The Punisher (PlayStation 2) review
"The Punisher is a decent licensed product, but a middling shooter."
Two voices occupy my mind as I examine a licensed video game. The first one reminds me that such titles have an inconsistent track record and should be handed with caution. Any such product has the potential to be as awful as Superman 64, or as awesome as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. The second voice chimes in with: "But you love this license, and you should show that brand support by donating your limited free time to playing the possibly terrible games they inspire."
And I often do just that. I hope these nonexistent characters know I love them so much that I'm willing to lose sleep playing the more bothersome samples of their video game careers.
Sometimes I get lucky and snag a winner. I thought I had managed that precise feat when I found 2005's release, The Punisher. The game exudes everything I expect in a Punisher adventure: violence, interrogation, crime, violence, swearing, violence, gunplay, morbid puns, violence and--most importantly--violence.
You play as Frank Castle himself, who is on a crusade to rid the world of legions of mobsters and supervillains following the tragic death of his family. As this is a third-person shooter, you mostly accomplish mass assassination by gunning down everyone who wanders into your reticle. After enduring explosive shotgun blasts and sprays from twin SMGs, your enemies hit the floor and you rack up upgrade points. Mr. Castle also brought more than his guns to the party. When in close range, the Punisher instantly kills his foes with quick neck snaps, body slams and pistol whips. The cruelest of his tricks, though, involves plunging his knives into his foes' eyes, or slitting their throats before belting out corny one-liners.
Violence solves everything in The Punisher, too. Even locked gates and automated turrets are no match for Frank's sadism. No, he can't slip a gate's throat or choke a turret to death, but he can interrogate a flunky by slamming his head into the ground or sticking a pistol in his face. Only then will lowly grunts cough up precious terminal passwords, or agree to use a nearby computer to open your path to the next segment. If you're lucky, there might even be an environmental interrogation point nearby. Cronies would rather sing than be crushed by a python or be eaten by piranhas or have their faces erased by a spinning propeller, for example. Unfortunately, offing your foes during torture session docks experience points, but with kills as inventive as these also on offer, no one would fault you if your thumb slipped.
Repeatedly. Throughout the entire campaign.
The Punisher isn't alone in his quest to send criminals to the great beyond, either. Heroes like Black Widow, Nick Fury and Iron Man pop up occasionally to offer support. Of course, that means a handful of familiar villains also await Castle at crucial points in his quest, including Kingpin, Bullseye, Ma Gnucci, Bushwacker and the Russian. Call me a sucker, but it's wonderful to see other Marvel faces appear alongside our antihero. It reassures me that I'm playing a genuine Marvel product.
The Punisher sounds like a dream come true because it captures its brand's qualities at least decently. However, in order for a license title to succeed, it also needs to be a good game in its own right.
Sadly, that's where The Punisher's quality takes a dive. For instance, you'll notice it's difficult to aim properly. The reticle's sensitivity is awkward, especially when zoomed in, and scoring precision shots is needlessly tricky. You either end up overshooting your target or taking too much time to position your reticle where you want it. Early on, this isn't a problem because the game registers your gunshots if they're at least somewhere close to your target. There were numerous occasions where I felled an enemy by shooting the space next to him, for instance. Because of this, early opponents perish with minimal effort, and the game's initial phases are incredibly easy.
Eventually, though, The Punisher devolves into a needlessly stressful shooter hampered by crummy mechanics. This becomes apparent during scenes where you need to be a dead shot. One segment requires you to snipe terrorists from a moving gondola, which is easier said than done when you take into account the aforementioned awful control response. Should you fail to assassinate enough terrorists, they'll destroy the gondola and you along with it. I only completed this scene after several attempts, mostly because I couldn't line up the crosshairs with a target to save my life. There's also a boss who dons bulletproof armor and dishes out major damage. In order to defeat him, you need to constantly land headshots, or hope you can secure enough grenades to obliterate him. The former requires spot-on aiming, something this game doesn't facilitate.
In the latter portions of the campaign, The Punisher transforms into a frenetic shooter that's both exciting and irritating. The late-game shootouts feature scores of enemies and loads of action, but often require you to complete ridiculous objectives. One such section involves convincing a Yakuza member to open an elevator locked by a retina scanner. The lift in question also happens to be located several rooms away. Meanwhile, an endless wave of thugs seek to murder the both of you. Any time your newfound ally so much as hears gunfire, he stops and takes cover until you've dealt with the problem. Since adversaries here endlessly spawn, your buddy only runs for about ten feet before cowering in the corner again. It's not an impossible challenge, but it is a tedious one.
And yet I can't say The Punisher is a terrible game. For every problematic scene, there's at least one other one full of sadistic laughs or memorable moments. I may have had to struggle with segments that require precise aiming, but it was worth it to experience moments when you find several foes huddled together, practically begging you to throw a Molotov cocktail at them. Oh, the music they make! However, none of those excellent scenes change the notion that The Punisher is a clunky (yet playable) third-person shooter that could have been a more enjoyable outing. Then again, it's not as though that first voice didn't warn me...
Staff review by Joseph Shaffer (April 29, 2018)
Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.
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