One fateful day turned Frank Castle’s life upside down. When his family was murdered, he funneled all of his anger into a never-ending war on crime. Sound familiar? It should, it’s The Punisher after all. It’s also the plot for Death Wish, The Limey, A Time to Kill, The Crow, Kill Bill and a slew of other revenge fantasy films. And that’s the problem.
Upon his debut in 1974, the gun-toting antihero was considered revolutionary. He wasn’t Spider-Man or Superman or Batman. Those guys always make it a point to save lives, even those of their worst adversaries. Not The Punisher, though. He kills. He kills so no one else has to suffer his fate. But comics have changed since then. Instead of tales of unselfish heroism, many readers want dark and brooding and unrelenting violence. This attitude has forced publishers to send their heroes down dark, murderous roads, and now it seems like many heroes kill just because they can. Even Superman has traveled that path.
US: Jul 2007
Because of this, The Punisher’s role in the comic book world became passé. Worse yet, when the second adaptation of the comic hit the big screen last year, no one paid attention because they had seen it a thousand times before. It was fresh in 1974, but in 2004 it was a Hollywood cliché.
That same cliché has also been used in video games more often than I care to count. So I wasn’t all that excited when it was announced that THQ was going to publish a Punisher game. Then I heard that comic book writer and Punisher veteran Garth Ennis was going to pen the script, and I suddenly became interested in the project. But not as interested as one might think.
If you know anything about Ennis, then you know that he isn’t the most consistent of writers. When he’s hot, the Irish-born scribe can produce some of the best, thought-provoking fiction you’ll ever read. From Preacher to his run on Hellblazer, Heartland to Unknown Soldier, and even the criminally overlooked Pride & Joy all rank as some of the best comic book stories one can ever hope to read. But then there are the times he seemingly mails it in and panders to the lowest common denominator by feeding them ultra violent, thoughtless schlock such as Dicks, Fury, and The Authority: Kev.
When it comes to The Punisher, however, Ennis straddles the fence between the two sides. And his run, while loved by the fans, is truthfully hit or miss. There’s no middle ground. While the 12-issue “Welcome Back Frank” storyline truly captured the essence of the character and rightfully returned him to his roots, there were times when Garth went for an unnecessary gag in an otherwise serious book. Instead of a deep, violent (yes, it can be both) story heralding the return of Marvel’s original antihero, we received a shallow, violent, joke-filled tale of revenge and punishment.
And just when it seems as if Ennis is simply collecting a check, he produces gems in the form of Born, “Brotherhood”, “In the Beginning”, and The End. All stories that look through the violence (instead of focusing on it) and examine the man.
So you can hopefully see why I was worried about the video game. I mean, were we going to get giant transvestite robot assassins and ignorant incest, or were we going to get a story that showcased why The Punisher is so damn cool?
Luckily, we got the latter.
While not the most brilliant of stories, the video game brings Castle back to the basics of killing mobsters and drug dealers all while unraveling a plot to smuggle a nuclear warhead into New York City, so that’s a plus. Along the way he meets many mighty Marvel mainstays such as The Black Widow and Nick Fury, and though they aide Frank in his war, they really add nothing to the story and their roles could have been filled by generic counterparts. (As an admitted comic book fanboy, however, it is cool to see them included.) Additionally, they never actually help. They simply there for the fanboy “geek out” moments. Unlike Halo and its sequel which feature soldiers that will actually kill enemies along the way, Fury and the Widow just sort of pop in an out of the action to bark orders at the one man war on crime. They then leave you to complete an untold offscreen objective, only to return sometime later during the mission to bark some more.
Sadly, their missions never come into play nor do we ever see exactly what they were doing. It’s like, “Hi, I’m here… oh wait! Gotta go!” It would have been nice if players were allowed to chose their path or could unlock Fury and Widow as playable characters after completion of the game (which would have added some more replayability), but neither are an option here.
Another one of those fanboy moments came when I heard Castle was going to be voiced by none other than Thomas Jane, the actor who portrayed him in the film. Though this is not a movie tie-in (one look at the older, beefier Punisher illustrates this), Jane and the crew at THQ thought it best if the gruff-voiced actor played the lead once more. Sure, the adaptation wasn’t the best of comic book films, but Jane played the role with much respect to the source material and for that I salute him. Here he does it again, reciting his lines with the cold distance that Castle must feel for the world around him.
What sets this game apart from the rest of the revenge fantasy, shoot-em-up titles and makes it a Punisher game are the special kills. Because Castle is who he is, players are allowed to use wood chippers, sharks, curbs, drills, windows, steep drops, rhinos, fan blades, and dozens of other environmental hazards to interrogate would-be killers. After you have their information, you can opt to let them go (either for use as a human shield or to persuade his buddies to drop their weapons), or you can push the analog stick a little too far and murder him in the nastiest of ways.
When implemented, however, these extra gruesome kills turn the screen black and white (à la Kill Bill Vol. 1) so as to tone down the otherwise brutal death scene. Sadly, the game wasn’t always as such. In fact, THQ was forced into this so as to sidestep the dreaded A (Adult) rating. And while many gamers will no doubt begrudge the company for making the decision, it actually adds something to the game. No, really, trust me on this one.
There’s a Slaughter Mode where Castle can drop his guns, pull out two knives, and carve holes into the mobsters. This too is in black and white, and, combined with the colorless special kills, lets us take a peek into the mind of the killer of killers. To Frank Castle, everything is black or white. You’re guilty or you’re innocent. There are no shades of grey to mask yourself in. So these moments, though temporary, are pretty cool to see because we finally get to experience the world through the eyes of The Punisher.
Add that all up and you have a game that actually transcends the genres that it both birthed and was born into. A rare feat when most are content to produce just another sad, clichéd ripoff of the last sad, clichéd ripoff.