The Soldier of Fortune games have clung to the slender thread of infamy for one reason only - gore. A product of the late '90s FPS boom, the selling point of the original was that you could shoot the limbs off enemies using an arsenal of lovingly recreated weaponry. It wasn't bad, as such things go, but there were clearly better games around and they justifiably attracted most of the attention. A similarly average sequel followed in 2002 and now, apropos of nothing, here's a third instalment.
Once again, the only reason people will talk about is...the gore.
So let's talk about it. As in the previous games, your enemies are apparently made of plasticine and held together with sticky tape since they fly to pieces at the first hint of a bullet. And, as in the previous games, this gives the proceedings a certain ludicrous amusement factor. For about five minutes, at least.
See, the damage model doesn't seem to have changed since 2000. Every leg, every arm, blows off in the exact same way. Shoot someone in the head, and it vanishes. I mean, the head literally disappears and is replaced with a "spurting neck" polygon model. While the initial hilarity may be high, pay even the slightest bit of attention to the graphical detail or animation quality and an incredibly crude mechanism is revealed.
This shoddy craftsmanship is carried across to the physics model on the whole. If something explodes near a crate or barrel, the crate or barrel sails through the air. That's about as detailed as it gets. Anything more complex is either ignored (witness the impressive array of indestructible wooden fences) or simply breaks the graphics engine. There's a bit right near the start of the very first level where a truck filled with enemies races past you and comes to a stop around the corner. I lobbed a grenade at it, and the whole thing exploded. Pretty cool, thought I. When the smoke cleared, the truck was still there. Suspended in mid-air. Playing the same level again later, the exact same thing happened. Magic floating truck. Pretty stupid, thought I. Even the multitude of body parts splashing about the place are not exempt from the vagaries of this juddering physics simulation. Half the time, some rogue arm or leg will become embedded in the scenery and stick there, vibrating like a tuning fork forever. Ditto for the torsos and scenery that fall through the floor and thrash about like a goldfish on the carpet. Textures are clumsily painted in as you approach, and the frame rate frequently drops for no apparent reason, even when you're crawling through a dark tunnel with no enemies in sight.
Such quirks might be acceptable if the game itself was a cavalcade of entertainment, but it's possibly the blandest console shooter in years. Arriving after a period of innovation and excitement for the genre, when stacked up against BioShock, Resistance: Fall of Man, The Orange Box, Halo 3...Payback is left looking hilariously outdated. Levels are linear to a fault, full of doors that never open, buildings with nothing inside and passages that lead nowhere. You're funnelled forwards by pre-determined shoot-outs against enemies that only spawn when you reach a certain point. Your next objective is always marked by a floating white icon, so you just head for that, shoot everything in your way...and that's it.
The game uses the same health system as Gears of War, so you can soak up damage until the screen starts to turn red, and then you die. While this worked in a duck-and-cover game like Gears, in a game where your only defensive posture is crouching it renders the game incredibly easy. Your health recharges in about three seconds, so it's possible to just run around, back-pedalling and blasting away without ever really being in any danger. The only times the game catches you out is when enemies spawn right behind you - there's no map or radar - and its then you discover how the developers have attempted to make up for the lack of tactical challenge. There's no save option, and checkpoints are placed horribly far apart. Die, and you can expect to play a huge tediously scripted chunk of the level again. It's all horribly imbalanced, lurching between insultingly easy and frustratingly unfair with no real purpose.
Given such shortcomings, its no surprise that multiplayer is a waste of time. The expected game modes are present, but with only five maps and gameplay that rarely ventures beyond mindless run-and-gun screeching, there's no real need to check it out.
And then there's the question of morality. This is a game that is very much in love with the idea of shooting naughty brown people. The wafer-thin plot blabs on about terrorism in a macho gruff voice and uses real world locations, but it's little more than an excuse to mow down hundreds of cartoonish ethnic bogeymen, who come rampaging towards you, gibbering in their offensively impersonated accents. When you're not decimating these people, you're patronising them. Such as the subservient, fawning Asian slave who helpfully (and inexplicably) thanks you for not murdering him by handing you a keycard that accesses a vital oil "piperine". Yes, that's "piperine". Because he's Asian, you see. Me so velly solly. There's even an evil African warlord called The Moor. I guess they figured that just calling him The N-word would be too obvious, so let's be thankful for small mercies.
It's not the gore that's offensive here, it's the whole tone of the game. It's no surprise that Payback arrives on European shores with little fanfare since; despite being coded in the Slovak Republic, this is a game obviously designed to appeal almost exclusively to the American market. Specifically, those people who actually read Soldier of Fortune magazine, consider the Third World to be little more than a ragged, backwards sub-human terrorist factory and still believe that Saddam Hussein personally steered planes into the World Trade Center. The fact that you're playing a mercenary just makes it even more dubious - this is a man who kills for money, but here he is as a paragon of justice, delivering the payback of the title on behalf of a bloodthirsty passive audience that simply wants the vicarious thrill of gunning down some goddamn ragheads. The whole enterprise makes America's Army look like a subtle and objective exploration of world events. After five levels of violently dismembering dirty foreigners while my lumbering mercenary avatar growled about freedom and revenge, I honestly felt more than a little queasy.
Games set in and around the War on Terror are an inevitable fixture on the gaming landscape, but at least the likes of Call of Duty 4 and Full Spectrum Warrior couch their politicised narrative in a sense of reality, responsibility and - let's not forget - some pretty great gameplay. When Soldier of Fortune Payback isn't being generic and shallow, its being utterly crap and thus does nothing to mitigate its gleeful and deliberate xenophobia. This is gaming as lowest common denominator, feeding off a very unpleasant human urge. Whether you dislike the politics, or just don't like playing lousy games, there's absolutely no reason to give this gruesome farce your time or money.