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The Punisher

It's taken a while (well, a few weeks, but we're impatient like that) and we've finally got our hands on it. The Punisher. Without a shadow of doubt the most surprising thing about the game is that it's violent. Exceptionally so.

You already knew that, you say? We've got news for you. You may have read the words. You may have seen the screenshots. But it's only once the on-screen uber-violence is being directed by your very own sticky fingers that your jaw will finally drop at the gruesomeness of this claret carnival.

And rightly so: this is shaping up to be one of the most brutal videogames we've ever experienced. Granted, at heart it's a relatively straightforward third-person shooter, with a couple of snazzy add-ons including a Max Payne-esque dodge-dive and a zoomed, arm-mounted camera that works with all weapons.

But, more than this, it's a pitch perfect comic book realisation, where scenes of the cheesy and unrealistic are intermingled with action that would have the owner of an X-rated shop looking away in disgust. When we visited the studios of US-based developers Volition, they even hinted to us that the PAL version will probably be the goriest of the lot.

Apparently the inhumanity fests that are the Environmental Kills are a little too violent for the certificate they're aiming for in the 'land of the free' so they will be viewed in non-bloodlust-quenching black and white, Kill Bill style. Over here, it's safe to say that the game will be drenched in the red stuff and an 18 certificate is a dead cert. (Sorry.)

The Environmental Kills are the showpiece post-interrogation executions that have been earning the game a nice (or rather, nasty) little reputation: Punisher can identify characters with crucial information (from plot revelations to door codes and the like) and, wouldn't you know it, they always seem to be standing foolishly close to wood-chippers, industrial lasers, deep fat fryers, tanks of piranhas and... the list goes on. There are over 70 of these, uh, 'attractions' in the full game.

It's a simple case of grabbing the perp, dragging him over there and bashing the action key. Actually extracting info from the poor saps is a more delicate process - you have to gently move the joystick up and down to keep the stress levels of your victim high, without being overly enthusiastic and accidentally bringing them to a premature demise.

This has a direct effect on screen: for instance, with the piranha tank, you'll slowly be forcing the face of the hapless crim toward the tank, trying to hold it those crucial few inches above the waters surface, ever aware that the superbly cynical design of the control system coupled with your own nerves might result in a twitch of the thumb and then...

Thankfully though, all is not lost if you fail to extract the information, stuff it up and waste the sucker. Instead of a game over-and-repeat process, the game features a back-up system that means you can usually find another way to get through the level without that crucial elevator code or card-key - it'll just be a damn sight harder.

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