On paper, The Punisher: No Mercy seems like a decent value. For only $10, you get an online multiplayer shooter with eight unique levels, a bunch of characters from the comic books to play as, and enough unlockable weapons and gadgets to keep you occupied for quite a few hours. But when you discover how shallow and generic this first-person shooter is, any bargain bin thrills you get from shooting up your friends will quickly dissipate. You can blow through the Story mode in less than a half hour; after which, you have only repetitive shootouts to look forward to when you take your guns online. For such a cheap price, No Mercy fills the mindless shooter void in a pinch, but any fun is over before you know it.
The main draw in No Mercy is the online multiplayer mode, but there is a perfunctory campaign thrown in for those who want a little practice shooting up brain-dead bots before they pit their skills against more challenging adversaries in competitive play. The four story levels begin and end with hand-drawn story segments that show Frank Castle's confused reaction to fighting clones of his arch nemeses, but they abruptly end with a nasty "To be continued" tease before this seeing-double tale is resolved. The Story mode should provide either a conclusion to the narrative or train you for your online matches, but it does neither. Your bot opponents are devoid of tactical abilities and health, so your time spent shooting up your foes in single-player does a lousy job of preparing you for human-controlled enemies. By the time the story ends, you unlock every playable character, along with a few powerful gadgets and weapons, and a skirmish mode to extend solo sessions, but it's a pretty mundane experience.
Online play is broken up into cooperative and competitive modes, but given the fact that artificial enemies are unnaturally moronic, you have to opt for competitive action if you want opponents who put up a fight. There are a number of different modes to choose from, but all of them offer only slight variations on the classic deathmatch formula. The lack of diverse objectives leads to a monotonous feeling that even the well-designed levels can't overcome. The stages have plenty of hidden passageways and deadly sniper spots, but the intelligent layouts are largely wasted because there isn't a reason to carefully sneak around to seek out the best positions. Each fight is over in the blink of an eye. If you can shoot enemies in the back, they'll most likely die before they can even turn around, which makes for an abrupt and unsatisfying experience.
Because fights are usually over before you can think up a clever trash-talking line, matches are slightly more fun with fewer players. Most maps can accommodate up to eight people but the action is at its best when that number is cut in half. With a few seconds to breathe between encounters, you have a chance to reload your gun and pick up some much-needed health packs, giving you a chance to stay alive for a little while before finally succumbing to an onslaught of bullets. But even when you find the perfect balance of competitors, playing online still has a lot of problems. The matches often lag so much that the only option is to ditch the unreliable automatic weapons, fill the screen with fiery blasts from the rocket launcher, and hope for the best. Worse, still, are the frequent drops. When the host is kicked out, everyone gets booted to the title screen, and this happens so often that it's difficult to get into a shooting rhythm.
The upgrade system is the most interesting aspect of No Mercy, but it messes with the already tenuous balance. By earning kills and picking up power-ups spread across the maps, you can level up your guns, which makes them more accurate and powerful. These upgrades disappear each time you die, but there are permanent rewards you can earn by playing longer. If you chalk up a few hundred kills online, you unlock even more powerful weapons, as well as mods that give your character special abilities. You can only equip two mods at a time (one active and one passive), but they have a significant effect on the action. You can unlock a motion sensor, health regeneration, and even the ability to become invisible. Having upgrades to strive for is a cool idea, but the requirement to unlock the better tools is way too high, forcing players to log in hours upon hours to see the high-end offerings.
Despite a few good features, it's not worth dealing with No Mercy's unsatisfying gunplay, connection issues, and dearth of multiplayer options just to get your hands on a few unlockable items. The grating voice acting doesn't help matters either, with a near-constant stream of vulgar one-liners peppering every match. You'll hear "May the *expletive* rats eat your meat" so many times that the words will lose all meaning. There are a few hours of middling entertainment to extract from this comic-themed package, but other than the bargain price, there is little reason to play The Punisher: No Mercy over any other shooter on the PlayStation 3.