I'm pretty sure I've been shot more than nine times at this point, but in the grand scheme of 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, this is forgivable. After all, 50's wearing Kevlar (even on-stage, complete with grenades slung around his waist), and as the first game pointed out, he's bulletproof. It's certainly no more absurd than the story, in which 50 and chums are chasing down a diamond-coated skull stolen in an ambush by a balletic ninja lady. "Where'd she go? That bitch took muh skull," he laments, after he dives backwards over the bonnet of a Humvee firing an assault rifle, and sets off to shoot up a fictional Middle-Eastern country, which seems to be populated almost exclusively by terrorists, drug lords and weapons dealers with thick accents.
Of course, when Gears of War does things like this ("They're using a giant worm!" for instance), no one's sure if it's meant to be taken seriously. But when Swordfish Studios does things like this in Blood on the Sand, you end up with unlockable taunt packs rated by profanity, bragging and sexual content, and unlock special moves like Assassin's Wrath. "A combination of efficient jabs finished by a vicious neck snap, this jujitsu move will drop any fool to the floor." More macho IP for smirking British developers, please? Given some of the stuff that 50 and his choice of wingman - either Tony Yayo, Lloyd Banks or DJ Whoo Kid - yell at their enemies, they must be in on the joke.
The game itself is no joke though. The debt to Gears is obvious throughout, but it works. The clip-on contextual cover system is fluent and logical, and allows you to pop out and target easily, spraying the Unreal Engine 3 visuals with shots from your dpad-selected quartet of weapons, and Swordfish even lifts (affectionately, I'm sure) little touches like the way 50 goes into a forced walk to slow your heart-rate while he's receiving chatter through a headset. Given the context, tension-heightening elements like Active Reload and chainsaw melee are missed, but the alternative to the latter is the amusing "counter-kills", of which the abovementioned Assassin's Wrath is one. Press the melee button up close and you go into a brief quick-time sequence that sees 50 punch and eventually - with unlocks - gut and mangle people dumb enough to get within range.
But while the most obvious debt is to Gears of War, Swordfish's fellow Brits Bizarre Creations will recognise a tip of the doo-rag in a scoring system that owes more to The Club than anything on Epic's Sera. Whenever you cap an enemy, or do something else of note - a kill assist, taunting in battle, uncovering collectibles, etc. - you add points to your score and a little red bar appears along the top of the screen and starts gradually emptying, which is your window to keep the combo going. The more points you gain in a level, the better the medal you win at the end.
Fans of The Club will choke even harder when they realise there are even bull's-eyes hidden around each level to uncover as you dash through courtyards, up and down stairs and over rooftops chasing down your loot. Unlike Bizarre's underrated speed-shooter, however, post-level unlocks based on these discoveries are big news for 50's fans, including a bunch of exclusive new songs.
Early level and enemy design isn't exactly in either game's class, mind you: enemies appear from grey doors and take up obvious positions, rarely doing much besides dying co-operatively on the default setting, while environments are well-appointed but generic rundown streets and buildings. Swordfish makes good use of UE3 generally, though, with impressive fire effects and a frame-rate solidly above 30 - if not locked at 60 - for most of the time, and 50's likeness is very good, even if he sometimes has a puzzled-squirrel expression when he stands behind cover squinting out of the corner of his eye. Driving through the streets in one of the game's vehicle missions, while Tony Yayo rides shotgun (well, rides 50-cal), the draw distance is vast, and explosions convincing among the sun-blasted mud-brick houses, corrugated doors and wire fences, and the drive itself is comfortably executed, with some neat set-piece destruction and fewer pad-through-the-screen moments than, say, the Gears of War 2 ice-lake debacle.
And in some respects 50 is - perhaps fittingly - pretty old school. Besides the high-score mechanism, he has an actual health bar (sacrilege!), a Bullet Time mode (called Gangster Fire - you can stop making that face now), and a bunch of secret rooms and other trinkets to find. Apart from the hidden targets, there are stacks of cash-filled crates and ammo boxes to seek out by going the other way when you pop through a window or drop down off a ledge, and you even collect posters, some of which, wonderfully, are posters of 50 Cent himself. In addition to picking up guns on the go, you can also buy new ones at payphones, and they have copyright-dodging names like Desert Hawks and MC-10s.
I've been to a 50 Cent gig, you know. In-between cameos from the others in G-Unit (each of whom would sing about 30 seconds of some well-known song before it was shut down in a similarly copyright-skipping fashion by a ubiquitous gunshot sound effect), the whole thing was an advert for 50's albums, his film, his clothing and his food and drink sponsorship. It was amazingly brazen, but still somehow brilliant. 50 Cent: Bulletproof wasn't really much of either, but Blood on the Sand - despite the questionable setting - genuinely might be both, with a scoring system tied into tangible rewards, built around good old gaming ideas, and a sense of humour that belies the hip-hop game's usual bravado.
The weapon and level design could do with kicking up over the course, as by the time I left it there was a definite creeping ennui about another grey set of corridors, but interestingly this is not necessarily one to ignore on principle, and the promise of drop-in Xbox Live co-op is another plus point. We'll find out for sure later this month.
50 Cent: Blood on the Sand is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 20th February.