"The first thing we had to do was deliver a game that was much, much, much better than the original," says Julian Widdows, game director on 50 Cent: Blood in the Sand. "While it was a huge commercial success, I don't think anyone is particularly shy of that fact that it wasn't critically well-received. It wasn't the game people wanted."
Well, that addresses the first elephant in the room, at least. At a recent demo of a couple of levels of the latest product pimping Curtis Jackson's screwface, developer Swordfish Studios got straight to the point. We welcome an honest answer, and it saves us the trouble of describing Bulletproof's gameplay as being akin to getting kicked in the cock by Satan's cloven hoof. If we can't be blunt when talking about a 50 Cent game, when can we?
According to Swordfish, 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand is built on six pillars: gunplay, interactive counter-kills, your G-Unit buddy system, online play, music and the levels featuring driving and flying. The last three are being kept under wraps to some degree, but considering the amount of exclusive content that came with the first game, anything less than multiple music tracks, remixes, videos and a new soundtrack is going to feel like the fan has been stiffed. We're also a little dubious of the driving and flying levels, especially when you consider they only make up three of the 24 levels in the game. We can't judge because we haven't seen them, but memories of token car chases stuffed into games to tick a check-box give us the shudders.
So, onto what we have seen, and what we can judge so far. Like the first, Blood on the Sand is about excessive gunplay in linear environments. The hub section from Bulletproof has been thrown out, which is no great loss, as Swordfish pumps up the arcade experience further. It looks and plays similar to other Unreal Engine third-person shooters, with an over-the-shoulder view, a cover mechanic and blindfire. But Swordfish wants to reward the player who's not afraid of a little lead poisoning, and who's brave enough to go barrels-first at the enemy.
"The key difference between this and something like Gears of War is that we actively encourage open ground play. We don't force the player into cover and keep them there. We allow them to get out of cover and dive into combat and get engaged in the balls-out action," offers Widdows.
Points are awarded for headshots, blowing people up with explosives, open ground risks, and with secondary objectives the game hurls points at the player, "almost like pinball, where you get the bigger awards for the combos," says Widdows. Cash and jewelry left by corpses can be spent on weapons and counter-kills, and the game also throws scenarios at the player - shoot a set number of enemies, gather enough loot, leg it through a level in a set timeframe - to acquire grenades, mines, Molotov cocktails, and other explosives that can only be snaffled through this risk/reward mechanic. Build up enough points and you also get to switch to 'Gangster Fire' mode (stop cringing) where the world slows down but 50 continues at his usual 100-miles-an-hour running pace, acting like a smartbomb on the enemies.
Which brings us to the second elephant in the room - the gameplay is very reminiscent of The Club. And although screenshots aren't showing it yet, the presentation, HUD, logos, and character design also bring to mind Bizarre Creations' manic shooter.
It's an observation that isn't lost on the developer. "We were actually doing this before The Club was shipped," details Widdows. "The Club was track-based and everything was done to a time limit, whereas this is a linear, narrative, set-piece-driven shooter, with a point-scoring combo system. The original inspiration was to do for shooters what Diablo did for RPGs," he says. Time will tell how the finished game turns out, and to be fair, if you're going to borrow ideas it's always wise to borrow from the best.
Counter-kills are quick-time events, where pressing B during close combat initiates a move that's about as subtle as a flare gun to the testes. 50 steps to his enemy and stabs them in the face a couple of times, and then sticks one in the belly for good measure. It's graphic even by videogame standards. Once earnt, the 21 different counter-kills (which include stabbing a foe in the arse, tastefully - you've got to wonder about the designer who came up with that) can be assigned to a 'playlist', so you can have a number of your favourites on hand. Oddly, the player doesn't choose which move to perform, it's decided automatically.
Players do get to choose a partner before each level - Tony Yayo, Lloyd Banks or DJ Whoo Kid - all of which think for themselves and act as wingmen. "We had a lot of conversations about the collaborative character, about whether we made it complicated where you could give orders, set tactical strategies, but we decided for a game that's so openly arcadey it didn't make any sense," details Widdows. "The player wouldn't really want to get engaged in that sort of thing."
What Swordfish is doing is having the non-player character work forwards of Fiddy's position, to give the illusion that you're both involved in the firefight and sharing the drama (rather than a AI buddy who lollops around in the background), and also to lead the player through the level design. The buddy doesn't play differently depending on which character you choose either; it's just a different skin and voice-over according to Widdows: "We didn't want the player to have to restart thinking they made the wrong decision". The better news is that, when they go online, players can jump straight in as the second character to make it a true co-op experience.
And finally, the third elephant in the room. The one wearing a balaclava and holding an AK-47: the locations, the environment with its arched doors and Arabic-looking script. The enemies in head-scarves. The Blood on the Sand moniker. Is this 50 Cent taking on the Taliban? Is this Fiddy Fights Iraq?
"Blood in the Sand does suggest it's somewhere sandy," says Widdows. "That's the subtitle chosen by the marketing teams in the US and Violator (the management and record label responsible for 50 and G-Unit). But the bad guy you fight is an American. Most of its henchmen are Russian."
"It's a pastiche of warzones. There are definitely Eastern influences in parts of the game but the art team wanted to create something that could have been anywhere from the Baltic states to a Persian influence. I think it's pretty much impossible to put it in one place," adds Widdows. For the record, we asked a spokesperson from publisher Sierra if the company would address this issue further, but it declined. It might want to be a bit careful with the way it's marketed - kids look up to 50, and those locations might be seen as insensitive - but then it's not like his musical and movie output is any more subtle.
Like Bulletproof, Blood on the Sand isn't a game about hiphop or rap music, it's a bat-shit shooter where the main character happens to be an international rap star. There's an element of the macho, pecker-waving gunplay that puts it in the same bracket as Army of Two and Gears of War, but those games also delivered very solid shooter mechanics and more than a few hours of entertainment. If Blood on the Sand delivers the tight, arcade shooter its makers are hoping for, that should hopefully shine past 50 Cent's ego, his iced-out character, and the marketing dollars that surround a rap icon.
50 Cent: Blood on the Sand is due out on PS3 and 360 in the autumn.