The Punisher's "Welcome Back, Frank" re-launch was the last series I was into before I finally had to bite the bullet and cut myself off from comics for fear that I'd never have anything in my bank account again (it still hasn't recovered). Perhaps it's because my mind still clings to those last vestiges of excitement where I dropped a couple bucks every month just to get the next installment of one of the coolest and unapologetically brutal mainstream comics ever to be released, but I couldn't help but geek out as I slowly plodded through the video game equivalent of re-exploring the series in interactive form.
Plenty has been made of the game's special interrogations, and we even waxed ecstatic about the feature in our preview (where you can get a pretty decent run-down of the game's mechanics, which we'll forego here just to get into the meat of the review), but after a few hours, the draw of the game switches from indulging that merciless side of your psyche to a more strategic blend of racking up combos by using cover and planning out how you take on groups of enemies without getting hit while, yes, making sure you interrogate enemies to break them.
See, we hadn't spent enough time with the game during our preview to really get a handle on how it all worked, but The Punisher's point scheme is absolutely integral to the game if you intend to beef up your character to make it through the game at a semi-steady pace. The system works like this: killing enemies gets you points, as do interrogations and offing human shields that you take (either by killing or just knocking out, the option is at all times yours), and those points link directly to two things: end of level bonuses and upgrades to Frank and his weapons.
The bonuses aren't anything huge for those that aren't really into the comics. You'll get some comic covers and some nifty (and detailed) concept art sketches, but it's nothing all that amazing. The upgrades, however, are. They range from the normal armor, ammo and slaughter mode upgrades to attaching scopes, grenade launchers and bigger magazines to certain weapons to more advanced ultra-expensive upgrades like being able to refill life with each enemy killed. They actually change the way the game is played once you beef Frank up enough, because, much like the comics, you gain the bravado to charge into the fray, taking a few slugs along the way, and dispensing some ultraviolent justice.
It bears mentioning that while the game more or less sticks to the basics of the "Welcome Back, Frank" storyline, about halfway through the game, it starts to split off on its own little tangent, and it's not a bad thing, although the pacing of the game and, more importantly, the difficulty, get bogged down a little more with extra bulk. Still, for the most part, the levels and the storyline details are copied almost panel-for-panel from the comics. For comic nerds out there, the cameos by Marvel mainstays like Daredevil (or at least Matt Murdock), Nick Fury, Iron Man, Bullseye and The Kingpin are well-placed, but there's no real explanation of who Spacker Dave or Joan are.
The story, penned by Punisher scribes Garth Ennis and Jimmy Palmiotti more or less recounts the "Welcome Back, Frank" saga as a flashback while being interrogated by Detectives Soap and Lieutenant Molly Von Richthofen, and wraps back around for the finale rather impressively. The pacing is a little stuttered at first, usually with a kind of "so you did this and this and this, did you frank" and a fade to the loading screen, but towards the end the dialogue and the motivations for things really do add up nicely, and the payoff's well worth it.
So is the action, which never really lets up, and has enough variety to keep things interesting. Most of the time you won't deviate from the basic dashes from cover to cover while taking out hundreds of nameless thugs, but a couple of boss fights and an insanely fun knock-down, drag-out brawl with the human bulldozer called The Russian all through Frank's Apartment pepper the gameplay with some memorable moments.
That's not to say things are always a blast. Inconsistent enemy A.I. leaves too many cases where enemies (even bosses) just standing around without an idle animation wait to be killed are mere seconds from battles where some foes take active cover, blind-firing around corners and popping out at different elevations to fire back -- even practicing some very basic flaking moves in rare instances.
It's the little touches, however, that really sold the game for me, and it was only after the second play-through on Hard difficulty that I noticed things like being able to shoot guns out of enemy hands (they'll actually run and grab another one from nearby and continue to fight if you give them enough time), or the location-specific ragdoll-driven death animations (though the ragdoll still isn't anywhere near the reigning king, Psi-Ops).
Visually the game does a surprisingly good job of maintaining the feel of the comics, and it's not just in the recreation of some key environments. The texture palette, art direction and character designs are, for the most part, solid and some bits, like Frank's apartment/main menu where the pre-rendered zips around different sections just look downright awesome. I had minor quibbles with Det. Soap looking a little pudgier than I remembered, and the look-alike characters start to get a little old after a while, but it's nothing that detracts from the gameplay.
The framerate, however, can be rather bothersome. The game is probably about three quarters boxy, indoor environments, but when Volition decided to stretch things out a bit and heap on more characters or introduce outdoor locales, things can take a dip into chopsville. The chunky framerate can make things like precision aiming difficult, and some boss fights can almost seem like a chore because of the slowdown.
Luckily, the audio is almost always solid. Effects work packs plenty of punch through messy splurts and throaty weapons fire, but there were a few instances where effects were oddly missing -- including one of the biggest explosions in the game. The game also sports a few weakly-delivered lines and some characters seemed to appear only to say a few words and then disappear forever (Steve Blum's Matt Murdoch is a prime example). General thugs repeat things far too often (especially on the harder difficulty where you'll be interrogating enemies far more often to regain health). Tom Jane's reprisal as The Punisher is dead-on, though, and the marriage of Ennis' dialogue with Jane's gravely quips are a match made in heaven.
The music for some bits of the game like the title screen/main menu music that plays in Frank's apartment are quite well done, swelling with moody, orchestrated flair, but the main game music usually stays pretty average. There are some nice moments, like the Italian-style accordion and guitar flairs in a few levels while dealing with the Gnucci gang or the remixed electric guitar-driven remix of the main apartment theme during the Kingpin levels, but by and large, the music's forgotten as soon as it's done playing.
I'm still impressed with the level of respect and detail given to the reproduction of the source material here. This is quite literally the best comic to game translation I've ever played, and while a few technical hurdles still need to be overcome, for a first effort, things are surprisingly well-designed. The sense that Frank is a walking angel of death as he wades through gunfire is dead-on, the storyline is genuinely engaging (once it gets a little momentum), and the gameplay never seems to get old. If you're a fan of the comics, this is an easy buy, and if you've never really thought much of the series, definitely give this a rental. Hopefully more developers will do licenses justice like this one does.