Soldier of Fortune: Payback
I have to admit a certain weakness for gratuitous videogaming ultra-violence. Whether it's men running about on fire, hapless goons sent flying by a well-tossed grenade, or just the satisfying results of a close-range shotgun blast, there's just something immensely satisfying about a well-realised, macho-fuelled videogame. It's the same feeling of bizarre enjoyment you get from watching '80s classic, Commando. Dark Sector and Condemned 2 are two efforts covered in this feature that both score highly on the testosterone scale, whereas Soldier of Fortune: Payback is the stark opposite: exploitatively awful trash.
It's all about the 'gore' innit? The game's designers are clearly obsessed with it, to the point that the enemy AI is completely nerfed in order to maximise the level of gruesome fatalities you'll inflict on the range of stereotyped minorities you'll ruthlessly execute during your global travels. Half of the opponents you'll face in this game prefer to run at you rather than stop and shoot you - a creative decision by the game's producers to maximise the amount of short-range kills and the explosion of 'gore' that ensures. By 'gore' we actually mean disappearing heads and red mists masquerading as spurting blood, though if you have a fetish for missing limbs, you'll certainly get your money's worth from this one.
Developer CauldronHQ seems to have spectacularly missed the point when it comes to amusingly graphic in-game killings. They only work as a pay-off to a genuine piece of gaming skill or as a final 'up yours' to an opponent that has really tested your skills as a player. Soldier of Fortune's relentless barrage of missing limbs, absentee heads and misty blood-letting is just too obvious, too easy, too boring. Combine all this with a by-the-numbers FPS game design notable for nothing other than its beautifully rendered jungles and you have a game that richly deserves its original 3/10 review score.
It's true to say that the game's looks are pretty much the only thing it has going for it. From a technical perspective, Soldier of Fortune: Payback looks to be using Epic's Unreal Engine 3 to provide its surprisingly impressive visuals - it's difficult to tell as unusually there's no UE3 branding anywhere in the game or on its packaging. Certainly, its initial 'kill tons of Arabs' level is a dead ringer for the similarly themed debut stage of Blacksite: Area 51, utilising an uncannily similar range of visual effects. There's also UE3's signature lack of anti-aliasing on the PlayStation 3 version as further evidence.
UE3 can be capable of great things on both console platforms. The Rainbow Six Vegas games are essentially interchangeable between 360 and PS3, and Army of Two is another cool release that offers much the same experience on either piece of hardware. Unfortunately, titles like Medal of Honor Airborne, Turok and especially the excruciatingly terrible Blacksite: Area 51 show that UE3 titles can underperform on the Sony platform. Soldier of Fortune: Payback definitely falls into the latter category. There's a hell of lot of detail in the stages here and while the Xbox 360 version manages to cope for the most part, the PlayStation 3 code features a hideously variable frame-rate that manifests right from the beginning of the very first level.
While the PS3 game never reaches the slideshow-like extremities of the genuinely appalling Blacksite, you still can't help but get the feeling that you're missing a lot of the action due to the ever-changing refresh rate. Matters aren't helped if you have your PlayStation 3 hooked up to a 1080p display. Yes, there's in-game upscaling (which looks pretty good) but it introduces another performance hit (albeit minor) to an already sloth-like frame-rate - yet another reason to have your XMB set to 720p even if you have a 1080p display.
Basically, Soldier of Fortune: Payback is a lamentable release where the game designers' ghoulish pre-occupation with death and dismemberment actively works to adversely impact the quality of what was already an immensely pedestrian shooter. Indeed, I think the only genuine entertainment I'd ever derive from this game would be reading Anne Diamond's review of it.
SEGA Superstars Tennis
Some good work here from Sumo Digital, once again proving that not only is it capable of handing in some great games, but also that it intrinsically understands what SEGA is all about - the look, the feel, the sheer essence inherent in a certain style of videogame that the erstwhile arcade masters alone continue to champion.
At its most basic level, SEGA Superstars Tennis is fundamentally a cut-down, more accessible version of Virtua Tennis 3, but unlike the woeful NFL Tour, this actually works due to enhancements in other areas. The gameplay complexity of its parent game has been replaced with more variety between the characters, massively more interesting stages and a stronger sense of fun. VT3 masters may well bemoan the lower aim of the developer's ambitions here in terms of the intricacies of the gameplay, but the majority of the parent title's DNA is still present, and as such, it's still a hell of a good game of tennis. Not only that, but as an affectionate homage to SEGA's prolific - if latterly commercially unsuccessful - properties, it's obviously in a class of its own.
Technically, SEGA Superstars Tennis is interesting in that it's the first time that Sumo has taken on both PS3 and Xbox 360 coding duties for a premiere SEGA product, the developer having 'only' handled the Microsoft port of SEGA Japan's AM3-derived Virtua Tennis 3. The good news is Sumo hasn't let us down whatsoever, handing in a cross-platform release that is equally as good regardless of the console it is playing on.
However, unlike VT3, there's no love here for 1080p, nor for 60fps gameplay. On the plus side, both versions run at 720p with a truly solid 30 frames, and the finely anti-aliased graphics scale up very nicely to 1080p on the Xbox 360 rendition. Aside from a slightly different anti-aliasing technique (which still looks decent in this case), the PlayStation 3 version is basically identical, but there's zero support whatsoever for those with 'Full HD' 1080p displays - so in that case, quality is down to the quality of your screen's in-built scaler.
Overall, SEGA Superstars Tennis is a fine game and it's good to know that even in the wake of the Racing Studio's recent closure, the UK still has a development outpost that 'gets' what SEGA is all about, never failing to hand in consistently good games of such quality that they could have emanated from the AM labs themselves.