In Frank Castle's world, wrong do-ers had better watch out. For many arch criminals, the idea of a few months or years in chokey is all part of the deal - but what if you knew that the consequences of your illegal actions would result in you being chucked headfirst into a wood-chipping machine, or fed face down into a Piranha pool? Would you be quite so blasé in your flagrant disregard for the law if you knew Mr Castle was about to pay you a visit and intimately acquaint your face with the nearest kerb? You might have second thoughts at the very least.
As fans of the Marvel comic will know (we're not sure the new film starring Thomas Jane has 'fans' yet), his deranged methods are driven by a hatred of crime "bordering on insanity" following the murder of his entire family. Mr Frank Castle is a one man army with a zero tolerance policy for the city's crime lords, and with every fibre in his body he wants to mete out his own special brand of justice to those on the wrong side of the law. And it's with some glee that Volition has accepted the task of devising one of the most brutal videogames ever - but with a touch of dark humour that allows them to take the gratuitous violence to levels that most developers would never dare cross the line into.
Die another minute
In just over seven months, the team behind the Red Faction games has built a polished and immensely promising looking action-adventure very much in the Dead To Rights/Max Payne mould but carved out with a graphics novel style of its own that instantly sets it apart from other half-hearted licenses. Although it's built on a modified version of the Red Faction 2 engine, its brighter, cleaner palette and entirely different visual style makes it practically unrecognisable, and the addition of the latest Havok ragdoll physics drags it into the realms of the cutting edge. And no-one's talking about Geo-Mod, thank the lord.
In the playable, nigh on finished version shown off at E3, Volition gleefully took the time to show us some of the gruesome treats in store. And whatever you may have read already, nothing can really prepare you for quite how full-on stomach churning the whole spectacle is. Even if it is often comically presented and tongue-in-cheek in a warped kind of way, it's surprisingly realistic (or as real as you can imagine someone's body being chopped into bite sized chunks by a machine designed for wood).
Quite what the BBFC would make of all this is anyone's guess, but Volition admits it might have to tone down some of the more extreme animations in order to get a European release. Maybe Americans have stronger stomachs for obscene amounts of gore, but THQ will have fun trying to get this one past the German censors unchallenged! But don't get us wrong - we've seen every vile video nasty going, and gibbed for Britain - but this is a game that gives the player the choice of how far they want to go during their interrogation.
While Manhunt rewarded the player for pulling off extreme kills, The Punisher makes it quite straightforward to suss out which NPCs need to be taught a lesson. Firefights are pretty much engineered so that the perp you need to interrogate won't be firing at you, even when his partners in crime are. When you approach them, they beg for mercy and slump to their knees, but it's not in Frank's nature to show subhuman scum any respect, is it? You can, though, wimp out and just interrogate them, human shield-style, and a menu pops up to allow you to do that, but you can go so much further than that. Oh ho ho.
Max Dead To Payne
Roughing your victim up is easy, with some softly softly tactics enabling you to kick, punch and scare them witless by popping the barrel of your gun in their mouth in order to get the information you require. If you're just feeling especially ruthless, simply pull the trigger and watch in horror as their head explodes like an egg in a microwave.
Other particularly wince-worthy moments allow you to grab your victim and hold him upside down and threaten to 'kerb' them and smash their teeth in. The mechanic is essentially the same for whatever vile act you're about to commit to their person; swinging them backwards and forwards with the right stick gives you the responsibility of how far you go with your punishment, and if you're feeling especially sadistic you eventually get to witness exactly how vicious this game can be.
The Punisher doesn't disappoint with the sheer number of sadistic opportunities - a skull icon appears when there's a specific place where you can use the environment to conduct your questioning. We were given just a taster of what to expect, such as the deep fat fryer, and the aforementioned Piranha pool and wood chipper. With dozens of death moves promised, you're unlikely to experience the kind of overkill that crept into Manhunt very quickly. In addition, there's actually a point to getting the balance of interrogation right, with health, info and bonus items given rewarding the right approach.
"Can you just do that death scream again for me?"
You can, of course, get all of the info out of them, all of the bonus items and then kill them in spectacularly grisly fashion, but that's left entirely up to you. Perhaps it's this kind of gratuitous sadism that had us shifting uncomfortably as we watched, especially given how much effort Volition has gone to replicate the sounds of pain and death, and the unique animations that make the whole spectacle look incredibly convincing. Even in the regular fire fights, the ragdoll physics show off the impact of bullets very well indeed, and it's hard to believe that this is essentially the same tech behind the solid but rather generic Red Faction 2.
Rather like a logical extension of the location-based damage system pioneered in Soldier Of Fortune, limbs (and even the head) can be blown off with jets of blood gushing out, enemies will do a little ragdoll dance with the force of multiple shards of hot lead raking their bodies, and the force of these blows sends them reeling back convincingly. For the arch gaming sadist, you couldn't really ask for more, apart from perhaps real blood squirting out of your TV.
Then there's the game's bullet time mode, of course (well, every game's got to have one these days, right?). Frank has a slaughter bar, and once it's full up the screen goes monochrome and you get to wade around in slow motion, with targeting locking on to several baddies at once, allowing you to take out heavily populated rooms and potentially save innocents that would have otherwise copped it in the fracas.
Enough about disturbing levels of death and misery for a minute: for fans of the comic, this is about as good an interpretation of the Marvel property as they're reasonably going to get, especially with the talents of Jimmy Palmiotti and Garth Ennis lending a hand to make sure the plot and dialogue is faithful to the subject matter. For those genuine fans of the comic, this will be an immense draw, and although we can't pretend to know the subject matter intimately, it's a smart decision by THQ to try and stay as true to the licence as possible.
Set in Manhattan, the locations shown off to us were wide and varied (woods, park, bar, zoo etc), and although not massively impressive compared to the benchmark games out there in terms of technical wizardry, there's a freshness about the environments that's in stark contrast to rival action adventures.
As THQ's corporate blurb says, The Punisher is one of Marvel's grittiest heroes, although we'd probably take issue with their definition of heroism, and taking obvious pleasure in making every perp's exit from the mortal world as painful and grotesque as possible. Where's the love and forgiveness! But, seriously, in terms of delivering an interesting and compelling videogame, Volition has our vote already and we're looking forward to The Punisher's arrival immensely - sick puppies that we are.
The Punisher is due for release in January 2005 on PS2 and Xbox.
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