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The Punisher
game: The Punisher
four star
posted by: Monica Hafer
publisher: THQ
developer: Volition
ESRB rating: M (Mature)
date posted: 12:00 AM Wed Mar 2nd, 2005
last revision: 12:00 AM Wed Mar 2nd, 2005

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With every turn there are more and more comic book franchises springing up.  From a fangirl perspective, this pretty much rocks.  It's especially pleasing when the movies and videogames that are made to support a comic keep both a newcomer to the title and a hardcore fan pleased.  When The Punisher movie came out, I dutifully tripped down to the theater and paid my money.  When I found myself laughing aloud in the theater, I was surprised to look around and see some of the stony-faced patrons looking at me like I was some sick and twisted freak.  It was not the violence itself, per se, that was making me laugh.  The over-the-top scenes of the film were walking that fine line between black comedy and ruthless action sequences.  How could you not see that during the interrogation scene with the Popsicle?  Apparently, some of the viewers came into the film wanting the type of "serious" violence like Seven or they did not recognize humor unless it was featured on the WWE.  I totally understand the balance that has to be struck between these two worlds, all the while staying true to the comic from which the new media is being taken.  So how does this tie into my thoughts on the new game from Volition?  On one hand, there were many elements that I found extremely satisfying.  However, after a while of dealing out the "just desserts" to my enemies, I found myself wondering if that was all there was to my gaming life.

Let's start with the positive, shall we?  I love the fact that the game is written by Mike Breault (Red Faction) and the ever-talented Garth Ennis (Preacher, Hitman, Hellblazer, and of course, The Punisher).  The cinerma sequences have a great feel to them, with solid dialogue that sets the stage for the elements of plot we can expect from the game.  While I found that the in-game dialogue left a bit to be desired, I had to remind myself of the lessons I learned with the movie.  If I expected it all to be dark and brooding, how could I find the humor in the sad tales of woe given by druggies and crooks that were so outlandish (kind of  like the moral at the end of G.I. Joe, but given by the dregs of society)?  Thomas Jane recreates his perfomrance as the voice of Frank Church, a.k.a. The Punisher, and heads up a cast of great voice actors.  The graphics in the cinema sequences are artful.  Also, the music and the sound effects are well done.  I definitely felt the mood through the two, as the music gives a great backdrop for the mayhem and the blood and gore are much "richer" in audio texture with great ambient and violence-specific noises.

I also like the range of weaponry and the ease of picking up weapons, swapping them out and reloading.  And you can carry weapons in both hands until you need to interact in hand-to-hand tussling with the bad-guys.  The targeting system isn't really the most impressive I've ever worked with, but then agian, it isn't really all that crucial to taking enemies down.  There is a fun berserker mode (in black and white) where throwing knives are the weapon of choice.  I also enjoy the interrogation mode in the game, which involves keeping enemies at a certain threshold of fear (as shown on a meter) so that they will finally breakdown and confess or attempt to bargain for their life.  Sometimes you get an important piece of information/item, but other times the only thing the scumbag is really useful for is a laugh and a human shield later on.  The fact that the game is fairly inventive in the interrogation and weapons elements (along with amusing and dark narrative and dialogue) kept me involved in the game much longer than I might have otherwise been.

The game earned a mature rating from the ESRB, but I can't say that I found it as dark and bloody as some of the titles I've played.  That's not to say I want to encourage any young-ins out  there to pick up the game; it's just that I have to admit that perhaps I am desensitized to the violence and expect quite a bit of bang for my mature buck.  It might also be the fact that the cheesy confessions and occasional "weird and squishy" demise of some of the bad guys strikes me as terribly  funny.  If you're looking for a game that pushes the envelope of the rating, this is not the game.

So what was the downside that made me a wee bit harsher on this game than some of my fellow critics?  I can sum it up in two easy pieces...non-interactive gaming environments and repetitive gameplay.  I admit it - I'm spoiled.  I like being able to shoot out lights, open cupboards, stand in awe of great graphics in commonplace scenery, and pick up items that are completely useless.  The in-game graphics lack detail, texture, and interest, and I'm very limited in what I can do to/with my environment.  It urks me when it's obvious I'm supposed to pick up a knife on the counter because it's the only thing there.  It makes me roll my eyes when they give me special zones for interrogation so it's obvious that I could do something cool without me being able to figure it out on my own.  And I sigh in frustration when I realize that if it were a truly interactive environment, I could be doing vicious and cool torture all of the time with common household items.  So starting out of the gate, I'm kinda cranky.

Then we have innocent bi-standers that have the IQ and AI of a panel of sheet metal.  And I can't kill them!  Something about The Punisher only giving it to the bad guys.  I support the whole notion of good versus evil, but give me a reason to want to save these morons!  If I can't get my satisfaction out of the inanimate environment, at least give me in-game human interaction that gives the game a little more depth other than satisfying my urge to make the crooks squeal.  Make me want to be good!  Make me want to deal out justice only to those that deserve it!

Finally, I have to say that other than the interrogations, the M.O. of the game is for Frank to kick in a door (with or without a human shield), shoot the criminals (or use a knife), attempt to keep the ones alive nearest the special interrogation zones, lean on a criminal for a little while, and then progress to the next area until you meet a boss.  Thrash around with little skill until you liquidate him.  Then repeat.  Luckily the game isn't long enough to make this utterly asinine.  Then again, I could wish that getting to the wonderful cinerma seuqences was half the fun.  If it weren't for interrogation in the game, I wouldn't be having much fun at all.  On the upside, you can change the difficulty level so it's harder to crush the opposition, but I don't see the point, as it still doesn't take the type of skill I've come to expect from other titles.

In the final analysis, there are things about this game that make it worth renting for an evening.  But what I'd suggest is getting a group of your favorite fanboys and girls together to play, even though this is a single-player game.  Trade off the controller (the learning curve isn't that high).  Just make sure these are the people who can nod sagely at the parts that harken back to the comic and can MST3K during the times when the gameplay is lackluster.  Eat some chips.  Perhaps mix a fruity drink, or maybe more appropriately, a Bloody Mary.  Celebrate the fact that comics are enjoying such a heyday.  Have a fun night.  Then take the game back to the video store in the morning.  After all, how much punishment can one person take?

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