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The Punisher: No Mercy
Graphics: 6.3
Gameplay: 7
Sound: 6.7
Control: 7.2
Replay Value: 6.4
Rating: 6.6

The PlayStation Network has been home to several exclusive gems thus far, as we’ve already had the pleasure of downloading and playing wonderful titles like Wipeout HD, Flower, and echochrome. We had hoped to add The Punisher: No Mercy to the list of exclusive PSN must-haves but while it’s somewhat entertaining; it’s not polished enough to warrant a hearty recommendation. We certainly had fun going through No Mercy and eliminating wave after wave of mindless enemies, and the multiplayer can be invigorating as well, but it all feels…well, a little outdated and uninspired. The problem is, although we recognize that it’s merely a downloadable title, we’re just so used to FPSs that are insanely technically accomplished on every possible level, so we can’t help but notice the obvious drawbacks in The Punisher. If there had been more of an emphasis on the single-player aspect, we might’ve been a little more forgiving.

Considering the nature of the downloadable format, one can’t really tear down the visual presentation. This is a full game – well, kinda – that’s only about 730MB in size, and yet, Zen Studios did manage to produce a title that looks surprisingly good, although it’s certainly not up to Wipeout HD standards. The environments are nicely detailed and although they’re not especially diverse, they fit well into the dark, forbidding atmosphere. The character models are easily the worst aspect of the visuals, as they almost seem out of place: if you get up close and personal with some of your foes, you might almost mistake them for being ripped directly out of a PS2 title. They contrast sharply with the backdrops but the good news is that you may not care; the blood really sprays when you’re in close-range combat, and for the most part, the arenas are mostly free of severe visual glitches and drawbacks. The game suffers from some definite frame rate issues here and there, but we’ll get to that in the gameplay portion of the review below. If you’re familiar with downloadable offerings thus far, you probably won’t be too disappointed in what you see here.

The sound is appealing thanks to some decent voice acting and a passable soundtrack arrangement. The sound effects get a little monotonous and aren’t balanced evenly with the music, but that’s a common issue that we’re willing to forgive due to the overall intensity of the gameplay. We certainly think Zen Studios could’ve tossed in several more tracks and expanded on the effects, though, and the constant one-liners offered by your character don’t add much to the experience. Honestly, I’ve yet to play a game where I’ve heard threats like “you can’t hide” and said to myself, “hey, that really enhances things.” There also seems to be a lack of crispness and clarity in some effects, like when you go to reload: rather than the customary, crystal clear “snap” we’ve become used to, we sometimes won’t hear the reload effects at all. However, this is a minor complaint and for the most part, the sound is similar to the graphics in terms of quality. They’re both good for a PSN game but we’ve seen and heard better in the downloadable world, and they should’ve come together to lift the immersion and fun factor to a higher level. Extra note: if you love the fast-paced gameplay, none of this will matter much.

Yep, fast-paced. That’s what The Punisher: No Mercy is all about. It’s a first-person shooter that revolves around the concept of nonstop entertainment; there won’t be any strategizing or thinking here! Basically, just run, aim, fire, hope you don’t die, and occasionally zoom in for increased accuracy. At first, the game reminded us of the TimeSplitters franchise, as we move smoothly through each environment, almost as if one were sliding on glass. This is an old-fashioned feel, of course, as recent next-gen FPSs like Killzone 2 have really added the sensation of weight and human physical restrictions to our movement. However, we certainly don’t have a problem with it and it’s a big benefit in a game like No Mercy…well, it would be a 100% positive if it weren’t for the lagging frame rate. Not only will you see examples of this in the sparse single-player Story Mode, but it’ll often rear its ugly head during multiplayer matches. Things can really slow down during hectic firefights and if someone is lagging, watch out. We’re no technical wizards, but we wonder if this is a defect that could be treated with a game update of some kind; if it’s possible, it should top Zen’s priority list.

Well, actually, extending that Story Mode should top the priority list. We should probably tell you that it only took us about an hour and a half to go through the Story campaign, which only consisted of four separate challenges. On the other hand, it should also be noted that this game really is all about the multiplayer – as most FPSs are – and Zen would likely ask you to treat the Story Mode as a tutorial/introductory sequence. You should go through it, just because you’ll unlock a few new weapons and upgrades, but you won’t be impressed when that “To Be Continued…” pops up after completing the final arena. But this does lead us to one of the more attractive facets of The Punisher: customizing your character. The further you go, the more you will unlock, and you can outfit your character with a primary and secondary weapon, along with Active and Passive add-ons that have a significant effect on your performance. You can select your character setup before heading out, but Zen made a mistake by not allowing you to switch your choices. See, if you quit the Story Mode at any time, the game will have auto-saved…but you won’t be able to access the customization screen for that particular level.

But that’s hardly a crippling drawback due to the very short length of the Story Mode. Thing is, even the Story segments are designed like multiplayer arenas, so in this way, it plays a lot like Unreal Tournament (it’s no irony that No Mercy is powered by the Unreal engine). Although you follow a brief comic book storyline, each gameplay portion has you battling swarms of enemies in a multiplayer setting: goals include winning a Team Deathmatch, killing off a certain number of baddies within a set time span, and fending off waves of attackers with a limited amount of lives. As you play, your weapon will be upgraded in power and speed, so there’s great incentive to nail as many targets as possible before dying. There are also various power-ups to find sprinkled around each level, so you can locate extra money, health, and increased speed for your character (a definite bonus). As you complete each section, you will unlock new character models and upgrades. Some of them are new weapons while others are features like Thick Plates (extra armor) and Sprint for Life. You can fiddle around with character settings outside of the Story Mode, ‘cuz again, it’s all about the multiplayer.

There is also a Skirmish and Co-Op mode to toy around with, but in the end, you’ll want to test your mettle against other human players. There isn’t much to talk about; it’s a straightforward, hectic FPS that has its fair share of shortcomings and feels a little older than it should, but it remains entertaining for a while. But for some reason, we get the feeling that either Zen Studios should’ve fleshed out the Story Mode or just focused on the online multiplayer (like Warhawk). The weapons are fun and mostly well balanced, the areas aren’t all that diverse but they fit the mood of The Punisher style, the action remains fast-paced and smooth (provided the frame rate doesn’t stutter too much), and for only $9.99, it’s not a bad purchase. However, the technical issues can be significant, the Story Mode is a definite disappointment, the multiplayer is entertaining yet a little lacking, and in general, it seems the game could’ve used a bit more time in development. Seriously, a “To Be Continued…”? Really? That’d be cool if we hadn’t only played for like an hour. In the end, The Punisher: No Mercy is one of those games where we just shrugged after our play session and went, “well, yeah, it’s fun. I guess.”

It’s just nothing special, that’s all. But if you want some simple, straightforward, fairly well done FPS fun for only ten bucks (and you don’t have to go anywhere to nab it, either), feel free to give it a shot. It’s a surprisingly fast download and you’ll be blowing away baddies before you know it. Just don’t expect too much.

7/6/2009   Ben Dutka