Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: Zen Studios
Developer: Zen Studios
Release Date: July 2, 2009
In downloadable PSN games, we're accustomed to arcade shooters, puzzlers and a few truly innovative "art" titles — notably, flOw, flOwer and the whimsical PixelJunk games. These make for a nice catalog of immediate-gratification gaming, but what we don't commonly see, save for a couple of experiments in discounted download-only versions of disc-based AAA titles like Warhawk and Burnout Paradise, are full-blown games with deep gameplay and the multitude of features we expect in our retail Blu-ray packages. We've been warned the day is coming when the bulk of top-tier titles will see download-only releases, but that day is likely a lot farther away than we'd like to believe.
With a game based on the popular "Punisher" comic book series, a property that has seen an A-grade, though poorly received, film adaptation and a well-received B-movie sequel of sorts, at first blush you might expect Zen Studios is making a tentative foray into providing robust shooter gameplay in a downloadable title, although perhaps a briefer experience than similar titles found on retail shelves.
Unfortunately, you'd be wrong.
The Punisher: No Mercy is nothing more than an arcade shooter with a few customization options, replete with bland and repetitive single-player and skirmish (unlocked after completing the single-player campaign, if you can call it that), with an online multiplayer mode that plays a lot like late 20th century online PC shooters. If you cross an early Unreal Tournament with the oddball, nearly forgotten timed arcade action shooter The Club, you'll know almost exactly what it's like to play No Mercy.
The single-player mode is a travesty, being very little more than a few levels that play exactly like the multiplayer experience, save for some ridiculously easy boss fights thrown in for good measure. The basic idea in single-player is that you have a required number of enemies who you must kill, quite a few sometimes, within a particular time frame. I hate clocks, but The Punisher raises my disdain for timers to new heights. There's absolutely no reason for the timer here, except to add a layer of complexity to what would otherwise be a half-hour single-player campaign.
Even the way the boss fights are implemented is perverse. Kill a certain number of enemies, progress down the timer a ways, and a boss — enemy characters drawn from "The Punisher" comics — shows up. So now you're fighting the boss and the endless stream of lesser bad guys. I have no problem with multiple objectives, although the boss is only a boss in the sense that he has a health bar, therefore taking slightly longer to kill than his patsy henchmen. Even if you kill the boss, you still must meet the kill goal on the rest of the thugs, or you use lose the whole level and any perks you'd obtain. I'm sorry, but I'm just not accustomed to making it into a boss fight, winning the boss fight and then still losing the level because I didn't meet some now-superfluous extra objective. I figure if you can kill the boss, you take the prize. If the boss is such a pushover and the game design requires you still rack up all those ancillary kills, well, the boss needs a makeover. It just leaves you flat, taking out the supreme criminal and yet losing the level by a couple of dime-a-dozen kills in the last few seconds. If No Mercy were more fun to play, if there were more of a hook, sure, I can see repeating things a few times being an entertainment. As it is, it's just a grind. Even with a little variety in the levels, like a sort of survival scenario, it's mostly dull as dishwater.
The other problem with the kill-kill-kill dynamic is that although you've got numerous power-ups scattered around the levels, you've got unlockable weapons and special abilities, there are the infamous exploding red barrels for taking out a bunch of enemies at once, the default weapons has a scope for long-range kills, you can sprint, crouch and jump, and there's no time for bothering with anything resembling tactics. The whole point is get your sights in front of a long line of enemies rushing you and to keep blasting away so you can beat that timer or survive. In the kill-count levels, there's no point in going to much effort staying alive, either, unless you care a lot about your death stats; there's no concrete gameplay penalty for dying. Just hit the X button for respawn and get back to the wholesale slaughter.
While The Punisher's graphics are just barely tolerable for a blast-away shooter, and for some reason, I liked the voice of the actor who does lines for The Punisher in the comic book-style cut scenes between single-player levels. The overall presentation design lacks, well, about everything. The plot narrative, for one thing, is completely throwaway and as far as I can tell relates not at all to the character's actions in the single-player campaign. Of course, this makes sense considering the solo game is nothing more than the online multiplayer game with sloppy bosses and some hackneyed timed-kill objectives. The worst thing about the timer, and one of the worst things about the game's design, is that the timer does not appear on-screen at all times but only displays a title message telling you how many minutes you have left, but once in a blue moon. What do I do with that? How fast should I be killing? How cautious should I be about dying? Should I go after the boss or leave him for now, focusing on the cannon fodder so I have half a chance of achieving the total kill count by the time the clocks runs out? I never got a feel for it, and I doubt you will either. Maybe I should have played with a stopwatch handy.
I'm all for a breezy shooter, but the auto-aiming in The Punisher is just far too much of a crutch. Point your gun in the general direction of some bad guys, spray the thing like a hose on the back lawn, and you got them. When your weapon achieves full-upgrade status, you kill guys just by looking at them funny. There's nothing to it, not in the multiplayer matches, either. Certainly there will be better online players than others, but The Punisher is all twitch, and if you're not the twitchiest twitcher in the land, you're rarely going to take the crown in multiplayer matches. Without much use for tactics, the special ability upgrades, like super speed and shooting through walls, etc., are of little interest. When all you've to do is twitch, well, then you twitch hard. There's also little difference between various weapons: I found the hit ratio and kill speed of the weakest pistol about the same as the submachine guns, although it wasn't quite as useful at longer ranges. But fire the pistols pretty fast, and you still get the same "magic accuracy" spray effect. Close-quarters melee knife kills, assigned by default to the L1 shoulder button, are one-slash affairs. You can't even get very deep into it with hand-to-hand scenarios.
For information about the game's obvious intended purpose, the online multiplayer mode, you may as well just reread my critique of the single-player campaign. Of course the contrived objectives and such are missing, but the core gameplay, it's all the same: It's just run like mad, blast away and pray. There are brief moments of at least something akin to fun, but it's not even worth the modest $10 PSN price for the game. You'd be better off paying double for a discounted, older PS3 online shooter, a far better one that people still play. The Punisher would have been perhaps a marvel years ago when Unreal Tournament ruled the roost, but those days are long gone.
I have to give Zen Studios credit for designing in a co-op campaign mode — bearing in mind, considering the game's design, it's really just two-player team multiplayer against bots. Co-op modes allowing for more social gaming situations are always welcome, and I'm starting to see it as a serious oversight not building in at least a rudimentary co-op mode for games in which they make any kind of sense. Alas, co-op mode is online only, no split screen. Good luck finding anyone who'll want to play with you for more than an hour. There are a dozen Trophies, too, if you have the iron will necessary to play long enough to collect each one. Sadly, The Punisher: No Mercy is a complete waste of a license for a comic book antihero that does have out there amongst gamers a loyal following.
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