Let’s talk about justice. Not karma, that ineffectual slacker substitute whose “it all works out in the end, man” philosophy is akin to the suckers they give out at the doctor’s office. Nor am I speaking directly of the “monopoly of legitimate violence” that passes for the justice system. I’m talking about the better-in-theory-than-practice conception that underlies it, and the sense of righteousness it engenders.
Take Frank Castle, the titular character of Marvel Comics’ The Punisher, who was recently immortalized on celluloid, and now has his own video game. The backstory is that Castle’s wife and children were fatally wounded bystanders to a fierce gangland gun battle, and Castle subsequently swore revenge on all criminals. The dark embodiment of comic books’ underlying vigilante aesthetic, clad in a grim, black floor-length trench coat and his signature skull T-shirt, Castle is a remorseless killing machine. With nothing left to live for, he’s the Western equivalent of a suicide bomber, emboldened in his vigilante quest by a similar sense of righteousness.
Or is it egomaniacal indifference? The first line of the manual for the THQ game suggests, “this isn’t revenge … it’s punishment,” and, indeed, Castle’s attitude is as indiscriminate as Texas in applying his death sentences. Walking into a crack house, chop shop or mob bar, Castle rationalizes the coming carnage, reasoning nobody “decent” would be found there. “We just doing drugs, we’re not harming anybody,” one junkie exclaims, as Castle interrogates him by either choking him, putting a gun to his head, punching him, banging his face off the floor, or using the game’s special environmental techniques, such as putting a captive in the path of a charging rhino or in a cremation oven and turning up the heat.
If Castle seems brutal in his questioning, let me assure you that’s nothing compared to the game’s slaughter mode. Like Max Payne’s “bullet-time action,” the game slows down when Castle enters the time-delimited slaughter mode. Castle switches to his knives, with which you auto-lock on your targets and kill them with two throws from either hand — a handy, death-dealing skill in a room of assailants. Another feature allows you to quickly dispatch your enemies in cinematic cut-scenes when you’re within arm’s reach of them. During slaughter mode, these sometimes hilariously gruesome acts (tossing a guard and a grenade in a casket and closing the lid), become even more graphic, as Castle plunges his knives into various bodily apertures, or creates new ones. (So graphic, in fact, that the game company was forced to show slaughter mode in grainy, blurry black and white.)
The Punisher’s game play is very similar to Golden Eye: Rogue Agent, with style-point rewards for kills, improved by the game’s incorporation of bonus multipliers awarded when you rack up kills without being shot yourself, thus encouraging stealth. To this end, using enemies as human shields is quite necessary. But if play mirrors the latest Golden Eye installment, the tone is more in keeping with Max Payne’s film noir, down to the character’s laconic, Sam Spade-style narration. This undertone works, and makes up for the game’s somewhat static environments and straightforward play.
The graphic violence of The Punisher is sure to disturb many, but far more discomfiting to the video basehead is the underlying attitude. Interestingly, the game ends if you shoot an innocent (your above-it-all righteousness punctured by guilt, presumably). Such black-and-white thinking is de rigueur for a game, but the story’s theme of vengeance and Castle’s zealotry strike eerily close to home.
In contrast, it’s a sense of appropriately swayable loyalties that makes Mercenaries (LucasArts) the thrilling fun-ride it is. If The Punisher’s extreme violence acquires the dark ambience of Scarface, then Mercenaries is the equivalent of a Road Runner cartoon, even though equally realistically rendered. Part of it is the game’s exaggerated physics, which helps make explosions even more spectacular, and the game’s many vehicles commensurately more difficult to handle. Did I say vehicles? From tanks to trucks to antiaircraft pods, the game’s wealth of acquirable machinery sometimes makes it feel like Grand Theft Auto.
Set in North Korea in the not-too-distant future, the government’s been overthrown by the military and General Choi Song has accelerated the country’s nuclear program, prompting China, South Korea and an Allied Nations task force to enter the country. As the title indicates, you play one of three mercenaries (each with particular skills), airdropped into the country to earn bounties on wanted North Korean government figures and pick up pay for other tasks for the various factions, which in return also provide needed intelligence (echoing the semi-nonlinear chore-based structure of GTA). You must be careful how you order the tasks, because they generally involve other factions. You don’t want to alienate any one faction so much as to ruin a profitable relationship, especially the Russian Mafia, which runs a black market for arms over the Internet, and air drops whatever you need — from APCs to air strikes. (You pay with money you earn from missions and blowing stuff up.)
Mercenaries’ largely open-ended structure and skin-deep loyalties ensure a playful time, though it doesn’t hurt getting paid to blow shit up. It’s not as thought-provoking as The Punisher, which effectively conveys the comic’s ambivalence toward Castle, and both rewards you for abetting his blood lust and raises questions about any single-minded quest. As such, the games operate under opposite moral imperatives — from Castle’s selfless, bloody reign of “justice” to Mercenaries’ best-deal loyalties. The lesson here seems to be that crime doesn’t pay, but war does, and handsomely.Chris Parker is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org