Of all of the crimes which would destabilize society if they were to be legalized, vigilantism may well be the most attractive. Living as many of us do in a society where various constitutional restrictions keep the police from jailing anyone who looks at them funny (for now, at least), it can be frustrating for anyone with a strong sense of right and wrong to ever see criminals going unpunished for their crimes. Obviously there are logistical problems that keep summary execution from being a practical solution to the world's crime problems, most of them in the area of misidentification and misunderstanding. Of course, this is the entire point of fiction, so while I may not be able to go around shooting dope dealers on the streets of Toronto, I've always been able to rely on the Punisher to help me live out my more violent socially responsible fantasies.
Volition's The Punisher is a third-person shooter that allows players to brutally murder those who have left the straight and narrow path that is conforming to law and order. It acts as sort of a sequel to the recent Punisher movie, and may be something of a treat to longtime fans of the comic, as it blends the continuity of the classic Punisher with along with Garth Ennis' modern Punisher semi-reboot into the mix to come up with a kind of unified Punisher theory. No matter what the pedigree, though, it still remains the story of Frank Castle, a guy who is determined to murder as many criminals as he possibly can.
I was of two minds about the graphics. On one hand, their relatively simple models and strong colors manage to capture the feel of Steve Dillon's artwork, and the Punisher sure does look like himself—a six-foot-four monster in a long black trench coat. One the other hand, the simplicity that feels so appropriate in the character designs comes across as surprisingly out of place in all of the game's environments. The first level, a ruined crack house, is nicely modeled with varied wall textures and fully dressed with a realistic amount of clutter. It's too bad that the rest of the levels don't have the same kind of detail. While none of the levels stand out as particularly bad, the further I delved into the game, the more generic the levels seemed. They don't have any kind of distinct character—there wasn't anything about the design or presentation that made me feel like I was playing a Punisher game, rather than any other random third-person shooter.
Actually, the game looks and plays like a lost game from the Hitman series. The physics modeling, the character design, even the shooting mechanics will feel amazingly familiar to anyone who's ever tried playing a Hitman game by blasting their way through a level. There are only two major differences. The first is a nice addition: an entertaining and well-implemented hand-to-hand combat system. Well, not so much "combat"—really. it's more a hand-to-hand murder system. With a single button press, Frank performs any number of instant-kill techniques, from slitting throats to shots in the back of the head. Volition really went all out with these animations, and there are such a wide variety of them that, unlike in Manhunt , I never grew tired of watching them. Also unlike Manhunt andTenchu, these moves are effective when used against crowds as well as lone sentries. The enemy AI contains a nice routine that causes bad guys who witness one of their friends being butchered to back away in terror or dry-heave, making them easy pickings for a string of brutal killings.
The other difference is in the game's camera placement. Rather than the genre-standard "above and behind," the game's camera sits just over Frank's right shoulder. While this does succeed in providing a more immediate view of the action, it creates a gameplay problem significant enough that I'm shocked it wasn't addressed during the game's testing phase. When strafing up to a corner on the Punisher's right, it's easy to peek and aim around the corner, but when the corner is on the Punisher's left, not only is it impossible to peek around it, but the Punisher has to be completely exposed before he can even aim at anything around the corner. This is one game that sorely needed a wall-hugging move, and its absence is made all the more noteworthy by the fact that all of the enemies can peek and fire around corners.
This is especially frustrating because doing well in the game's scoring system is entirely dependent on achieving large combos, and the combo meter is reset each time Frank is hit by an enemy. There just aren't enough ways in the game to avoid being shot, which makes getting any kind of a large score an incredible chore. Unlike Devil May Cry or Onimusha, the points aren't used for anything other than unlocking art galleries, so there's no real strong motivation to rack up the higher scores, which makes the point structure an obviously tacked-on attempt to add replayability.
Also worth mentioning is the game's slightly confused attitude towards torture. Points are awarded for torturing criminals, but weirdly enough, are actually taken away if the torture ends with the victim's death. This isn't just out of character for the Punisher; it doesn't make sense in the context of the gameplay. There's no convenient way to let a criminal go after interrogating them. The game doesn't even differentiate between killing hostages and knocking them out. Heck, sometimes pressing the "kill" button will knock them out, for no discernable reason. This seems very like a very poorly implemented feature, and I can't help but think that at some point the publishers lost their nerve and decided they didn't want to release a game that encouraged torture. That's not entirely accurate—the game has a slightly more complex attitude towards torture: it's all well and good unless someone dies during it. Given the current political climate, that seems like a pretty uncontroversial stance to take, actually.
But my biggest problem with the game, is that it just doesn't feel satisfying enough to play. The Punisher, at his core, has always been something of a wish-fulfillment character. He's a soldier who comes home from Vietnam and witnesses his family being murdered in the crossfire of a gang war, then decides to put the skills he learned in Vietnam to use in a literal war on crime. Recently though, the Punisher has been re-imagined by Garth Ennis as a twisted psychopath, a man who loves murder so much that, when he was in Vietnam, he made a deal with the devil, agreeing to let his family be murdered so he would be justified in continuing his war back home in America. To put this in more accessible terms, this is the equivalent of a new writer on Batman deciding that, as an eight year old, Bruce Wayne asked Santa to murder his parents for Christmas so that he could have an excuse for dressing up as a bat and punching out muggers. Rather than fighting with some kind of goal in mind, the new Punisher kills so he can keep killing, creating an endless cycle of violence. It's this new pointlessly nihilistic mindset that informed the game's creation, and it makes playing through the game's plot somewhat more of a depressing experience than it should have been.
Despite any problems I may have with the game's interpretation of the Punisher himself, it's still an extremely well-designed action game. As long as players are willing to overlook the technological problems and somewhat depressing plot, they'll find a lot of well-staged action and viscerally satisfying violence. There's always been a market out there for a game that can be played as little more than a brutal playground to wade through, guns blazing, and The Punisher, with its nearly limitless opportunities for eye-catching mayhem, while not perfect, is better than most.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.