THE PUNISHER / Volition / PlayStation 2
The Punisher comes to us from Volition, then better known for Red Faction, now even better known for the Saints Row franchise. I think this is actually their last major project that wasn't a game in one of those two series.

Anyway, let's not beat around the bush here -- The Punisher is Max Payne, or at least that's very clearly the basic template. Trenchcoat guy dual-wielding guns prowls and invincible-dives his way through the seedy streets of New York and its dilapidated buildings, full of bullet-sponge mooks always conveniently posted up waiting for you in some room full of cover. That, and "Slaughter Mode", where instead of slowing down the action for a time you just become straight-up invincible.

By adapting their Red Faction FPS engine to this template, however, Volition actually significantly improved it. The Punisher doesn't feel as confining or frustrating as the first two Max Payne games did, and improved guard AI plus a better aiming system actually makes it feel more like the single-player modes of the classic Rare/Free Radical shooters like Goldeneye, Perfect Dark and Timesplitters ... just with an over-the-shoulder instead of first-person view.

Unfortunately, when it came out the game didn't make a splash so much for having quality old-school gameplay rather than for its "torture porn" elements. These actually turn out to be a relatively trivial thing bolted on to the engine, and are in fact almost completely optional. So one of the cool elements of the game is that you can grab nearby mooks and use them as a meat shield. While they are in your custody, you have the option of interrogating them in one of several delightful ways, such as choking or punching them. This is basically a mini-game where you have to apply just the right amount of force with the analog stick to stay within a certain zone; too little and you do nothing but too much and you eventually kill them.

While the standard interrogation techniques (which can be done anywhere) are fairly violent, they're also nothing particularly noteworthy as compared to the typical action movie. The real Hostel-esque grindhouse gore starts when you find a "special interrogation" zone, usually some piece of hardware like a bandsaw or drill press that you can use creatively to really kick things up a notch. In this PS2 version, the camera cuts away from the fatal blow, word on the street being that Walmart insisted on this or they would refuse to put the game on their shelves. The PC port reportedly keeps these full scenes intact, however. Anyway, once in a while you need to do an interrogation to get a mook to give up a key or open a door, but for the most part these are totally optional and serve only to get you access to some bonus weapons and restore a little of your health. They're certainly lurid and memorable, but they aren't really a key part of the gameplay or overall experience.

Aside from the very solid gameplay, the other main reason The Punisher works is that it doesn't pull any punches with the character's give-no-fucks attitude toward murdering any and all criminals in his path, with no apologies or excuses made. This came out in 2005, so it's technically a tie-in with the 2004 movie that had Thomas Jane fighting John Travolta, Kevin Nash and Ramblin' Rodriguez. However, it's actually much more of a melange of the two different Punisher-verses to that point rather than a straight-up movie adaptation. The original Punisher comic series ran from the mid-80s to mid-90s and had a grizzled middle-aged Frank Castle living in New York killing off the city's ne'er-do-wells. After that series fizzled out, the character was pretty much dormant until the early 2000s, when Garth Ennis (of Preacher fame) was recruited to reboot it with a slightly younger Punisher now based in Tampa, which is the version the 2004 movie is based on. Ennis actually wrote the story and dialogue for this game, but he moves the setting back to New York. Jane voices the Punisher here, but the character looks much more like his original incarnation than the movie version. The story is also totally separate from the Tampa-verse, though a few elements from that one are grafted in here. For example, instead of living in a warehouse as he did in the original series, Punisher lives in a seedy apartment with neighbors who are apparently aware of his Punishing activities and are totally OK with it. The Travolta villain is totally absent, though some other movie characters do make guest appearances (even a couple from the 1989 Dolph Lundgren movie!). And Microchip doesn't appear to exist in this world.

Add into that a surprisingly epic soundtrack, and you've got a surprise winner here. If you start out on Normal difficulty, however, it might feel like too much of a cakewalk. For some reason the mooks get a cover system and the Punisher doesn't, but he hardly needs one as they do so little damage to him you can basically stroll around like Iron Man. That's true of the first few levels at least, which have you battling crack dealers and Mafia grunts. The difficulty does pick up a bit in later levels when your primary enemies become the Russian Mob and Yakuza, as they come equipped with battle armor and advanced assault rifles that can quickly whittle down your health if you're caught out in the open. Normal difficulty still does tend to be too easy on the whole, however, with tons of meat shields always at hand and lots of healing opportunities to boot. This is in keeping with the style of the Rare shooters that seemed to inspire it, though; games like Goldeneye and Timesplitters 2 were pretty much designed to be blown right through at normal difficulty just to open everything up, then you can come back through and play on a higher difficulty with added challenges and objectives in each level.

The Punisher's aim also starts out a bit questionable, as you'll sometimes have the yellow-tinged reticule indicating you're good to shoot a dood, but then miss inexplicably anyway. As it turns out, aim is one of the statistics you can upgrade at your apartment between levels, which is done by earning "style points" in the levels (seek out "special kills" and interrogations, chain kills without getting hit). Just one aim upgrade seemed to put a complete end to arbitrary misses for me.

There's a handful of other minor complaints, like the weapons-switching system being a little weird and overly focused on realism for a game starring a guy who tanks bullets, and some of the "special interrogations" that cap levels being far too easy to screw up (though they never end the game, you just lose out on a cache of points). A multiplayer mode would have also been nice given how the single-player campaign recalls games like Goldeneye and Perfect Dark. They're easily overlooked given how well-done the package is as a whole, however. Definitely one of the best third-person run-and-guns of the 128-bit generation and kind of an overlooked gem.
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