Thursday, March 15, 2012

Just-Barely-Retro Game Review: "The Punisher" (2005)

Firstly, I want to address the fact that I haven't posted anything in more than a week. The reasons for this are significant, but nothing to worry about. I promised that there'd be content here everyday for 30 days and while that hasn't really happened, I'm still going to be posting here and that's not going to change anytime soon.

So I mentioned last week that I was going through a period of curiousity relating to the Marvel character, Frank "The Punisher" Castle. For years, while I was championing the cause of "Spider-Man 2" and how it was the best superhero game ever (at the time, anyway), my comments always fell on dead ears as depressingly few people I know seem to have played that game. Oddly enough, many of the people I've spoken to regard "The Punisher" for PS2 as the best superhero game prior to the legendary Batman: Arkham Asylum/City games. And really, I can see why. While I don't think it even scratches Spider-Man's boots, let alone his massive NYC epic, it's definitely a close-second where the Marvel games are concerned, and it's certainly got a far more entertaining atmosphere.

"The Punisher" is a really stylish, high-concept game. It takes every badass 80s action movie plot you've ever loved and brings them to life (the graphics are rich and slick and stand up just fine, even today), with a wisecracking, leather jacket-wearing ultra-badass at the helm of the action. So many gun-toting games have you playing as a clean-cut military or espionage type. It's really refreshing to get down and dirty and play as a gritty vigilante taking the war to the streets. Many people will find this kind of experience prohibitively offensive, but much like the Grand Theft Auto franchise, the game's tongue-in-cheek atmosphere keeps everything from getting too gloomy and depressing.

The premise of the gameplay sees you attacking into different levels of old-school shoot-em-up action. You have the option of shooting your enemies from afar, or going right up to them and using a 'Quick-Kill' (pressing Square has Frank do a random move; sometimes he stabs them, sometimes he snaps their neck, sometimes he pops a grenade into their mouth). What makes this different from your usual third-person shooter is that you can interrogate enemies using four different preset options (you can choke an enemy into telling you something, or you can smash his face into the ground, taunt him with your gun or punch him until he tells you what he knows), as well as hundreds of elaborate 'special interrogations' using creative elements in the environment (highlights include threatening to feed a guy to piranhas, deep-frying a guy's face, and putting someone in an electric chair). Like a lot of PS2-era games that promise innovative originality in features like this, the 'special interrogations' are context-sensitive and pre-ordained by the game developers, which might offend more strategic gamers who want more than just a thrill-ride. Honestly, they're just so damn inventive and so much thought has gone into each one, that I couldn't care less that there's no imagination on the player's part, in choosing a method of interrogation.

In order to successfully interrogate an enemy, you have to alternate between gently pushing forward and pulling back on the right analog stick, in order to get the 'Interrogation Meter' into the safe-zone (which gets smaller as the game progresses and the enemies are more challenging) and keep it there. Push too hard and you'll kill your enemy. When you're finished interrogating the enemy, you have the option of killing them anyway, which lead to some pretty gruesome deaths, likely to offend some and satisfy many. Every time you successfully interrogate an enemy, you gain health and points that allow you to purchase upgrades (better body armour, better accuracy, more ammo, etc). If you kill an enemy using your interrogation method, you lose a considerable amount of points (probably because the developers couldn't actually AWARD you points for the increasingly sick methods you use for killing in the game; I'll come back to that).

Unlike the Spidey games, "The Punisher" is only just barely based on its movie counterpart of around that time. Thomas Jane, star of the 2004 movie of the same name (not the 1980s ninja-death-fest that I reviewed last week) provides the voice-duties for the title character, but aside from one story element that almost seems like it was thrown in at the last second to tie the game into the film, you're playing in the Core Marvel Universe and for that reason, it's unlike any game based on a superhero franchise I've ever played. In fact, using the word 'superhero' isn't really the right word you should use in the context of Frankie. The back cover of the game refers to him as an 'anti-hero' and that's certainly more apt. Unlike Batman or Spider-Man who are usually personified by their staunch refusal to execute the enemies of justice, this game is about a guy who wears a battered black t-shirt with a picture of a skull on it and kills lots and lots of people with bullets from his gun. Granted, they're evil mobsters, murderers and drug-runners, but the Punisher maims, tortures and annihilates the absolute bejesus out of them, because he hates them. For a bit of context; in the Dolph Lundgren 1989 Punisher movie, it's said that he's killed 125 mobsters over five years. Well, in this videogame, you average at about 170 bulleted-corpses (be they Italian mafia, Russian soldiers or, of course, Yakuza Ninjas) per level. While that's nothing new for a videogame, this is still undoubtedly the most graphically violent and vengeful game I've ever played that involves killing actual human characters (and not something like zombies which some might argue isn't quite as shocking).

Black Widow, Nick Fury and even Iron Man himself all make cameos in this game, where the villains regularly drop f-bombs and say things like "dickhead" and "cocksucker" before having their heads blown to smithereens in a bloody mess. It's surreal seeing colourful superheroes in a world like this. In a warped way, it's kind of satisfying. There've been many times over the years, where I've been playing a superhero videogame and have become so frustrated (in some cases by the difficulty of a game, in others by the sheer lack of quality) that I've wished that I could pull out a gun and the shoot at the enemies instead of relying on melee combat all the time (as is usually the case). "The Punisher" finally grants you this wish, and by firmly setting it within the familiar environment of the Marvel Comics' Universe, it's all the more satisfying.

This is by no means a perfect game, however.

Some have argued that the game is repetitive and while there's certainly a degree of truth to that, I don't think it's any more repetitive than the legions of gun-n-run games out there that are praised and lauded into oblivion, when all they really consist of is an assortment of samey levels. Heck, beyond the absolutely awesome interactive-story elements of the first "Mass Effect" game, it was kind of just another third-person shooter. The crazy adventures in "The Punisher" coupled with its excellent presentation and level-design prevent any sense of repetition, even if you are largely doing the same thing in every level.

The real problem of this game comes from the fact that unlike "Mass Effect" or even "Everything or Nothing" (seen above and which I reviewed recently), there's no cover-system in "The Punisher". You can't press one of the shoulder-buttons and stick closely to a wall, enabling you a safer vantage point from which to shoot from. This means that when it comes right down to it, you are basically controlling a character who's supposed to have no superpowers, but inexplicably is impervious to bullets. In every level, you have to just plow through hordes of enemies shooting the shit out of you, with no real way of skillfully picking them off, or avoiding their shots. Occasionally you can position the Punisher behind a barrier and use the crouch-button to pop up and blast your enemies without losing health. Sometimes you can even peer around a corner just enough to head-shot a baddie into oblivion without suffering for your action. But mostly, the levels have you bombarding your way through certain death, with no real sense of realism and a nagging feeling of the game being unfinished. When the game gets difficult (which doesn't really happen at all until the third or fourth level) and plowing through hordes of villains becomes more dangerous, the only way to succeed is to grab any random henchman, frantically take them to a secluded location where nobody's shooting at you, and interrogate that henchman so that your health-bar advances to a point where you'll be safe enough to rampage through another collection of rogues, once again. Another trump-card Frank has is his ability to toggle into "Slaughter Mode". You've seen this in plenty of other games; when you pull off successful kills and interrogations, it builds up a blue-meter under your health bar. Pressing the triangle button sends Frank into a frenzy for a limited time (depending on how full the meter is) where he becomes faster and less prone to damage, as well as slowly regenerating his health bar (he's also capable of throwing knives in this mode, which is awesome, and similar to the kind of thing Dolph Lundgren did in the '89 movie).

The thing that really galls me about the cover-system problem, and really adds insult to injury, is that all of your enemies in the game and all of the non-playable characters with whom you find yourself teaming up (Black Widow, Nick Fury, various SHIELD agents, etc) are regularly seen ducking behind corners and shooting from their newly-advantageous location. It's only poor old invincible Frank Castle who seems to have to dumbass his way to victory. This becomes particularly difficult in the later levels where many enemies are armoured and you have to aim for their heads (which, ironically enough, is similar to zombie games). For a game that so brilliantly captures the badass triumph of ridiculous action movies, it's a real pity that it doesn't also capture the palpable feeling of tension and skill; waiting for the right moment to execute the enemy. "Everything or Nothing" captured this so perfectly, so it's a bit of a pity that a similar game made two years later seems so much less innovative.

One really odd thing about this game is that even though Frank wears awesome alternate costumes in the game (well, one of them's just the regular duds without the jacket; the other one has him paint a skull on his face and wear camouflage gear!), he never wears the classic blue and white Punisher jumpsuit, and while that fairly-silly-looking costume wouldn't fit in the leathery world of this videogame, it's a darn shame that you can't unlock it all the same (a staple of most Marvel games). Even worse is that you can't toggle between the other two costumes, you're just stuck wearing whatever it is Frank decided to wear on that particular mission. Not a huge complaint, but it is weird given how excellently presented the game is in terms of extras and unlockables, other than that.

If I could point to just one more criticism I have of the game, it's that a lot of the game's more violent sequences have been toned down and neutered as a result of the massive controversy that surrounded the game during its development stages. During the creative 'special interrogations', if you kill your opponent, the camera goes black and white and shakes around, so you don't get the full impact of the gore. Sometimes, the camera closes in on Frank's face and you don't see what's happening at all. Another possible casualty of censorship in this game is that in order to really score high points in the game, you have to incapacitate your enemies non-lethally. When you've finished an interrogation, instead of killing an enemy, you can opt to knock him out in a (presumably) non-lethal fashion by pressing the triangle button, which causes Frank to very gently bump the villain on the head. This awards the player hundreds of points, which they wouldn't have achieved if they'd opted for a 'Quick Kill'. If you actually kill your enemy in a gruesome interrogation (instead of a 'Quick Kill'), you lose hundreds of points. It's as if the developers really felt the need to hit the point home that the game wasn't rewarding you for being twisted and homicidal. I understand the need for this, but it really takes away from the replay value of going back to unlock the dozens of rewards, when you have to mundanely roam through levels gently tapping enemies on their heads instead of playing the game to its fullest potential.

Even though there's almost no tension in the savagely censored "The Punisher", it makes up for it with its lead-filled action and high-octane atmosphere. Every bullet you shoot in this game has its own thunderous recoil of satisfaction (unlike say, "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" where shooting can be a very drab experience). The array of weaponry is amazing, ridiculous and surprisingly (some might say disturbingly) thorough in its attempts to replicate real-life weaponry. It's just so wondrously faithful to the source material in a way that perhaps the movie versions of The Punisher haven't quite been, and if you don't know a whole lot about the Punisher (like me), this game is a great springboard, as it introduces the character well, as well as establishing his background and his relationship with other characters, especially the familiar faces of the Marvel Universe.

(Did I mention you can dual-wield weapons? Because you can.)

It's just so tremendously satisfying blasting your way through crackhouses, shutting down chop shops, blowing up sex-slave ships and all manner of insidious criminal environments knowing that the end result is that the dastardly rogues in charge have been Dealt With in a way far more thoroughly than any Gotham City insane Asylum is going to be able to. There's plenty of rather serious moral dilemmas and ethical ramifications with that kind of right-wing mindset though, and that's why it's a strength that the game's narrative and dialogue is presented in such a tongue-in-cheek manner (which is something the 2004 movie failed to do, based on its negative reviews). Rest assured "The Punisher" is just a bit of silly fun; it never becomes too offensive. This is one of the most satisfying licensed games I've ever played; where it fails in tense realism, it excels in shell-blasting action and epic environments. I got this gem for 38p on You could certainly do a lot worse.


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