In 2005 THQ published one of the most brutal games ever made based on Marvel Comics’ The Punisher. Featuring the vocal work of Tom Jane, the then star of The Punisher movie, the script takes basic elements of Garth Ennis’ seminal Welcome Back Frank comic, (using characters like Detective Soap, Joan the mouse, and The Russian) and pits our brutal hero against the Mafia, the Yakuza, and even a couple of super villains.
The game opens with Frank Castle, the Punisher, in police custody on Ryker’s Island, the fictional Marvel Universe prison in New York. Detectives Van Richtofen and Soap interrogate Frank about a recent massacre he was involved in, and what follows is the Punisher’s account of the events leading up to his arrest.
As The Punisher you can essentially manhandle pretty much anyone you come across, at least during the first half of the game anyway. Whenever you get close to an enemy you are given the option of either grabbing them, turning them into a human shield, or performing a brutal quick kill, such as slashing their throat with your knife, or stuffing a grenade in their mouth and pushing them towards their friends.
As far as third person shooting games go The Punisher is fairly generic. When shooting at enemies it doesn’t ever really feel like your shots are connecting with them – you’re simply shooting at targets until they fall down. However it has one unique selling point that no other game has managed to match to date, and that is the sheer level of violence. This is particularly evident in the game’s interrogation/torture mechanic.
Whenever you grab an enemy you can drag them around the environment as a human shield, or take them to interactive sections to initiate the interrogation/torture mechanic. Interactive areas are marked white icons, indicating the best places to interrogate your hostage, while gold icons indicate unique instant kill locations. The aim of the torture is to get information or force an enemy to co-operate with you. For instance, in the first level you can slam a punk’s head against a window in order to persuade him to go in to the next room and get his friends to surrender.
When torturing an enemy an orange meter appears on screen that indicates how much punishment they can take before they will die. The aim is to apply enough pressure for a short amount of time without breaking them. If you push them too far they will either refuse to co-operate with you, or they will die in a gruesome way. The size of the sweet spot that you need to hit varies from enemy to enemy, leading to some genuinely surprising accidental murders on your part. If it weren’t so much fun then it might actually be frustrating.
In the case of the punk with the window, the frame shatters and the broken glass slices his throat open, leading to the Punisher having to fight off a room full of armed punks. Whenever these gruesome deaths occur the camera fades to black and white in order to mask some of the violence. Apparently this was done in order for the game to pass as a mature rated game, rather than receive the kiss of death known as the adults only rating.
The sheer level of variety of torture options is staggering, with every subsequent execution being more grisly and hilarious than the last. Every level has dozens of unique torture methods, ranging from dipping an enemy face first in to a piranha pool at the zoo, to using a high tech laser at Stark Industries to slice off limbs. There is something really quite compelling about finding every possible means of torture in each level.
Performing interrogations, and successfully killing enemies earns you points, with your final score determining an overall medal ranking at the end of each level. The more medals you earn the more bonus content you unlock, such as character art and new weapons. It is a nice idea, but overall the challenges aren’t especially compelling, and the extra content isn’t really that vital to the overall experience. Still, it’s nice that they gave enthusiastic players more content to experience.
Towards the end of the game you fight far tougher enemies, including armored soldiers and even a boss in a stolen Iron Man costume, and it is at this point that things start to feel like a chore. The simple fact of the matter is that the Punisher is only really any fun to play as when he is facing foes that are weaker than him. The moment you face stronger foes with better weapons, and you are forced to rely on the clunky gun combat, the whole game falls apart. Having said that, at its best, when tormenting dozens of hapless thugs, The Punisher really is very enjoyable.
It may not be the greatest game ever made, but the point still stands that the interrogation system is fantastic fun and I’m genuinely surprised to see that it hasn’t been used more frequently in other games. Fortunately this is one of the few original Xbox titles that you can play on your Xbox 360. If you happen to come across a cheap copy then I heartily recommend it, if only for the thrill of seeing a gangster being slowly fed through a wood chipper.
- Luke Mears