Frank Castle. Apart from sounding like a 70s game show host/old school comedian, he's actually probably the biggest double-hard bastard ever to star in a videogame. Forget John Rambo, sneer at Max Payne. This man is virtually immortal as bullets bounce off his frame almost apologetically, and any wounds he might incur along the way will magically heal over so long as he has someone to slaughter viciously nearby in as gratuitous a fashion as you can possibly imagine.
If every game has to have its central novelty, then The Punisher's is its unending array of hideous finishing moves, which masquerade as 'Special Interrogations'. In Castle's world the tagline should be 'No Kill Too Gruesome' as the lantern-jawed antihero plumbs the depths of mankind in his quest for The Truth. Thrust into a maelstrom of bitter, bloody revenge against the people responsible for murdering his family, Castle's actions know no bounds as he finds himself driven along a frenzied three-week-long streak of carnage that involves taking out anyone vaguely connected.
Castles made of sand
Following a twisted detective yarn, the game gives Frank Castle his own unique ways of extracting information from those in the way - means which generally involve threatening them with death - and following through with his threat even when he's got what he wants. In The Punisher, there are no special favours, no second prizes; only death, an extra slice of homicide, a side salad of gore, a sprig of ultra violence and a sticky bloody sauce vomited into your disbelieving face for dessert. We still don't know what's hit us, actually.
In The Punisher, you can just go around shooting all and sundry like any other third-person shooter if you wish (performing a 'Quick Kill' with one button if you're close enough), but there's very little 'glory' in doing so. Just a lack of medals, a lower score, and so on. Where Volition's controversial effort rewards the player is in their ability to grab perps and sadistically threaten them with imminent death until they're 'broken'. Once you've grabbed an enemy, the game gives you the choice of either pulling off a quick kill or interrogating them. At this point four options appear, such as Face Smash or Choke, and 'success' comes when you terrorise your subject to the point of them giving in and blurting out a (usually not that useful) piece of information. In practice this is a simple case of easing the left analogue stick forward and back and keeping a marker within a sweet-spot zone on the stressometer. Go too far and you'll kill them outright, but take too long and they'll assume you're bluffing and tell you so.
But at least a couple of places within each level a Special Interrogation can take place, which gives Castle the chance to rain hell on his subjects and really demonstrate just how far he'll go to get revenge. These vary from basic teeth smashing 'kerbing' to truly hideous, wince inducing moments of terror where it's up to you whether you mince your subjects up in a wood chipper, lock them in a coffin burner, impale them on a horned statue or dozens of other cringeworthy one-off opportunities. Mindful of the censorship limitations, Volition has at least tried to limit the impact by moving the camera off the 'money shot' at the last moment, leaving the final scene purely in the minds of the viewers, complete with a brief monochrome effect to heighten the moment of madness even further. In a way, the lack of direct gore makes it even more harrowing; the point being that you still know exactly what's gone on, and you're still left with the corpse of a man who has just, for example, had his face eaten off by Piranhas. The better your imagination, the more disturbed you'll be.
Frankly, we're not HP
Very soon you'll realise that this level of gratuitous brutality is more or less the game's only differentiator. Take it away, and it's any other action game, with another gravel-voiced leather-coated muscle-bound man leading us through his world of Payne. Although there's a degree of twisted black humour to all the violence, it's not enough to disguise the fact that in reality the game isn't actually all that exciting or varied. Hundreds of samey enemies spew out of every corridor shouting the same tired taunts and insults and die obligingly even from woefully inaccurate shots, while doing Castle very little damage.
If you get fed up with the shooting and interrogating, then there's always Slaughter mode to fall back on. Essentially it's the game's pseudo Bullet Time mode - as Castle also gets to be an extra powerful sword-wielding psycho who can take out swathes of enemies with one slash - and his health recharges to boot.
This forgiving game design means it's unnecessary to be all that skilful when going on the rampage, and even if you do find yourself in the wars, the whole premise of being able to recharge your health through both Slaughter mode and interrogation is Frankly (ahem), a strange decision from Volition, and one that makes the game even easier than it is already. Death threatens our Frank rarely, and the regular checkpoints make back tracking a rarity too. It's just one of those 12-hour processions where even the added lure of unlockable modes doesn't provide any reason to replay.
Inevitably there are regular boss face-offs, but even these lack charm or the sense of being involved in a break from the normal run-and-gun sludge. On some levels, the maze-like design makes it easy for them to run away, all the while pointlessly respawning goons pop out of the gloom to make the process all the more tedious. It wouldn't be such a chore if the AI could rescue the general combat from utter mediocrity, but so often you find yourself running up behind oblivious (and overly cocky) enemies that barely have a care in the world despite 149 of their buddies lying dead nearby. Even a "coo-ie" would fail to attract their attention, so in a way they deserve their silicon death. If there's a central complaint, it's simply that the combat feels lightweight, undercooked, too easy, and so very very repetitive. After the first level you've probably seen most of what there is to see, save for the predictable appearance of heavier weapons and a bigger body count armed with bigger guns.
Having been thoroughly unimpressed with the generic shooter-fest gameplay, you might hope that at least the game could impress us with some visual trickery, but it's one of those games that's pretty without ever doing anything that hasn't been done better before. The character models are certainly detailed enough and animated respectably, and the environments are quirky and varied settings for a killing spree, but there's never at any stage any of the wow factor to make you want to persist with the game just to revel in its technical glory. Evidently designed with the PS2 firmly in mind, it has that tired mid-range look that is acceptable but nothing more.
The audio work also lives in the same sphere of acceptability; gravel-voice central protagonist cursed with all the woes of the world? Check. Insultingly dumb and samey sounding goons that spout the same lines over and over again until you actually want to melt their face in acid? Check. Parping string laden 'dramatic' soundtrack that could have been lifted from any dumb B-movie of the last 20 years? Check. It sounds like a videogame, which, by the way, isn't a compliment.
We didn't set out to dislike The Punisher. In fact, at last year's E3 it stood out as being a little different, controversial and not like everything else. But the trouble is, as soon as you remove the novelty death sequences it's actually the dictionary definition of the average third-person shooter. And given that you'll probably soon tire of the interrogation aspect of the game you're left with a husk of a game that's calculatedly trying to get by on shock value alone. But perhaps the only truly shocking thing about The Punisher is that Volition thought it could get away with it.