I’d prefer a spanking.
Some superheroes have a hard time living up to their names. Aquaman sounds like he’d be made of water, but in truth has to ride dolphins to get anywhere and can barely handle a mutant sea cucumber without calling in some tuna as backup. Batman might dress up like a bat and play with bat-shaped toys, but he doesn’t fly and isn’t blind. Maybe Batfan would be more appropriate. Don’t even get me started on Robin.
You can’t say the same about The Punisher, though. Frank Castle’s alter-ego is aptly-named, a maniac with guns out to inflict justice on those planning to harm innocents. He’s a sadistic, rude vigilante, the ultimate Marvel anti-hero, and kicks lots of real-world ass using real-world techniques.
The Punisher would seem a perfect fit, then, as a PS2 and Xbox game featuring tons of guns and gruesome ways to dispatch bad guys. And all the way up until we played the final version, GR thought this licensed property might buck the trend and deliver a worthy experience. But the fun ends with the name, as The Punisher‘s bad design and repetitive action keep it from dispensing much gameplay justice.
We salute the developers for having the good sense to base the game on the comic book character rather than the crappy movie. They sidestepped the Curse of the Movie License deftly. Too bad they stepped in something else instead.
It seems that the law has finally caught up with The Punisher, as the story opens with our hero being questioned by detectives about his most recent killing spree. In the past few weeks, he’s obliterated a mob family, wiped out a crew of Russians, beheaded countless yakuza and decimated more than a few random henchmen. The plot unfolds through flashbacks, allowing you to play through these sequences. It’s an effective tool that gives the game a solid comic book feel.
The game is as linear as a book, too. You march Frank through about 12 hours worth of fairly bland environments killing just about everything with a pulse. The level design is stiff and direct, taking you through room after room of bad guys with very little branching.
More often than not, The Punisher gets his point across by shooting it out of a gun. You wield quite a few weapons over the course of the game, from several pistol and rifle variants to grenade and rocket launchers. Two guns of the same kind can be dual wielded, leading to some pretty wicked moments, and they all feel good thanks to the steady control, complete with a handy mini-zoom for most weapons.
If you prefer to get up close and personal, you can simply run up and “quick kill” enemies or grab them to use as human shields. The latter is far more effective, since you wind up toting the poor sod around the level as his body becomes a bullet bag. Since you are, after all, a superhero, you can still fire your gun and reload while using a human shield. It looks cool and works well, albeit a bit overpowered since no one struggles to get away.
To make the killing even easier, you can periodically activate Slaughter Mode, The Punisher‘s answer to bullet-time in which you hurl deadly knives and murder people relentlessly while recovering health. Talk about an unfair advantage.
In fact, the only reason not to run up and stab or grab bad guys incessantly is to score more points, which count towards unlocking extras and buying basic upgrades. Nailing the higher scores is achieved by killing many enemies in a row in different ways without getting shot, which works on paper but turns out to be a lot less fun than just diving into the fray and shooting and stabbing like mad. Plodding through each level hiding behind objects and taking out legions of moronic, scripted enemies makes The Punisher feel more like target practice than a dynamic game.
This can be largely attributed to the game’s mind-numbing A.I. Occasionally they’ll exhibit signs of life by taking cover or picking up better guns, but much of the time, they stand out in the open and fire in your general direction with startling incompetence. Other than some armor fluctuations, they all graduated from the same school of bad video game acting.
But let’s be honest ” the real reason you’re interested in The Punisher is its claim of being just about the most brutal game on the planet, and in a way, it is. Frank can interrogate any enemy for intel via four standard moves; if he pushes too hard, he’ll kill the guy. There’s also a smattering of much nastier environmental interrogations, ranging from shoving a guy’s face into a piranha tank to tying a guy to a crane and ripping his arms out of their sockets. Lovely.
These are clearly the game’s defining moments, the real money shots, but the game shoots itself in the foot by inexplicably censoring a good chunk of them. Toss a guy into a wood chipper and the game will zoom in to a weird black and white effect, cutting the field of vision in half and editing out the gory bits.
To make matters worse, The Punisher lives up to its name by punishing you for punishing people. You get some extra points for a successful interrogation, but lose points for killing a guy through interrogation regardless of whether or not he gives up the info. You’ll smash a guy’s face with a car door until he squeals, which might net you 200 points, but if you then take the extra step to put him out of his misery, you promptly lose 200. Amazingly, if you stop the interrogation only to shoot the guy point blank in the head, you gain more combo points. Huh? The result is that the game actually dissuades you from exploring its most touted feature but rewards you for the merciless slaughter of nearly everyone else. Talk about mixed messages.
The real killer of this killer, however, isn’t the weak A.I. or sketchy design decisions ” it’s the monotonous gameplay. Level after level, room after room, you shoot poorly hidden bad guys. It’s surprisingly easy to barge through the levels because you take very little damage compared to what you dish out. It’s almost like one of those FBI training courses in which cardboard cutouts swing out to get shot, Hogan’s Alley with exploding skulls.
Although to be fair, The Punisher looks a fair bit better than the NES shooting gallery. The sense of carnage is pretty potent thanks to decent ragdoll effects and all sorts of ruthless kill animations. The lead character himself is rendered well, but the same cannot be said of the flatly textured enemies and boring environments. Occasional framerate problems mar both the Xbox and PS2 versions when the action gets crowded, although both look pretty much identical.
They also sound the same, which is great if you’re listening to the realistic, booming gunfire and excrutiating if you’re listening to the annoying, repetitive voices. The music is incredibly dramatic, a little overdone for a game with such cartoonish violence. There is no multiplayer or online component in either version, instead just lots of concept art and a few movies to unlock.
The steady mechanics and sheer brutality of The Punisher save it from the slaughterhouse and lead to a decent rental, but repetitive gameplay and some stupid design errors make it hard to commit to Frank Castle’s crusade. Maybe next time they should let him torture Aquaman.