Punisher, The Download (2005 Arcade action Game)

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This brutal action game stars the man once known only as Frank Castle, who devoted his life to vengeance when his family was brutally murdered. Players take control of the vigilante hero to track down criminals and make them pay in kind for their cruel deeds. Based loosely on the 2004 Lions Gate movie, the story of Volition's Punisher game is by Garth Ennis and Jimmy Palmiotti, who have written and inked dozens of Punisher comic books. As in the comics, The Punisher has no aversion to committing acts of extreme (if not gratuitous) violence, and the game is designed exclusively for adult players.

Somewhat similar to Rockstar's controversial Manhunt, gameplay in The Punisher offers a combination of exploration, stealth, and combat. When he comes across an enemy who could help further the mission -- or one simply deserving of punishment -- the hero can attack immediately, or sneak up to perform a one-button "quick kill." Depending on the villain, the current location, and a player-determined level of aggression, one of many gruesome and fatal assaults will be performed. The game's environments also feature interrogation "hot spots," where the vigilante hero can commit violent and torturous acts on his enemies, coercing them to share information that may help him in his quest.

My experience with The Punisher extends only to the movies and video games, so the following is probably an unfair statement: I think he's a boring character. Batman's refusal to kill at least makes things for difficult and complicated for him, whereas Frank Castle seems to lack any such nuance. There's suggestions that he's deeply scarred and addicted to war, but he's ultimately portrayed more like a noble monk than a loner psychopath. There's hints that his brand of vigilantism is dangerous and wrong - usually espoused by a detective or federal agent who, by the end of the story, comes to see that Frank's solution is the only one that works and lets him go. In short, he's a teenage fantasy. He gets to be a badass and shoot the bejeezus out of guys with no consequence and moral impunity.

This 2005 game certainly didn't change my opinion. If you're here for shooting, that's what you're going to get. That shooting is at least competent though, and while the action isn't remotely kinetic (like Ray Stevenson's take in Punisher: War Zone), you're decently in control and given some optional incentive to play smart.

The story here is loosely based off of the comic series Welcome Back, Frank, and sees Castle taking on the Gnucci crime family. This gives a steady stream of sons and relatives to gun down as final bosses, along with a few cameos from other Marvel heroes and villains (Bushwhacker, Bullseye, Nick Fury, Iron Man, and even Matt Murdock as Frank's lawyer make appearances here). Most levels are introduced as flashbacks during an interrogation led by Detective Soap and Lieutenant Molly Van Richtofen. There's also a light tie-in here with the 2004 film - Thomas Jane voices The Punisher, and Jigsaw is now Howard Saint's surviving son - but the story ultimately stands on its own. There's also nothing close to the kinder, gentler Punisher established in that film. It's back to grim basics for Mr. Castle.

"Grim basics" also serves to describe your control options. Frank lumbers around around linear corridors like a tank, relying on generous amounts of health to soak up damage, rather than fancy moves to avoid it. You can only carry two guns, with a key to switch between them and another to swap for ones on the ground. While you can put objects between yourself and the bullets, there's no official cover system to speak of. You can use the space bar to dive in any direction, but without Max Payne's time-bending, there's limited use for it. However, you can trigger Frank's 'Nam flashbacks with the Tab key, whipping out twin knives, regenerating health, and flattening all opposition until your charge runs out.

Most controls are instead assigned to manipulating nearby enemies. The Q key performs a "quick kill" on the closest foe. This kills in one hit, but locks you to an animation (pulling out knives, breaking necks, etc) that leaves you open to attack from others. The E key grabs an enemy and drags them around as a surprisingly effective human shield. Armored enemies even retain their armor, making them yet more durable. You can drag a foe around forever and never have to worry about them slipping away. When you're done with one, you can execute them, knock them out, or grab them by the belt and throw them into (or off of) whatever you please. Contextual options even let you kick them through doors ahead of you, often bearing the brunt of any waiting ambush.

The last option is the marquee feature - you can choose to interrogate your captured mobster. This works as a delicate balance between their health and a visible stress meter. Let's take the "punch" option as an example: each time you swing the mouse forward, you crack the guy in the face, lowering his health. This also raises the stress meter, before it starts to lower again. Your goal is to sit the stress meter in the orange middle section for about 3 seconds, which causes the criminal to give up his information. Push it too hard, and you'll kill him. Don't use enough force, and you'll chip away at his life before you've caused enough stress. The analog nature of these mouse swings also comes into play - you can swing about halfway (basically threatening a punch without actually hitting) to keep the meter steady in the target zone. The closer to death he is, the more effective these fake-outs are.

Breaking any enemy through interrogation restores your health. You can literally grab the last guy in every room and charge your health back to full this way. Killing someone during the interrogation gives you nothing. Special enemies, marked with a white Punisher skull, will give up unique intel. This includes unlocking armories, letting you pass areas without fighting the guards, or giving hints on how to proceed. If you biff these interrogations, I don't believe the game ever ends. You'll find the info another way, or just not get access to the extra goodies. But you're clearly supposed to use these guys and their information to help you.

Special enemies are almost always paired with a special environmental interrogation, which is where things get grisly. Frank will threaten enemies with drills, inch them closer into the spinning blades of a wood chipper, dip their faces over boiling cooking oil, and more sadistically creative options. He is absolutely torturing guys for information in these sequences, and after they've given up the goods, you can choose to throw them in anyway and watch the results. Heads and all four limbs on enemy models can be cut off, so most of these sequences use a combination of this (or all of them) to mangle your victim alongside blood mists and flying gibs. Since you've broken your enemy, you still get the health boost, plus an appropriate James Bond caliber quip from Frank.

Rating agencies naturally went bananas over this, which is why a stylized black and white filter kicks in during these sequences, along with some awkward camera zooms to push the actual violence to just off screen. You still know what's going on, you just don't see the results of your handiwork. The major "value" of the PC version is a litany of cracks (truly, take your pick) to reverse these censorship changes. I played with one applied, and the technical quality of restoring these sequences is spot on. The benefit of them, well, it's true to The Punisher and it's just breaking little polygon men apart. It's also ridiculously over the top (The Punisher feeds a guy to a convenient shark...), but that's where the only humor might lie.

The other benefit to the PC version is the Fine Aim mode. This is present in the consoles as well, but here gets the tremendous precision of the mouse. The camera pushes in tight over Frank's shoulder, and you now directly control his gun inside the screen. This is critical to defeat some of the late game, fully armored foes, as only headshots will count. It's so critical, in fact, that I wonder if they emphasized this for the PC version. I can't imagine trying to pull off some of the shots needed here on a console gamepad, and they'd be crueler than Frank himself to force it on you. With the mouse though, it's smooth sailing.

Speaking of challenge, there's two ways to play the game. Frank absorbs so many bullets, even on Hard, that your health is almost never an issue. I'm pretty sure I only died once during the entire game, and if you're hurting, more health is just a pointless interrogation away. This leads to a fairly boring game, where you lumber around like a Terminator and clear every room before moving on to the next. Enemies are moderately capable of diving for cover and flanking you when they get the opportunity, but slipping up and getting shot doesn't have much consequence. The only frills here come from the special interrogations.

Perhaps sensing this, Volition has included a points-focused sub game. Every level tracks your score. Your accumulated points are used to buy upgrades for Frank and unlock new challenge modes. You'll earn enough points by default that you can serviceably get through the game while totally ignoring this system (as I did), but high-level players will want to try and max this score. The unlocked rewards are pretty tasty, including improved accuracy, larger magazines, and grenade launcher attachments.

You max your score by maintaining a point multiplier that increases the longer you drop enemies without being hit yourself. Your accuracy doesn't matter, in that missing shots won't reset your multiplier. You just need to avoid taking any damage, which is easier said then done. You'll need to use all of Frank's tricks - human shields, fine aim, crouching, moving behind objects for cover - to pull off a Gold medal run. You even take a point hit for killing guys during interrogations, forcing you to stuff that killer instinct. It adds some much-needed challenge and depth for people who actually want to explore the game, and really is the only thing saving the whole show from being strictly average.

Graphics are pretty plain, and it's clear this was designed with consoles in mind. The low-res textures and lack of detail overall don't contribute to a "comic book" vibe either, this just looks like a PS2 game (Freedom Fighters comes to mind). The Punisher's model has great animation and a nice flowing coat. He'll also change looks a few times throughout the game. Havok physics sling bodies around satisfyingly. Locations are decently varied, though levels like the zoo or office skyscraper will make you wish for more environmental destruction. Thomas Jane does a great job growling out The Punisher's lines, while the rest of the cast varies in quality but comes out okay overall.

In summary, I would have scored the game lower if it didn't have the points system. The base game is solid enough, but dull. The story is a wild mishmash of Marvel cameos, and you never spend enough time on a mob boss or their crimes to feel any satisfaction at wiping them out. The interrogations feel like a nice addition - the subsequent executions are true to the character, but mostly a gimmick for attention. The fine aim control does a great job at placing the bullets where they need to go, and if you're interested in some violent third-person shootery, this will do the job.


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