Genre: First-Person Shooter
Developer: Cauldron HQ
Release Date: November 14, 2007
If Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" had bullets and took place in modern times, it would probably be a lot like Activision's Soldier of Fortune series. Bringing saucy carnage to PC screens everywhere, the series turned an ordinary FPS experience into something on which Rambo and Robocop could have collaborated. A sequel would improve on the story of a mercenary sent to tackle impossible missions while providing an exciting online experience, but years would pass until a sequel was suddenly announced in time for the holidays this year. Soldier of Fortune: Payback brings back the over-the-top limb liberation, but the beaten, bloody path to which the gameplay returns is riddled with massive holes. It's probably telling that not a lot of noise was made about this game to get people excited, and that Raven, the developer of the first two Soldier of Fortune titles, has nothing to do with it.
The thin piece of paper masquerading as the manual gives you the basics and little else, such as why you are shooting strangers throughout the world as lip service is paid to the backstory provided in the first two titles, leaving fans to look forward to more post-Cold War mischief with even less to get excited about. Starting out in the Middle East, betrayal quickly reveals a hokey plot concerning oil and illegal weapons, complete with arcade boss battles against Teflon-skinned bad guys in bad suits. Although the end provides a hint that a sequel is on the way, I'm not as excited about that possibility as I had been when I started to play Payback.
Only one thing sets this FPS apart from many others, and that's the gore delivered by the tanker load. Arms, legs, heads — these can all be blown off of whoever has the cajones to step in your way. And yes, you can shoot those, too, and leave your enemies writhing in pain until they dump enough blood to supply several blood banks. Geysers of the red stuff erupt from the stumps left behind by your bullets as Havok's physics send chunks flying everywhere. Armless enemies will stagger a few steps before falling over, while legless foes will try and drag themselves across the ground in search of first aid. That's the lure of Payback, and it's probably the one thing it does best.
The basic controls are easy to get into, and if you've played an FPS on the 360 before, you'll be able to dive right into the action. The single-player portion provides about five to six hours of assorted body parts spread across locales that range from desert villages to a nightclub in Donetsk, which I suppose refers to Russia. Payback is great at giving you the names of foreign places, but it never tells you where in the world you might actually be. You can expect more of the same from the gameplay, with the barely audible vocals that occasionally try to make themselves heard to the uninspiring soundtrack that tries to make things more exciting.
Uneven visuals are found throughout the game, as some areas look great, like the mud brick walls of a desert village or overgrown, jungle ruins. And other things can look pretty bland, such as the flat textures on your weapons or the underwhelming special effects. There's also the occasional lag, even within scenes that don't have a lot of things going on, whether it's an exploding vehicle or an intense firefight. Enemy animations can appear jerky and stiff, aside from what the physics provide, but it can also be somewhat buggy as blown-off limbs occasionally stick to the ground and wave around like springs.
Payback's bad guys don't have much variety to them so you'll be leaving a trail of dismembered clones behind you. The levels range between large outdoor set pieces to indoor mazes, doing little to hide the linear trail that you'll be following. The game box boasts that you can get the job done your way, and some areas allow you to tackle enemies in one or two different ways, but there is really only one way to finish this fight, and that's by killing most everything on the level. There are no civilians to save, no clues to uncover, no PCs to hack, no alternate objectives to put a twist on anything here. It's as basic a shooter as you can get, and the poor story doesn't help it become anything else.
The whole idea that you're a mercenary isn't quite clear since you don't actually see any of the money that you might be earning, or have any idea who is hiring your outfit to go out and kill people in foreign lands. Cuts between each mission deliver an audio briefing via a cheap CG briefcase in a dark room that you use to talk to your "boss lady" as the actress reads from the script in front of her. Most of the dialogue in the game sounds as if it were being read this way, aside from the frenzied yelling that your enemies will be doing in their own local dialects.
When you start a mission, you have the ability to select your guns from a list that slowly grows, adding in one or two more guns for each category as you make your way through each one. Assault rifles, machine gun types, sniper rifles and even pistol loadouts can be changed to give you the edge that you'll need to survive. You can only carry one main weapon, a secondary, a sidearm and a grenade with you into battle, but you'll find plenty to pick up on the battlefield. There's even an option to add extra options to each weapon, which would have been interesting to play with, had Payback given me anything that I could actually use.
Your enemies are pretty dense and will usually come straight at you, or stay where they are while they wait for you to come out again, although the difficulty suddenly ramps up in the last few missions, thanks to the crack aim that the enemies develop as they snipe at you with shotguns from afar. Getting killed with only one or two shotgun blasts from down the hall becomes a frustrating "rinse and repeat" experience that is made even more confusing when you get hit in the face with an RPG round and don't die. Little things like this will keep you busy with the checkpoint system that the title occasionally uses to good effect, but thanks to the poor spacing between most of them, don't be surprised when you have to clear out huge sections of a mission again when you die.
Many other games give plenty of reasons for boss characters being able to take superhuman damage, whether it was because they had armor, were mutants, fought ninjas or simply had a crazy tolerance for pain. In Payback, you just have to assume that they're all Terminators. Most bosses can be killed at a distance, as they hide behind a corner with an elbow or knee sticking out, or pop up from a vehicle as if they're on springs, but there are one or two others that actually make an effort to be mobile. All of them absorb the kind of damage that can shred cars. Actually, scratch that —you'll find out in the first level of the game that it takes far fewer bullets to destroy a car than a boss wearing a bad tie.
The worst offender is the fight against a grenade gun-toting maniac who seems to be Wolverine's long-lost Irish cousin. Wielding a machine gun and filling his head with a hundred bullets won't put him down, but it might actually stagger the guy; all the while, his grenade launcher can instantly kill you. He's not made of liquid metal, isn't wearing fancy power armor or the newest duds to make the rounds among private military contractors nowadays, but he might as well be. You can expect to relive this wonderful moment several more times, since he can take more damage than the exploding cars you were able to destroy several levels before. Blowing up a car next to him won't faze him much, either, but it will screw you up if you're nearby, since his tailor is apparently better than the one who supplied your gear.
Several other issues scattered throughout the production had also crushed whatever hopes I had that Payback would become more than a mediocre shooter. Cut scenes are poorly acted out in-game and fail to give any depth, making me silently wish for Black's live-action interludes. One level sticks you in a brothel as you track down a lead and apparently, it isn't unusual for clients to carry a small arsenal with them into the bedroom. Another scene has you chase down a fleeing mercenary while riding a truck. The only problem is, who is driving the truck?! It isn't you, unless you're using the Force. There are one or two promising stages, though, that hint at something that could have been great, such as the first level that pits you against enemies in a desert town or the chaos of a prison break in the middle of the jungle before heading back to the uninspiring action.
Online play fares a bit better, and Payback is loaded with a generous number of multiplayer achievements that you can collect. Up to 12 players can duke it out in game types, such as your usual Deathmatching, Capture the Flag, Elimination matches and Demolition, which pits two teams against each other in a race to blow up each other's base first. Unfortunately, a tiny selection of maps and occasionally laggy performance can hurt the fun that you might have, although it was easy to find a few servers on which to play. Much of this experience can come off as Modern Combat lite, however, right down to the desperation death maneuver where you can whip out your pistol and gun down your foe before he realizes you aren't quite dead yet.
It's impossible to recommend Soldier of Fortune: Payback to new players or fans of the series, like me, who have been waiting for a sequel since Double Helix on the PC, especially when titles such as Call of Duty 4 are available for the same or similar price and deliver a far better experience in every way. Payback's gore over gameplay bulletfest is a bitter disappointment on several levels from a story that's MIA, voice acting that sounds phoned in, shotgun snipers and android-like bosses with titanium craniums. It's a terrible way for a promising series to end up in its debut for the next generation, that instead of at least in pretending to be COD4's bloodier cousin, Payback comes off more as the black sheep about whom no one wants to talk.