Sunday, 24 April 2005
Unlike The Punisher's victims, this game shouldn't be written off right away. Ben tells it like it is in our review.
You can just see Trevor McDonald getting all giddy, eagerly smashing away at his keyboard, preparing a new chapter of his homily to the disconcerted parents of Britain. It’s not your fault guys! It’s these, these, ‘video game’ things—brimming with evil and danger! Their number is growing! The Punisher, THQ’s video game adaptation of the gritty Marvel comic book franchise, will undoubtedly take the role of ammunition for the tabloid media’s ‘Lucifer-on-a-disk’ tirade. The franchise’ s adult nature would see to that, but we’d hoped that The Punisher would follow the trend of brilliance that’s been slowly seeping into comic book adaptations, and therefore be worth so much more than the media circus it’ll inevitably become a part of. The days of solving-mazes in Superman 64 and Batman Beyond seem to be behind us, with the city-scaling Spiderman 2 and RPG-lite X-Men Legends proving that comic book adaptions can succeed without sticking to a generic template. Here at AltGaming we’re not adverse to a bit of comic book-nerdery, and therefore The Punisher was met with open arms and genuine anticipation, despite the generic form it appeared to have taken. Besides, any game that lets you slam someone’s head into a car door surely has merit?
As a franchise, The Punisher is inherently spine-breakingly brilliant. Undercover FBI agent and spunky ex-Marine Frank Castle’s family were brutally murdered after unfortunately witnessing a mafia hit, and as a result of this a devastated Frank took it upon himself to become 'The Punisher', the ultimate anti-hero, trekking around America eradicating crime—except, he’s no Peter Parker. He butchers his ‘victims’. He throws them in fat fryers. This guy is mean. Think Judge Dredd, but without the hoverbike and the silly outfit. Castle judges on the spot, and this inevitably results in the utilisation of a vast arsenal of shotguns and SMGs, as well as his much touted interrogation ‘methods’. This is where the car door comes in. The Punisher operates on the other side of the scale to Captain America, The Human Torch and their fluffy lands of morality and goodwill. The Punisher is gritty, filthy and dank. The game follows the storyline from the initial books, starting with The Punisher’s roots and following through to his search for the crime syndicate responsible for his wife and child’s death. The result is a third-person action-adventure gore-fest, as Castle trapes around dirty back streets, crack houses and, um, zoos in search of the mob behind the atrocities armed with all manner of weaponry and a viscous desire for revenge.
And therein lies the title’s unique selling point. The Punisher is disgusting. It’s filthy. And as the tune goes, The Punisher is freakin’ gorgeous for it. You’ll find yourself trampling over decapitated bodies in a run-down slum, grabbing a druggy by the foot and hanging him over the balcony before butchering him with a baseball bat. You’ll grab a villain by the throat, smash him against the ground, and then chuck him into a woodchipper. The Punisher is brutal. And it’s this sometimes quite shocking element of brutality and gore, this deliciously dark setting that lightens up what is in essence, a standard run-and-gun third-person action adventure. As an experience, we can draw correlation with Enter The Matrix. At its heart, Atari’s adventurer was a poor third-person blaster - but it got off on the same technicality that The Punisher does today. It’s that style, that aura, that atmosphere that draws your attention away from the frankly repetitive, mundane core gameplay mechanic and makes you think—“Hey, this is damn cool. I’m the goddamn Punisher!” You’ll find yourself running from room to room, taking down the bad guys, and interrogating someone whose holding some vital information. Chuck in a few boss battles, and that’s pretty much your lot.
But it’s the way in which you carry out this process that renders The Punisher—while a flawed, generic piece of entertainment—an enjoyable, atmospheric experience. You don’t just run from room to room, you kick the goddamn door down. You don’t just take down the bad guys, you dual-wield a pair of shotguns, blast their heads off, and then watch a replay. Oh, and then interrogate a goon by throwing him into a fireplace. This isn’t normal video game practice. This is everything your parents told you was wrong, and believe us, it is wrong. But within this context, The Punisher takes a mundane experience and smothers it in gore, resulting in a stylish, absorbing blood-soaked romp that’s hard to put down. Yes, it’s lightweight, and yes, there’s not much in terms of substance, but as soon as you step into Castle’s shoes you’re part of an experience as opposed to a videogame, and while The Punisher has little merit as the latter, as the former it can hold its head high. The aesthetics, while average, do the job, as does the audio—and it’s worth noting that the enjoyable narrative is written by the comic book’s own Garth Ennis and Jimmy Palmiotti.
As a videogame, The Punisher is hard to recommend. At the heart of the title, there’s a generic third-person shooter. The game doesn’t try and doesn’t succeed in progressing or adding anything to the genre, and you’ll probably get bored halfway through. There’s not really anything here that hasn’t been done before in various guises. But as an experience, The Punisher has substantial merit, mostly down to the nature of the franchise—and while the game’s most notable purpose will be to undoubtedly serve as yet another example for McDonald’s army of naysayers—there’s lots of arcadey pick-up-and-play violent fun to be had here. The Punisher is terribly hard to rate, and will undoubtedly provide a different experience for every player—comic nerds will probably find more substance here, while the ‘hardcore’ may not. It’s worth a rent either way. The Punisher is darn cool, that’s for sure, and we’re fully prepared to get absorbed into his world, even if it’s a case of style over substance.Score: 6