The Punisher Hands-On

We play through the first five levels of Volition's upcoming comic-inspired action game on both the PS2 and the Xbox.

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Currently scheduled for release in January 2005, The Punisher is a particularly violent comic-inspired action game that will see you assuming the titular role of Marvel's popular vigilante character. We recently received work-in-progress versions of the game for both the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox, and we have fought our way through the first five levels of each game in order to bring you some updated impressions.

Check out some of the weapons that you'll get to play with on the armory screen.
Check out some of the weapons that you'll get to play with on the armory screen.

As fans of the comic books will know, the brand of justice that The Punisher deals out to criminals is anything but subtle, and Volition appears to be going out of its way to be as faithful to the source material as possible. You'll start the game without any weapons, but once you've taken out a few bad guys with unarmed "quick kills" or excessively forceful interrogation techniques, you'll be able to pick up the weapons that they drop. The weapons that we've had access to in the first five missions include wrenches, dual semiautomatic pistols, machine pistols, pump-action shotguns, an assault rifle, frag grenades, and flashbangs. All of the weapons have their uses in the game, but you'll be limited to carrying only one type of pistol at a time, along with one larger weapon and a handful of grenades. Glancing at the armory screen that's viewable at The Punisher's apartment (from which all menu options are accessed) it's clear that the game will boast at least 20 different types of weapons in total, including a sniper rifle, a grenade launcher, and a bazooka.

All of the weapons that we've been playing with thus far feel very satisfying to use, but what really makes The Punisher stand out from the third-person-action-game crowd right now are its quick-kill and interrogation systems. The quick-kill system, as you'll no doubt have guessed from the name, allows you to deal with enemies quickly and efficiently simply by getting close to them and pushing a button. What follows, more often than not, is a kill animation that makes those in Rockstar's Manhunt look like the result of a collaboration between Disney and Senator Joe Lieberman. Not all of the kill animations are overly gratuitous; in fact, some of them don't look like they'd kill an enemy outright at all. But for every one of those types, there are at least two that are just downright nasty--feeding an enemy a grenade, for example, or stabbing them in the face and giving the blade a twist. Nastier still are some of the "special kills" that you can perform when you grab an enemy and force him into a location highlighted with a gold marker. We don't want to spoil it for you, but one particularly memorable special kill that we inflicted upon an enemy involved throwing him into an empty funeral casket and then tossing a grenade in with him before slamming down the lid. What's great about the over-the-top violence in The Punisher is that, as nasty as it sounds, it's presented in a way that is totally in keeping with the comics on which the game is based and, as such, it is more likely to have you laughing out loud than hiding behind a cushion or desperately reaching for a copy of something cute from Nintendo.

The interrogation system is definitely one of The Punisher's most interesting features.
The interrogation system is definitely one of The Punisher's most interesting features.

Even more viscerally satisfying than the outright kills in The Punisher is its interrogation system, which you can use on any enemy that you grab ahold of before you decide to kill or employ him as a human shield. Interrogating enemies requires you to administer just the right amount of your chosen style of violence (as indicated by a colored area on an energy bar of sorts) so that the bad guy in question will fear for his life but won't actually die--at least not until he has told you what you need to know. Enemies with something important to say are easy to pick out of a crowd because they have Punisher logos floating above their heads. However, since successfully interrogating an enemy rewards you with a health bonus, it's definitely worth practicing your techniques on other enemies quite regularly--even if you are able to absorb a ridiculous amount of bullets.

Like the quick kills, the interrogations come in both regular and special flavors, and the special interrogations are, believe it or not, even nastier than the aforementioned special kills. Without wishing to go into too much detail, some of the environmental features and objects that you'll be able to employ during special interrogations include great heights, drilling rigs, crematoriums, and even a pool full of hungry piranha. After a successful interrogation you'll have the option to release the enemy, use him as a shield, or kill him using whatever it was that scared him into talking moments earlier. Choosing the latter will actually cost you a number of the style points that you accrue as you progress through each level, but not so many that it'll deter you from wanting to see each of the special interrogation sequences through to their nastiest possible conclusion at least once.

Style points can be used to make The Punisher even more powerful than he is at the start of the game.
Style points can be used to make The Punisher even more powerful than he is at the start of the game.

Style points, incidentally, can be spent on a number of different things once you return to The Punisher's apartment after each level. The system is like what you would use to spend experience points in most role-playing games, and it will allow you to do stuff like strengthen your body armor, improve your shooting accuracy, or attach a silencer to certain weapons. Other options available to you in the apartment will include a war journal that contains news clippings and photos of your previous exploits, and an area that contains unlockable extras, such as comic book covers, concept art, movies, cheats, and flashbacks--which are experienced by certain enemies during interrogations.

This bar is a massacre waiting to happen.
This bar is a massacre waiting to happen.

The five levels of The Punisher that we've played through thus far include a crack house, a chop shop, a small bar, a zoo, and a funeral home. The gameplay has been more repetitive than the locales up to this point, but we're certainly not tiring of it yet, and we're anxious to see just how crazy the action can get once we get our hands on some of the game's larger weapons. The only things that we've found kind of disappointing during our time with The Punisher, bearing in mind that the version we played isn't finished, are that many of the enemies are too easy to get close to (we'd expect them to at least try to run away) and that, although The Punisher is able to crouch behind objects for cover and perform Max Payne-style jumps to evade enemy fire, we never really felt the need to because the guy is just so resilient to bullets. That said, the finished game will feature easy, normal, and hard difficulty settings, and to date we've only played the game on the normal setting.

While it certainly won't appeal to (or legally be available to) everybody, The Punisher is shaping up pretty well at this point, and it has more than just fancy shooting-while-jumping moves in common with the Max Payne series. We look forward to bringing you more information on The Punisher as its January release date closes in.

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