I’ve stated in the past that one of the sure ways to make a great comic book game is to marry a particular license to a pre-existing game franchise that just simply fits: Batman Begins for example is simply Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell with a Batman skin; Batman: Arkham Asylum and Acclaim’s Shadow Man have a lot in common with Nintendo’s Metroid Franchise and THQ’s The Punisher, the third game to carry that title, could easily be described as little more than a Max Payne clone, which prior to the release of games like Resident Evil 4 and Gears of War, was the gold standard to on how to do third-person shooting in a video game. To dismiss The Punisher (2005) as little more than a Max Payne knock off would be doing the game developed by Volition a huge disservice. Even though it does feature a hard-boiled vigilante who mows down gangsters and can dive while shooting, this is above all else The Punisher game to end all Punisher games and has sadly yet to be followed-up or topped.
With a story credited to Garth Ennis, who helped revive the series under the new dissolved Marvel MAX label, The Punisher (2005) can be seen as both a game clearly inspired by that take on the character as it shares the same dark, violent and often humourous tone, but also a pseud-sequel to the 2004 film that starred Thomas Jane, who also plays Frank Castle/The Punisher here. After being captured by police and taken to interrogation, The Punisher recounts the events that led him to being caught to police detectives Molly Van Richtofen and Martin Soap. The line of questioning reveals the pieces to the duo that someone intimately involved with the events that made Frank Castle The Punisher is back with a vendetta of his own to fulfill and has perhaps been pulling the strings from the behind the scenes. As The Punisher (2005)’s narrative is told through a series of flashbacks where the player is filled in to events by Frank, it allowed Volition to move the character through a myriad of different locations with just the right amount of context. One second you’re cleaning out a crack house for, as The Punisher calls it “target practise”, to a jungle island where you’ll have to stop a nuke going off and eventually you’ll catch up to the present and find out not only how Frank got to where he was to, but why.
If you were an apologist for 2004’s The Punisher film but only really because of Thomas Jane’s take on the character, you need to stop what you’re doing and play this game as soon as possible. In the context of the game, Frank’s family was still killed by Howard Saint and his neighbours from the film, Joan and Dave, show up, but this isn’t a Punisher who dangles someone and stabs them with a popsicle. When telling a Punisher story, it seems the best way you can go is one of two ways: you take things seriously and play the angle of Frank as a broken man, or you embrace the carnage of a character who straps a skull on his chest who carries around large-caliber weapons and takes no prisoners. Those who have read Ennis’ MAX run know that his take on the character falls into the second camp, and it makes for a very fun video game, especially if you’re a Punisher fan.
At its core, The Punisher (2005) is a third-person shooter that while a little bit dated by modern standards: it doesn’t feature an over the shoulder aiming system as Resident Evil 4 came out around a month before it, nor can you take any meaningful cover, however it’s still nonetheless satisfying to pick up a large arsenal of weapons, everything from dual-wielded hand cannons, a rocket launcher, a flame thrower and everything in between, and take to the streets to dispense justice in a way that only The Punisher knows how. What helps break up the shoot-outs is a surprising amount of humour, that is if you find dangling a terrified foot-soldier over a hungry shark funny, which I very much do, especially when it’s capped off with a dry one-liner delivered by Thomas Jane.
What is probably The Punisher (2005)’s most defining characteristic is the interrogation system that actually stirred up some controversy in that the scenes were deemed so violet that the rating was almost bumped up from an M to an AO, or adults only rating. To recover health in The Punisher (2005), or to save health, you can take every enemy in the game as a human shield. Once the battlefield is clear, you can then break them via a mini-game where you have to choke, slam, or other wise hold your gun to their head in a special spot of a meter until they break. Every once in a while though you come across a special target, identified with a skull over their head, and a torture opportunity similarly distinguished the same way.
These circumstances are the reason The Punisher (2005) almost got an AO rating and why in the final product, the camera pulls away and goes to black and white. Throughout the campaign you’ll press goons against cages where a rhino is charging at them, place their heads precariously close to the blades of a wood chipper, throw someone into a cremation chamber in a mortuary and many more which I dare don’t spoil. It gets dark, but at the same time the tone of the game overall is never really meant to be taken seriously which you probably would gather when you start a level in the dark because you’re hiding in a casket that you break out of and kill the entire crowd in a funeral for a gangster. In an interview with the website Polygon in 2014 about violence in video games, it was revealed that The Punisher was a mild success, selling over a million units, and a sequel was teased in a post-credits scene. Perhaps the reason why Volition didn’t get the go ahead to do a sequel is that they exhausted all their creativity with the torture scenes in the first game.
Prior to the release of Volition’s take on the character, The Punisher was adapted into video games as early as the NES, and while those ranged from mildly fun, like The Punisher on NES, to pretty terrific, The Punisher on Sega Genesis, none of those games really “got” the character the way Volition did. Capcom’s game which originated in the arcade but made its way to the Genesis, barely had any guns and LJN’s take on the game was a glorified shooting gallery. Here the guns never stop coming, the bullets never run dry and there’s plenty of guilty folks that need punishing. On top of being a great Punisher game though, The Punisher (2005) also manage to organically weave in parts of the larger Marvel Universe. Nick Fury and Black Widow will join you in missions, you’ll fight Daredevil’s arch-nemesis Bullseye in a boss fight and even visit Stark Industries where Iron Man makes an appearance. For those who are only getting into Marvel properties now thanks to the interconnected series of films and TV shows, it makes this game feel like it’s part of something bigger in the same way a cameo from one character from a movie showing up in another does in some of your favourite super hero movies.
This year we had a new Punisher introduced to us via the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil played by Jon Bernthal whose portrayal of the iconic vigilante was so universally beloved that they will be getting their own Netflix series. Given the newfound popularity of the character to a wider audience, it’s about time that companies start looking into The Punisher as a potential video game franchise once again. Given the refinements made in shooters both in the first and third-person since 2005, as well as the technology available to developers, now would be as good as time as any for a new Punisher game, and there’s no better template to look to than this outing. Until that day, or sadly if it never comes, solace can be taken in knowing that best possible Punisher game made it to market and it still holds up.
The Punisher (2005) is also available on the PS2 as well as PC, but for ease of play, the Xbox original copy is the best route. It’s backwards compatible on the Xbox 360 and runs without any noticeable problems.