone” could very well kill your target before you learn anything useful. Success “breaks” the enemy’s will, making them fearfully tell you whatever they know and, not incidentally, giving your life gauge a boost.
Aside from the major controls, there are about a million little things you can do that are dependent on your situation and the environment. When the blue meter underneath the Punisher’s life gauge is full, you can use the triangle button to enter “slaughter mode”. This is basically a berserker fury during which the Punisher will begin to regenerate life, and run around invincibly stabbing people. You can rack up a lot of points doing quick kills in this mode, but the meter will eventually run out, and getting hit by enemy fire will shorten the period of invincibility. While holding an enemy, you can opt to knock him out by tapping the triangle button, or throw him through doors to help keep yourself out of danger. Glowing zones on the ground indicate “special interrogation” and “special kill” zones, where you can drag an enemy in order to use the environment during your interrogation or kill to rack up extra points. While this is a fairly bloody game just in casual play, the special maneuvers are especially gruesome. In the zoo level, for instance, you can impale bad guys on a stuffed elephant’s tusks and interrogate them by shoving their head into the same cage as an angry rhinoceros. The specials for the other levels are often just as spectacularly overblown, involving among other things a pneumatic drill and a cremation oven. Overall, the game is very good about introducing special mechanics to the player with rather nicely-done in-game tutorials.
The graphics for the game are quite good. A little blocky, as is to be expected of a PS2 port of a PC title, but still very detailed. Motion of in-game characters is fluid and the physics engine is rather nicely done. Dead bodies will fly about like rag dolls as they hit the ground, and the Punisher can kick around loose chairs and barrels in a decently realistic manner. The Punisher himself is absolutely awesome-looking, a perfect melding of the character’s many different visual interpretations into a sort of clean, iconic Punisher visual that’s quite fun to watch move around the screen. The many mooks you fight all have fairly distinct looks, and there’s enough variety to keep the feeling that you’re just killing one guy over and over again at bay. The different areas of New York you visit are all nicely moody and full of believable, gritty little touches that make the maps more realistic, but there are some occasional lighting problems. Most of the maps in the game had some segments that were so atmospherically dark as to make figuring out what you were looking at rather difficult. It was also much too easy to get completely disoriented by a bad camera angle in certain super-dark sections of the map.
Use of sound is also very impressive in this title. There’s tons of voice acting, all of it uncommonly good. Thomas Jane reprises his role as Frank Castle from last year’s Punisher film, handling all of his lines with refreshingly straight-faced grittiness. Sound cues from enemies and innocents can help you know when something is happening off-camera, and all of the hints you extract from enemies in interrogation sequences are parts of spoken dialogue. Enemies will also shout at you during firefights, and have casual conversations with each other as you sneak up on them. Aside from voice acting, the game features a nice and suitably realistic array of sound effects for in-game actions, and a lot of good use of ambient sound to build up the mood of a particular location. The soundtrack for the game is nice at first blush, as it features rich orchestral themes that cue up once the Punisher enters a gunfight. I haven’t seen the movie, but just from the style of the music, I’m inclined to suspect that it was pulled from or inspired directly by the theatrical soundtrack. Unfortunately, there’s not enough variety in the music for a game of the Punisher’s length, and some of the themes become extremely overpowering once they’ve looped a few times. If you’re stuck on a level and replaying the same map a few times, you may find yourself going to the game options screen to shut the BGMs off.
My final issue with the Punisher is more an issue with the PS2 port of the game, since I’m positive this issue doesn’t exist in the PC version. The controls for the PS2 version of the game are pretty obviously inspired by Halo’s approach to converting shooters to a console system. You control movement with the left analog stick, the camera angle and targeting crosshairs with the right stick, and can push down on the right stick to trigger a “fine aim mode” that lets you precisely target your shots. R1 and L1 fire the weapon in the Punisher’s respective hand, while R2 lets you execute fancy dodge-roll dives and L2 lets you crouch. This layout isn’t problematical by itself, but unlike Halo, there are several points in the Punisher where the level design clearly demands the sort of precise control that you’ll only get out of a shooter being played with a mouse and keyboard set-up. Strafing is extremely difficult, and turning around quickly to deal with a baddie who’s shooting you in the back is nearly impossible. Since the camera and targeting controls are lumped in together, it’s excessively difficult to keep a bead on any enemy you’re shooting at. The Punisher is by itself is a very challenging title, and struggling against sub-optimal controls on top of that just takes away from the fun of the game.
Still, this just means that anyone with a games-ready PC may want to consider that version over the PS2 version. By itself, the Punisher really is a fun game and if a PS2 is all you have to play it on, it’s worth considering for a purchase. For folks who aren’t big comic book fans, it can stand on its own as a solid shooter with some fun tactical elements and a thrilling action-movie style. For long-time fans of the Punisher, it offers what is perhaps the first authentic video-game incarnation of the character. With tons of cameos from classic Marvel characters like the Black Widow, dialogue penned by Punisher writer Garth Ennis, and the sort of loving attention to detail that could please the most finicky of Comic Book Guys, the Punisher is practically a textbook example of how to do a good media-to-game conversion. It’s true that there’s a trailer for the Punisher movie squirreled away with the game’s bonus material, but everything from the brutally violent gameplay to the Punisher’s iconic look finds its real roots in the Punisher comics. If you know and love Frank Castle, you need to get some version of this game. If you’ve yet to be introduced to the Punisher, this title is an excellent place to start.
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