Most superheroes live by a couple of strict moral codes, like protecting the innocent or bringing criminals to justice regardless of what danger they’re put in. But not everyone follows these standards when enforcing the law; sometimes you have to play outside the rules to get the job done, and sometimes you just have to punish the outlaws for their transgressions. Welcome to the dark world of Marvel Comics’ most popular vigilante, one where exacting justice is merely a gunshot away. Grab your favorite firearm, because we’re tracking down mobsters in THQ’s The Punisher.
As most comic fans (or people who saw the recent movie adaptation) know, Frank Castle only became The Punisher after his wife and children were murdered in cold blood by mobsters. Vowing to exact revenge on all criminals, The Punisher’s “extreme” methods often conflict with that of law enforcement. This issue actually starts the game with Frank’s arrest and interrogation by police officers on Ryker’s Island (guess they weren’t able to get the rights to the actual prison). As the detectives work on grilling Frank, the game flashes back and forth through three weeks in time (The Punisher’s latest round of “justice” through the underworld). Although Frank initially started this period of time out to clean up a crack house in his neighborhood, his brand of enforcement quickly gets him entangled with the mob, Yakuza and even familiar enemies like The Kingpin, Bullseye and The Russian.
Unlike most characters found in comic books, The Punisher doesn’t have powers, mutant abilities or supernatural talents to take out opponents. Instead, he has guns and plenty of ammo to blow targets away. Frank will have access to 18 separate weapons, ranging from pistols and rifles to submachine guns and shotguns. He’ll also get to eliminate criminals with more extreme weapons, like setting people on fire with flamethrowers or blowing them up with grenade launchers. Frank isn’t restricted to taking opponents out from a distance, however – he can quickly approach targets and perform a quick kill with a gunshot or a slashed throat, if he doesn’t use them as human shields in gunfights.
However, the most important thing on The Punisher’s side is his willingness to get information out of any thug he comes across. Frank can grab and interrogate criminals for information, access to additional areas or weapons and gear. Usually, this gives him one of four options to torture thugs: he can choke them, smash their face into the ground, punch them or shove a gun into their mouths. This starts a small mini-game where you apply pressure via thumbstick to make the target break. Do it just right, and they’ll fold under stress. Go too far, and you’ll kill the perp. You also have environmental interrogations where you can use the objects around you to crack your targets (highlighted by white skulls). For instance, you can smack windowsills into someone’s skull, threaten to throw someone off a building or pretend to run a drill through a person’s head. If you’re really having a bad day, you can track down and use special instant kills (lit by golden or yellow skulls). These are particularly brutal – ever feed someone to a woodchipper or get them impaled by an angry rhino in a game? Here’s your chance…
Visually, The Punisher is an incredibly sharp title. Character models are quite large and detailed. The Punisher himself is easily the best looking model of the game, which isn’t too much of a surprise since he’s the protagonist, but the designers really managed to convey the full sense of the comic book character in this title, which is something that many other comic games miss. The levels that you’ll play though are well-designed and the amount of interactivity is impressive thanks to the environmental interrogation, although you’d hope that there was much more spatial interactivity other than specifically designated spots. Sound is handled in almost the same way, with the major star of this department coming from Thomas Jane’s presentation of the lines. Much more believable and straightforward in this role than that of the film version, Jane’s growls and other tough mannerisms as Frank Castle’s voice fleshes out the man on the edge of the law.
Technical merits aside, there are a couple of hiccups that complicate the game. The first, and perhaps greatest issue, is why the hell are the deaths censored as much as they are in this game? For an anti-hero on the edge who’s Modus Operandi is any means necessary, you’d expect the designers to completely revel in the violence. Arguably they do, considering that there are dozens of ways to interrogate, kill and dispose of opponents. But the game camera either cuts away from or fades onscreen action into black and white footage to eliminate the severity of the action. Hell, I saw much worse when I was playing Manhunt – the least that could be included was the ability to see exactly what was happening if I so desired. Besides, there are plenty of in-game deaths that are so ludicrous, the violence becomes comical.
Secondly, why does The Punisher wind up losing points in a level if he kills a character via interrogation? The character is an anti-hero, and you’re supposed to buy the fact that he could kill anyone at any time if it served his purposes. However, in this game, it doesn’t make sense that he loses points for being too rough. He can release criminals and then kill them for points, but it doesn’t make sense why this doesn’t work during questioning. This turns the game into almost a kind of catch and release program solely for the purpose of gaining points that can be used to win medals and, in return, unlock other features of the game, such as body armor or even new weapons. This rationale doesn’t fit that of the character or that of the comic book world it comes from.
It also spawns a serious problem with the rage meter. Every time you kill someone, you build up the rage meter which can be triggered at any time. While you gain an unlimited number of throwing knives in this mode, you also replenish your health, which can be somewhat addictive, especially those who are playing a different title. This leads to a downside that can be detected after a level or two has passed, which is that it’s completely easy to either blow through levels and indeed the game by shooting everything that moves and/or killing characters instead of properly interrogating them. This leads to easily clearing stages and going through the storyline without any particular stumbling block erected against you. While there really isn’t much of a reason to replay the game once you’ve finished it, the minor unlockable features merely serve as a mild addition to the game instead of interesting additions to the title. Since the game is somewhat on the short end (it can be finished off in less than 20 hours) this is somewhat disappointing.
These detractions aside, The Punisher is still one of those titles that manages to satisfy action gamers and comic book fans of the anti-hero. While it might not have a lot that players will find in replay value, the story and in-game action, particularly those of the interrogations, makes The Punisher a title that a number of gamers will enjoy.