Game Corner [Punisher Month]: The Punisher (PlayStation 2)

Back in February 1974, Spider-Man/Peter Parker faced a new enemy in the form of Frank Castle, the Punisher, a veteran of the Vietnam War turned bloodthirsty vigilante. The Punisher separated himself from other, traditional costumed heroes by his willingness to kill and uncompromising, suicidal one-man war on crime and what better way to celebrate the debut of this nuanced and complex character by dedicating every Tuesday of this month shining a spotlight on Marvel’s most notorious anti-hero?

Released: 16 January 2005
Developer: Volition
Also Available For: Mobile, PC, and Xbox

The Background:
After his impressive debut in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #129, Frank Castle/The Punisher quickly became one of Marvel’s most popular anti-heroes thanks to his tragic backstory and unwavering commitment to the eradication of crime. The Punisher has also seen some success outside of the comic books, featuring in movies, cartoons, and a number of licensed videogames. Released to coincide with the 2004 movie of the same name, The Punisher was developed by Volition, a studio purchased by THQ in 2000 and perhaps best known at the time for their work on the Red Faction (ibid, 2001; 2002). Acting as a quasi-sequel to The Punisher (Hensleigh, 2004), The Punisher saw star Thomas Jane return to voice the role but incorporated its aesthetic presentation, storyline, and characters from the comics and was subjected to numerous edits and cuts to tone down its scene of explicit violence and gore and make it financially viable for release. While the game was met with mixed reviews, it sold around one million copies and was considered a success for Volition, who would go on to develop Saints Row (Volition, 2006).

The Plot:
Having dedicated his life to the eradication of crime after losing his family to mobsters, Frank Castle has been working his way through New York City’s underworld as the Punisher. Having carved his way through the low-level street gangs and the Yakuza, he allows himself to be captured and interrogated in order to get closer to the town’s newest head gangster, the mysterious “Jigsaw”, who has a personal grudge against the Punisher.

The Punisher is a third-person action shooter in which you’re placed into the iconic trenchcoat, combat trousers, and skull-shirt of Frank Castle, the titular Punisher, as he mows his way through countless thugs, lowlifes, and criminals in a one-man war on crime. Although he can’t jump, the Punisher has a number of combat and movement options available to him: he can pick up and swap weapons with the Circle button (note that, while he can dual-wield weapons, he can only hold two types of weapons at once; a smaller weapon like a pistol and a bigger weapon like a shotgun), select between his weapons by pressing down on the directional pad, fire his weapons with R1, toss grenades and other such explosives with L1, and enter a more accurate aiming mode (which is further expanded when he has a sniper rifles) by pressing in the right analogue stick.

Frank’s methods of interrogation basically amount to brutal and sadistic torture.

The Punisher can also dive ahead with a press of R2, duck and crouch walk with L2, and grab thugs and use them as a human shield with X. In this position, or when up close to enemies, you can execute them with a quick kill by pressing Square. Enemies can also be interrogated by pressing X; in this mode, you’re ask to tilt or move the left analogue stick to keep a meter in the right area long enough to “break” your victim, which will award you with hints and Style Points. As you kill enemies, rack up kill combinations, and pull off successfully interrogations, you’ll earn Style Points that can be used to upgrade the Punisher’s various skills and attributes from the main menu in Frank’s apartment. As you encounter enemies and head into fire fights, you’ll notice glowing white Punisher skulls over the heads of certain enemies; once you’ve cleared the immediate area of all other enemies, these guys will give up and you’re tasked with performing a “Special Interrogation” using various parts of the environment (drills, furnaces, shark tanks, or dangling off a ledge, for example). Once you break them, they’ll often lead you to secret areas with new weapons or cause enemies ahead of you to stand down so you can progress easier. You can kill them, but it will cost you Style Points (which can be a little confusing as you’re otherwise rewarded for killing criminals; indeed, you can kill these guys normally after breaking them and not be penalised). Other times, you’ll see a glowing gold Punisher skull in the environment, which allows you to pull off a “Special Kill” (locking a scumbag in a coffin and tossing in a grenade, for example) for additional Style Points.

Enter Slaughter Mode to make short work of your enemies but watch your fire around friendlies!

Considering how linear the game is, it’s surprisingly easy to get lost as you’re often exploring dark, grey corridors and very bland environments; there’s no map or onscreen indication of where you need to go so it’s easy to get a bit turned around at times. Often, you’re joined by a partner character (Natalia Romanova/Black Widow, Nick Fury, and agents of the Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate/S.H.I.E.L.D.) who cannot be harmed by either you or enemies and are, surprisingly, very useful and competent for computer-controlled characters. Occasionally, you’ll be asked with solving some very simple puzzles that amount to finding a key or pulling a lever, rescuing hostages, placing explosive charges, interacting with a hidden switch to open a door, or forcing certain enemies to open doors; it’s nothing massively taxing but, again, it can sometimes be confusing as to where you need to go. The Punisher is quite a durable character whose health is refilled as he breaks thugs through interrogations or talks to rescued innocents but it also regenerates when you press Triangle; this puts you into “Slaughter Mode”, which slows time down to a crawl, turns the screen black and white, and has you tossing throwing knives and performing instant kills as long as the meter lasts. This can be a great way of clearing out rooms filled with perps but, honestly, I generally tended to save it for boss battles as the game is pretty generous with its checkpoints and not especially difficult to get through and I found this mechanic to be quite disorientating. Most of my deaths and mission failures came from accidentally dropping from high ledges or killing innocents; occasionally, enemies will grab hostages and use them as human shields and, if you kill them, you’ll instantly fail the mission so be sure to use your more accurate aiming in this situations.

Graphics and Sound:
For a PlayStation 2 game, The Punisher is pretty decent to look at when you can actually see what’s onscreen. Character models are pretty good, if a bit blocky, but not much to shout about when it comes to enemy variety and aesthetic. Indeed, the character who looks the most dynamic and impressive is, fittingly, the Punisher himself. Decked out in a long trenchcoat, combat trousers, army boots, and skull shirt, the Punisher looks exactly like he stepped right out of the pages of a Garth Ennis comic book. Punisher even dons different outfits for different missions, including ditching the trenchcoat, decking himself out in war paint, and wearing prison clothes and, while he doesn’t have Thomas Jane’s likeness, he looks very much like his comic book counterpart.

Environments can be a bit boring and drab but there are a few that stand out as visually interesting.

Where the game falters, though, is in the level variety and presentation; you’ll skulk around seedy alleyways, dark corridors, and dingy crack houses, which aren’t massively impressive. Even areas like the chop shop, the zoo, and Fisk Industries’ skyscraper aren’t much to shout about as the game’s visuals are dulled with a dark, moody presentation that, while fitting, can make things visually very lifeless and boring. It’s not all bad, though; one mission takes place in a jungle, which helps to spice things up, as does battling through the research and development department of Stark Industries and a nightclub/bar, all of which bring some life and clarity to the action.

While many of its more brutal kills are censored, The Punisher is still a gloriously violent game.

As mentioned, the game’s more brutal and bloodier executions have, sadly, been censored; nevertheless, the game is extremely violent, with enemies spurting blood and being blasted to death as best as the PlayStation 2 can render. The Punisher’s interrogation sequences basically amount to a version of torture and see Frank beating, choking, kicking, or intimidating his victims or threatening this lives using various parts of the environment, which is all very fun to see and take part in and, while these are censored, the implication is still very clear to see.

While the CG cutscenes are a bit fuzzy, the in-game graphics are pretty decent and there’s some fun cameos.

The music isn’t really that interesting or memorable; the game doesn’t seem to pull any tracks or influence from the movie, which is a shame, but the voice acting is top notch. Thomas Jane was always a fantastic Punisher and he continues to narrate events around him, offering wry commentary, dry quips, threats, and conveying just the right amount of dread and anger in the title role. The few amount of CG cutscenes the game uses are decent enough but the icing on the cake were the appearances and cameos from some of Marvel’s more recognisable characters, such as Matt Murdock, Tony Stark/Iron Man, and Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin, which are fun hints at the wider Marvel universe that exists around The Punisher and the cries and screams of the goons you fight are satisfying to hear.

Enemies and Bosses:
As you might expect, the Punisher is confronted by a horde of nameless, faceless goons, thugs, and scumbags in his quest to destroy all crime. Enemies will react with fear and hostility at your presence, shoot at you from behind cover and doors, and throw weapons at you but, for the most part, are quite stupid and easily taken out even when they have the higher ground or the numbers advantage. As the story progresses, though, you’ll come up against more formidable enemies or enemies wielding more powerful weapons, such as shotguns, sniper rifles, and flamethrowers. Enemies will also fire rockets at you from helicopters, commandos don more protective armour to withstand your shots, and Yakuza will dog you at every turn in waves. Thankfully, you always have plenty of options available to take these guys out, from tossing them to giant snakes, smashing their faces into mounted guns, or simply blasting them away with your weapons and, while you’re often asked to hold out against a timer as an endless swarm of enemies rush at you, it’s never like you’re not capable of defending yourself.

Bushwacker gives you the slip more than once before you finally confront him head on.

In terms of bosses, The Punisher has an interesting variety both visually and in terms of how you fight them. The game’s first few missions see you busting up the Gnucci gang; when you get into a shootout with Bobby Gnucci, you need to make use of nearby cover to get a good bead on him to take him out with a headshot. Later, you’ll burst out of a coffin and gun down countless minions of the family and find yourself running around in circles in a confusing attic maze as enemies continuously spawn in and you desperately try to find take out Eddie Gnucci in one of the game’s more confusing and frustrating boss battles. One of the more elusive bosses in the game is Carl Burbank/Bushwacker, a muscle-bound freak with a gun for an arm who constantly dogs your progress and escapes your retribution until you finally confront him in the library at Ma Gnucci’s estate. Goons will continually spawn into this fight and, if you attack Bushwacker head-on, you’ll take massive damage so I found the best tactic was to do a continuous circuit of the library, shooting at Bushwacker as and when, and bust out the Slaughter Mode to bring him down. Afterwards, you are given four minutes to escape the estate as it burns down, shooting sprinklers on the ceiling to get through the flames and performing a Special Kill to make short work of Ma Gnucci.

Though seemingly impervious to pain, environmental hazards and flames will bring the Russian down.

At the end of the docks, you’ll have to grab a nearby rocket launcher to take out the tank that blocks your exit, which is pretty easy to do thanks to all of the handy-dandy containers that offer cover. Afterwards, the game recreates a classic scene from the movie and comics with a battle against the nigh-invulnerable Russian in Frank’s apartment; here, you must stay away from the Russian and stun him with nearby melee weapons, mount his back, and use the Special Interactions to best him. Later, you’ll battle him against around a missile silo; this time, you need to shoot the barrels he grabs before he can throw them at you and, when he comes down to your level, use your grenades, the explosive barrels, and the missile’s flame jet to put him down once and for all while dispatching the endless goons.

Bullseye is a slippery, tricky devil who eludes your attacks and keeps you on the move.

When you infiltrate Fisk Industries, you’ll encounter another elusive and annoying boss, Bullseye. This slippery devil will somersault about the place, tossing knives at you and only really taking damage when you land a headshot thanks to his fancy body armour. You’ll fight him again in an area of the skyscraper that is under construction, which makes it harder for you to get a clean shot thanks to all the walls and obstructions, before you have a finale showdown in Fisk’s penthouse where he pulls a gun out on you. In each of these three areas, you’ll find a weapons cache to keep your ammo topped up and I would recommend returning t it again and again to grab grenades to deal the most damage to Bullseye and knock him down so you can get a cleaner shot at his stupid head.

The finale sees you battling Jigsaw, who is in stolen Iron man tech, on the prison rooftop.

The finale of the game sees you facing off against Jigsaw (who, in a change to the source material, is revealed to be John Saint from the 2004 movie) who has donned stolen Iron Man armour. This is a two-stage boss battle; in the first stage, Jigsaw fires seeking missiles and repulsor blasts at you while hovering in the air and the only way to bring him down and damage him is to run underneath him and fire at his jetpack. Once he’s brought to ground level, he’ll chase after you and blast at you while goons spawn in to back him up. While you can shoot at him, it’s far easier to run to an area of the rooftop where the explosive mines (or “RAMs”) continually respawn; simply position yourself behind parts of the environment and toss these towards Jigsaw and remote detonate them and you’ll blow him away in no time at all.

Power-Ups and Bonuses:
The Punisher is afforded a great deal of weaponry for his crusade, most of it he liberates from defeated enemies or picks up from weapon caches in the environment. You’ll get access to a number of pistols (which Frank can dual-wield), revolvers, sub-machine guns, rifles, and shotguns and you can swap these out at any time when you see a weapon on the ground. You can also find and use flamethrowers (but be careful as flaming enemies can harm you as well) and a rocket launcher, which is perfect for bringing down helicopters, and a sniper rifle to take enemies out from a distance and defend your gondola in the jungle. Other time, you can acquire melee weapons to put a beatdown on your enemies.

Choose from a wide selection of weapons and use Skill Points to upgrade Frank’s abilities.

After clearing a mission, you’ll be awarded with both Medals and Style Points. You can spend these points upgrading a number of the Punisher’s skills and attributes from Frank’s apartment. You can upgrade Frank’s body armour to increase your resistance to damage, increase the duration of your Slaughter Mode, increase your clip capacity, and add a scope or grenade function to certain weapons. Thankfully, you don’t have to worry about upgrading every weapon individually so increasing your accuracy or ammo capacity will do this for every weapon by default.

Additional Features:
The Punisher offers three difficulty settings, which will increase the aggressiveness and durability of your enemies and also allow you to obtain different Medals and gameplay modes. You can earn Bronze, Silver, and Gold Medals in every mission, but Gold Medals are only available when playing on Hard Mode; however, every time you finish a mission, you’ll unlock an additional “Challenge Mode” that presents you with a specific objective to fulfil to unlock extra stuff. Sadly, there is no option to don a different skin or outfit when replaying missions but there are cheat codes to unlock alternative outfits, so that ’s something, at least.

Take on challenges and play on Hard Mode (or cheat…) to unlock additional modes, cheats, and costumes.

From Frank’s apartment, you can view all of the Punisher’s weapons (Thomas Jane even narrates what each weapon is capable of), enemy biographies, cutscenes, flashbacks (which are triggered and unlocked when interrogating certain enemies), and comic books covers (unlocked by clearing challenges). When playing on Hard Mode, you’ll also gain access to “Punishment Mode”, which has you holding out against waves of enemies to earn points and medals. Additionally, clearing Hard Mode will unlock cheats for you to use; you can also unlock these manually but, while it’s fun to run around without fear of harm, you won’t actually be able to progress through the story with these activated.

The Summary:
The Punisher is a pretty decent third-person shooter; considering it’s a licensed game, which are generally regarded as being terrible, it’s a pretty solid effort. I think choosing to veer more towards the source material than the movie was a good choice as it made it more appealing and fresh and, rather than going through the beats of the movie step by step, it crafts an entirely new adventure that is appealing to fans of the film, the comics, and this genre of videogame. It’s not perfect by any means; the censoring of the torture scenes is disappointing, environments are bland and dark and confusing, and certain sections can be frustrating at times but there is a lot of variety and mayhem on offer thanks to the wide array of weapons and kill options at your disposal. It’s probably the most accurate Punisher videogame we’re ever likely to get and has quite a lot of replay value thanks to the additional challenges and such. There might be better third-person shooters out there but The Punisher is definitely worth your time for the violence alone, to say nothing of the references to and cameos of other Marvel characters. Team this up with Deadpool (High Moon Studios, 2013) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Raven Software, 2009) and you have some of the best and most accurate videogame depictions of Marvel’s more violent characters.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Have you ever played The Punisher? If so, what did you think of it? Were you disappointed that it didn’t follow the movie closer, or have more ties to the movie, or did you enjoy that it was more in line with the source material? What did you think to the game’s violence, executions, and action? Which of the cameos and/or boss battles was your favourite and were there any you felt were missing from the game? Would you like the see the title remastered for modern consoles or do you think it’s best left as a relic of a bygone era? Which Punisher videogame, story, or adaptation is your favourite? Whatever you think about The Punisher, feel free to write a comment below and be sure to check out my other Punisher content.

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