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Written by  :  Terrence Bosky (5458)
Written on  :  Jun 23, 2005
Platform  :  PlayStation 2
Rating  :  3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars

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Great Torture Simulator, Average Game

The Good

When Frank Castle’s family was gunned down by mobsters he became The Punisher. As judge, jury, and executioner, The Punisher is a one-man war on crime. “Every muzzle flash,” he says, “means another dead monster.” Spanning the events of Garth Ennis’ “Welcome Back, Frank” storyline and acting as a semi-sequel to the 2004 The Punisher movie (Thomas Jane voices Castle), the game finds Castle caught up in a gang war between the Gnuccis, Russian mobsters, and the Yakuza. Lurking in the background is The Kingpin and another classic Punisher villain whose origin is rewritten to incorporate events from the movie.

After an opening cinematic shows The Punisher’s capture after wiping out a Yakuza base, The Punisher spends the bulk of the game in an interrogation room as Officers Soap and Maggie recount The Punisher’s recent exploits. Most of the 16 missions composing the game are flashbacks beginning with a tutorial level set in a crack den. Acting out of character, The Punisher starts the game unarmed (or as unarmed as he gets).

The Punisher’s first goal is to interrogate a criminal. Walking behind a criminal, The Punisher grabs him and then has several options. Castle can punch or choke information out of a criminal, if there’s room, he can smash their face into the ground until they talk, or he can threaten to shoot them until they talk. Using the analog stick, the player must apply enough pressure on the criminal to keep a bar in the red zone of a meter. Too much pressure results in the criminal’s death. Interrogating criminals gives Castle information and also restores some of his health.

Some characters have a floating skull above their heads. These characters provide more useful information (locations of weapons cache, key codes for doors, etc.) and provide more healing. Usually found near these characters are special interrogation points. Using the environment, The Punisher can threaten criminals with truly gruesome endings until they talk. Tame at first, merely slamming a window down on someone, these interrogations build to threatening to throw criminals to sharks, put their faces in deep fryers, or going to work on them with a laser.

The interrogations are the game’s greatest feature. Everything else tends towards straight forward combat, simple running and gunning. The interrogations, however, are sadistically sophisticated and require a touch of skill. But in a strange schism, The Punisher is punished for taking the interrogations too far. After getting the information, if you go ahead and run someone’s face into a circular saw, the game knocks off a few points and switches to a bizarre monochrome mode during the kill. If you kill someone outside of interrogations, it’s a good thing, during one, it’s not.

I mentioned that The Punisher starts out unarmed, but it really doesn’t matter since he can kill any non-boss character by walking up to them and pressing a quick kill button. Depending on what he has, The Punisher might simply snap a neck, impale someone with a knife, or, more elaborately, shove a flamethrower in their mouth and watch their head light up or cram a grenade down their throat. When armed, he can blow off heads, and after killing enough, he can enter Slaughter mode and rapidly kill dozens of enemies with bloody panache. Of course, none of this is in monochrome. Allegedly the ESRB threatened an AO rating if the interrogations were in color allowing that it’s not so much what you see, but the palette from which it draws.

Most missions begin in Castle’s apartment. Here you can upgrade The Punisher based on the points you’ve earned; buying better armor, bigger magazines, and the like. You can also review news clippings in the War Journal, check out the Armory, look at unlocked extras, and enter the War Zone. The War Zone is where you find missions. There’s very little mission selection in terms of story, usually completing one level unlocks the next one. However, you can replay levels to gain more points, earn medals, or play Challenge or Punishment modes which unlock extra features.

Most of the levels are require moving from points A to B while killing everything in between. Some end with boss battles and one with a rescue. In terms of objectives, there’s little variety, but the levels themselves are varied and interesting. The game is set in New York City (not Tampa) and is entrenched in the Marvel Universe. The main bosses are major villains from The Punisher’s past, one level incorporates a tour of Stark Labs, and S.H.I.E.L.D. makes a few appearances. The Punisher is a standard third-person perspective action game, but gets points for being more than a movie tie-in and drawing heavily on Garth Ennis’ Marvel Knights series.

The Bad

The game just feels wrong. I asked Paulie what he thought about The Punisher and he said, “You mean the tank simulator?” I said, “You mean how he barely takes damage?” “No, I meant how controlling him is like driving a tank, but you’re right he is like a tank.” “Yeah, he doesn’t react to getting shot. But neither do the enemies.” Enemies react as scripted, spawning where needed, resembling a lesser clone army. The Punisher can grab them with no problem and use them as human shields. They don’t struggle and they don’t talk back.

Every boss battle relies on learning patterns and then adopting a rinse and repeat method of attacking. A helicopter engages Castle and he must shoot it down with a rocket launcher. So Castle snipes the gunmen aboard the chopper, runs forward to grab rockets, runs back to kill enemies spawned behind him, fires rockets at the chopper, shoots at the gunmen which have respawned aboard the chopper, and runs forward to grab respawned rockets, etc. One maddening boss battle involves waiting for a single grenade to respawn so The Punisher can throw it to stun the enemy and move in for a few head shots.

The game’s cinematics are stunning, but cutscenes using the game’s engine and in-game animations look unfinished. The Punisher has this permanent sneer expression, which is so unnatural it breaks mimesis. Pressing the dodge button makes The Punisher do an awkward, stiff forward roll even if there isn’t a place to roll forward to. It’s not obviously buggy save for major clipping issues regarding the final boss battle. The oversized boss kept getting stuck on corners forcing me to reload.

Sound is similarly a mixed bag. Great score (probably from the movie), but odd transitions to a rock soundtrack occur. The Punisher also has a hearing disorder. If he’s not facing the person speaking to him, he cannot hear them. The weapons sound fine, but explosions are muted and ambient sounds don’t make an impression.

Controls are awkward. One analog stick moves The Punisher and the other one controls the camera. Pressure on the analog stick also controls whether The Punisher runs or walks, but walking is useless since stealth is only achieved by crouching.

The Bottom Line

The Punisher (2005) isn’t better than The Punisher (1990) and in some ways it’s worse. After 30 years, The Punisher is still a compelling character. He’s a little bit Rambo, a little bit Bernard Goetz. Death Wish meets Falling Down. The Punisher kills criminals, and that’s cool, but what makes him interesting is how he does it and why. The Punisher presented here is simplified. He’s a man with guns marching forward and mowing down opposition. With the exception of interrogations, The Punisher is every other game featuring men with guns and their countless targets.

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