The Punisher presents a peculiar moral conundrum. Having successfully extracted the necessary information from some hapless meat grinder soldier (not surprising given the extremely large snake salivating a mere foot from his head), three options present themselves to the main protagonist of this uninspiring story, one severely pissed off Frank Castle.
1: 'Quick-kill' him. This usually involves butting our talkative friend, putting one of our precious bullets in the back of his head or perhaps slitting his throat with something that deserves to be called a sword rather than a knife.
2: Pull him away from the starving snake, use him as a human shield, absorbing bullet after bullet until there's no flesh left to shield with, while Castle goes all Commando and takes down an expansive enemy base full of cannon fodder.
3: Toss him to the snake.
Never let it be known that The Punisher is cruel to animals.
As the snake sinks its fangs into the neck of our screaming enemy, wrapping itself around him, crushing the life out of his body to the soundtrack of snapping bones and ripping flesh, you find yourself wondering: did I have to do that? Strangely, while playing The Punisher for the weekend you find yourself continually opting for the third, most gruesome outcome. Why? In part, it's to see what developers Volition have concocted from the most violent recesses of their creative minds, and, perhaps most importantly, this seems to be what the game wants you to do.
Environmental interrogations are The Punisher's ultimate selling point. Having kicked a door down in one of the many derelict buildings found throughout the game, thugs, soldiers, drug dealers or anyone else Mr Castle deems worthy of punishment, attempt to shoot you while screaming some expletive. These enemies are dumb in the worst sense of the word. They will shoot and shoot and shoot, and, perhaps, run away when you get close. There's no team work on the part of multiple enemies, no coordinated attack, just shooting. So, inevitably, eschew any stealth, tactics or forward thought. Instead, use whatever weapon you find yourself with to dish out punishment in gruesome and bone crunching fashion.
Then, out of the corner of your eye you spot an orange splash indicating an area where an environmental kill is possible. 'I'll save a bad guy for that' you find yourself thinking. As our lucky winner cowers in the corner, begging for his life, you grab him, drag him over to the splash and fiddle with the analogue sticks to get the guy to spill his guts. Then you sit back and, as they say, enjoy.
Let me give you some examples. One lovely piece of gruesomeness involves throwing a mafia goon into a coffin, lobbing a grenade inside and closing the lid. Another lets you burn an enemy while still alive cremation style. Another lets a rack of razor sharp knives fall into the face of a soldier you cornered in a kitchen. More? Ok. Well there's the one where you drill someone through the skull in a workshop. Oh yeah, there's the time you grind someone's face on a rotating blade, or, when in slaughter mode you clear out an entire room full of twenty bad guys - another unique selling point of the game that sees you flipping out a couple of knives as time slows down and you run around inserting the blades into the temples of anyone unfortunate enough to be in Castle's warpath.
Before the Mail come calling, it's an 18 rated game (they will come calling anyway). Despite this, for some reason, when you pick the third option, the camera pans away and it goes black and white, like a safety precaution for when the DM do call. Still, you get the picture, especially when you see the bloody corpse twitching on the floor.
The problem comes when you've seen all the environmental interrogation animations (over 101). What's left is a flat, uninspiring third-person action game. The storyline, apparently concocted by acclaimed Punisher writers Garth Ennis and Jimmy Palmiotti, is about as good as the game's Hollywood counterpart. As the game begins Castle is being interrogated by cops. As they do so, the story unfolds in flashback style, detailing Castle's vendetta against a number of crime lords and gangs.
For the uninitiated, Frank Castle became The Punisher when his family was wiped out by a mob. They, as he keeps reminding us, gave him a reason to live. But forget the story. It's not really important. What is important is the endless killing. Since 98% of the game involves repeatedly maiming bad guys, finding more to mutilate then finally torturing a boss, the game rides on how fun this is. Strangely, it's quite entertaining.
The Punisher's vast armoury includes standards like hand guns, rifles, snipers and shotguns, but they feel meaty. Especially the shotgun. Blow away a goon with that and an eerie satisfaction washes over you. Take out a tower patrol with flawless headshots from the sniper rifle, and, again, a wry smile crosses your face. It's the same when you cook five goons with the flame thrower, who proceed to run around like headless chickens as they slowly burn to a crisp.
Sure, after the 15 hours of mindless, easy play (you're the Punisher, a Marvel superhero, so expect to be able to absorb a multitude of bullets before glancing at your health bar) this starts to grate, but the game isn't meant to be a 100+ hour epic RPG. It's meant as a weekend romp, and that's what it is.
The graphics are pretty unspectacular and while the Xbox version looks a little better then the PlayStation 2 version, it still isn't all that special. The camera is borderline fit-inducing and the collision detection, environments and voice acting are shoddy. Get over these problems though, and you'll enjoy yourself.
Of course, if you're a fan of the comic book (on which the game is based, not the recent movie) it'll probably have more of an emotional impact for you. If, like me, your last taste of The Punisher came when Dolph Lundgren snapped necks back in the early nineties, the game sticks out as an entertaining, but short third-person adventure, driven by the need to see ever gruesome deaths in different environments. If that makes us bad people, sue us. The Punisher needs his revenge, and he has a certain way of convincing people of his point of view.