50 Cent has been shot nine times. Did you know that? It's possible this fact has passed you by, since Mr Cent doesn't like to make a big deal about it. Apart from, you know, when he brings it up in interviews. Or on his albums. Or uses it as the basis for his autobiographical movie, Get Rich Or Die Tryin'. Or for the revenge-fuelled plot of his videogame, Bulletproof, which slunk onto consoles this time last year.
And, lo and behold, as the opening level of Bulletproof's reworked PSP version comes to a close, poor old 50 Cent gets shot once again. In the back. Nine times. Seriously, what are the chances?
Def Leppard Jam
The ubiquity of the 50 Cent myth can make it hard to cut through the kneejerk reactions to focus on the relative quality of the game. Hardly a figure of respect within informed hip-hop circles, his skills as both lyricist and emcee are not the stuff of legend. "Got the magic stick, I'm the lurve doctor," he croons on Candy Shop, and if that's not the hip-hop equivalent of "I suppose a rock's out of the question?" then I'm Big Daddy Kane. No, Curtis Jackson's elevation to the hip-hop firmament has not come about because of his dubious talents on the mic.
What 50 Cent does have is a marketable cartoon persona and the backing of both Dre and Eminem, both of whom reprise their roles in this "G Unit" edition of Fiddy's console brawler. Presumably the "G" stands for Gauntlet, since that's what the game has now become. The third-person ultraviolence of the console version is now viewed from a top-down perspective that will be familiar to anyone who hammered their way through the dungeons of Midway's classic button-basher. Sadly, the sparsely populated game never comes close to the overwhelming odds of that arcade legend and, worse, we don't get to hear 50 bellowing that "red wizard needs food". He does bark "I ain't playin' this shit," rather a lot though, which really is tempting fate in a title this forgettable.
The shift in viewpoint is both beneficial and damaging to the game. It eliminates a lot of the fussy aiming and control that marred the title previously, but it also leaves you with precious little warning as to what's coming up next. Mission objectives only appear on the map when you can see them on-screen anyway, so on the few levels that aren't depressingly linear you can expect to do a lot of running around while you search for the exit. The pointless map doesn't even show the location of enemies so you spend the whole game running blind - trusting in your trigger finger to deal with any enemies that appear on the edge of the screen.
Not that these pop-up foes are a problem, as this is one of the most shockingly easy games I've played. Holding down the right shoulder button locks on to the nearest enemy. Holding down the X button unleashes a stream of piping hot caps into their ass. As far as visceral satisfaction is concerned, the first time you send a gangsta hurtling backwards in a shower of gore is a guilty pleasure. The tenth, twentieth, hundredth times... less so. If ever a game suffered from diminishing returns, it's this one. Once an enemy is killed your lock automatically shifts to the next enemy, so it's quite possible to defeat small clusters of bad guys by simply holding down two buttons and waiting for the inevitable. Each shot deals damage, of course, though hit points pop up in a lightweight RPG style. There's no apparent reason for this information, since there's little consistency to which weapons deal most damage. Some enemies can be defeated with three pistol shots from afar, while an identical opponent can take five point-blank shotgun blasts before he keels over. And it's not a body armour issue - there are shirtless Hell's Angels in the game who apparently have titanium torsos.
For those who like to mix things up, you can get up close and press the circle button to grab an enemy. You can then use them as a human shield (a feature new in the PSP version) or just keep the circle button held down to perform an execution. Alternatively, pressing square while an enemy is attacking activates a counter-kill move, which disarms the assailant and splatters them with their own weapon. Both these moves are embarrassingly easy to pull off, and don't even deplete your ammo. In other words, when you're standing close to an enemy, you can press any three of the face buttons and stand a pretty good chance of killing them instantly without losing any health or ammunition. It doesn't help that the enemy AI is bottom of the barrel stuff. Whether running directly towards you, or blithely wandering around without noticing you, the threat only comes when you're dumb enough to let them gang up on you. If you die once before level five, even on "gangsta" difficulty, you should probably just stop playing videogames.
As in the console version, dead bodies can be brutally molested to dislodge cash and bling used to buy equipment back in your 'hood, or to unlock multimedia content. It's not entirely clear why you'd want to do this, though. Most hardcore 50 Cent fans will already have his tunes ripped to their PSP in better quality versions than the rather tinny in-game soundtrack, while the option to spend your ill-gotten gains on genuine G Unit clothing is somewhat redundant when your character is reduced to an inch-high figure with no discernible detail. Creating your own in-game avatar is worthwhile in something like San Andreas, where you can actually appreciate the result, but why you'd want to spend three thousand virtual dollars on a pair of tiny digital trousers is a mystery.
Shrewd gamers will soon figure out that if you make a point of collecting cash from most of the bad guys you blast, you can exit each level with well over $5000. If you can stand to listen to the same three tracks looped over and over, and don't mind if 50 goes without a new t-shirt, this is more than enough cash to send you back into the fray with a full stock of weaponry and military armour which will keep you unharmed for the bulk of the next stage. Ammo or pants? Body armour or baseball cap? If these sound like the sort of decisions that might genuinely trouble you, you're clearly more gangsta than I.
The biggest sin that Bulletproof PSP commits is that it offers up a potentially interesting combat engine and then places it in a game where you never really need to make use of it. The ability to grapple enemies, or use counter-attacks, is interesting. The array of weaponry on offer is impressive. Yet there's never any compelling reason to use them, other than for your own amusement, staving off the creeping boredom by seeing what each new kill might look like. The action never varies from monotonous shooting and brawling, with the enemies - whether they're burly bikers or cleaver-wielding triads - all acting the same. Even the half-hearted puzzle elements remain undernourished, with very rare bouts of button-pressing required to open doors before the murder and mayhem continue.
The multiplayer modes deserve some credit, as fans will no doubt get off on the prospect of playing Deathmatches and truncated Capture The Flag sessions while in the guise of 50 or Slim Shady, but the maps are unlikely to inspire anyone with real multiplayer experience. Like the single-player mode, it never delivers anything more than the bare minimum expected in the genre.
Much like 50's music, Bulletproof's G Unit edition seems designed to appeal to those who want unadorned thuggish thrills, unencumbered by such pansy-assed flourishes as depth, intelligence or wit. It's gaming as a blunt instrument, and while there's a brief flicker of amusement to be had from such unreconstructed Neanderthal entertainment, there's no reason to invest any serious time in something so basic when far better action experiences are already available for the PSP.