Version tested: Xbox 360
According to 50 Cent himself, the man you spend most of Blood on the Sand controlling had a lot of input into the game's design early on. Perhaps he's a big fan of Gears of War and The Club, then, because someone certainly was. This is a fast-paced cover shooter that riffs on both games and fills the gaps with unlockable melee combos, beefy weapons and exclusive music.
The debt's obvious from the end of the first cut-scene onwards. You control 50 from a tight, over-the-shoulder perspective, lock onto cover by hitting a button and lean over to aim by holding the left trigger. Whether manoeuvring through rundown buildings or crouched behind walls or cover points, the left trigger brings you into the zoomed-in firing view, with a reticule in the centre to line up your right-trigger shots.
Unreal Engine 3 games rarely look exactly the same, despite common characteristics, but Blood on the Sand is also a dead ringer for Gears on more than a few occasions, and not just in 50's bulky, muscular character model. The game's set in a fictional Middle Eastern country and the environments are the tortured, decaying aftermath of war, full of helpfully strewn concrete blocks, low walls, pillars and corrugated iron to hide behind. As with Gears, there's a set path through each level that takes in a few corridor brawls, and more open areas designed for mid-range cover combat. You're never in any doubt where to go, thanks to helpful on-screen prompts and convenient blockages.
Where Blood on the Sand appears to be charting a course away from Gears, however - perhaps fittingly, given the protagonist - it only finds itself in The Club. Successive kills - whether your own or those assisted by one of three AI counterparts - feed into a score multiplier, with hidden posters, crates full of cash and bull's-eye targets to snap at to bulk out your earnings. Points go towards unlocking more of the 40-plus-song soundtrack, while cash can be invested in new guns, melee kills and taunt packs.
There's nothing particularly original about any of it, but developer Swordfish Studios has done two important things right: the core combat is fast, intuitive and relatively graceful - certainly more Gears of War than Kane & Lynch - and the game plays out with tongue firmly in cheek. Right from the off, it's clearly ludicrous: 50 is on a quest to retrieve a diamond-encrusted skull from a local crime-lord, and has no trouble ploughing through hundreds of heavily armed terrorists and mercenaries, all the while he and whichever of his entourage you've chosen to flank him hurl obscenities above the crossfire. Once the area's clear, Lloyd Banks or whoever alerts you to this by observing, "We cleared them motherf***ers out," or questioning their masculinity.
It's absurd. Every crate is full of cash and every phone booth is an opportunity to instantly buy and switch up to more elaborate weaponry, including grenade launchers, RPGs, auto-shotties and monstrous assault rifles and hand-cannons. 50 takes it all in his stride, as a bulletproof action hero with superhuman accuracy and close-combat skills, battering anyone who gets up close with a succession of quick-time martial arts attacks and headshotting the rest before hiding for a few seconds to recover his generous health bar. Should you struggle - and you really shouldn't - there's a chargeable slow-motion "Gangster Fire" mode that virtually pauses the world around 50 so he can charge around at full speed restoring his advantage. New enemies entering the area are heralded by nothing less than a klaxon and a red "DANGER" message.
There's nothing here to worry Gears of War 2 - none of the more exotic and considered level layouts, movable cover points, or changes of pace - and your enemies are dimwitted and predictable opponents who rarely threaten you as the Locust can, while set-pieces like collapsing buildings and boss fights with helicopters are processional, but it doesn't matter: there are more than enough ridiculous, flying ragdoll deaths, bonkers taunts and comfortably brutal firefights to distract you, while the hit-and-miss hip-hop soundtrack keeps you up to date with 50's love of guns, New York and bitches. It's impossible to take seriously, and flippant to the point of being inoffensive.
There are a few drawbacks. Drop-in Xbox Live or PSN co-op works fine, and can be set to friends-only, invite-only or open, but the lack of split-screen is disappointing given the humour, and there are some minor technical issues. There's plenty of screen-tear in our Xbox 360 review code, characters clip into one another every now and then and your AI or human buddy often takes the most viable cover point when the game narrows - rarely a problem the more considered Gears had. There are also far too many gates to be opened, switches to be flipped and pointless rooms there to furnish you unimaginatively with more buckshot, bucks and bonuses. And throughout the campaign, the camera doesn't deal with certain angles very well, and rather than letting you pick a shoulder to fire from, you're switched from left to right depending on your position behind cover.
The absence of competitive multiplayer is also a shame, as the campaign is no longer than Gears or Gears 2 and less varied and thoughtfully constructed, with certain levels given over to forgettable, albeit harmless vehicle sections that see 50 tearing across town in a Humvee or firing a chaingun out of a helicopter, while the Club-style scoring bonuses are relatively superficial, and won't do much to tempt you back once you've reached the end.
So Epic can sleep easily, but on the whole 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand more than makes up for the wretched Bulletproof. Obviously us hacks try to avoid preconceptions when we approach any game, but after the first one hung the bar so low - and given 50's shilling for Reebok, Glacau, Right Guard and others - it's fair to say nobody expected much from this. Like Activision, for example, who couldn't be bothered to release it after swallowing original publisher Vivendi last year. More fool them, because while this is never amazing, it's a competent, enjoyable third-person cover shooter with a sense of humour.
7 / 10