There's a certain breed of PC game in which the opening words elicit an incredulous reaction in a player. That reaction is something like this: "What does that even mean?"
Although apparently spoken by someone for whom English is a first language, the opening sentences encountered inside Bet On Soldier's gameworld lack sense or diction. (This is after the peculiar and disjointed scene-setting sequences and inside the game proper.) If and when you sit and think about how those lines should have been delivered they begin to demystify. But you shouldn't have to decode nonsense: if someone is going to produce a book, film, or game, then they'd better be sure that the first thing people see, read or hear isn't simply sub-literate gibberish.
Likewise, packaging your central character as a kind of Jean Claude Van Damme over-dubbed by Bruce Campbell might make sense in the realms of pulp marketing, but in the land of Actual Reality it comes off as the kind of cheese that is too pungent for even the most malodorous Frenchman's sandwich. So begin the problems for another first-person shooter off the PC production line. Its genes weren't ever going to give it a head start in life, but it looks as if the education and upbringing have failed it too. There's a one-way ticket to the trailer park waiting in BoS' future.
So things are off to a less than useful start.
And so it continues. The Bet On Soldier story unfolds like one of those pocket maps that's falling to bits from overuse. It's a future of war, and you have some reason to want revenge, for which you're also caught up in a Running Man killer-TV show. It's a 'classic' action framework, but it arrives as a very strange add-on to what is otherwise a clunky, post-apocalyptic war world. Some of you more observant PC shooter types might remember Iron Storm, the World War One-Forever game from a couple of years ago. Iron Storm was memorable for looking suitably grim, and having beautifully vicious weapons, but getting just about everything else wrong. Worst of its failings was the awful balance of the weapons (something that BoS shares in drones) where even the most vicious assault rifle would need to empty a clip to kill a dog. Well, Bet On Soldier seems much like the same game, rescued from the hole in the desert where they bury the failures, and revitalised with an injection of colour and gambling. Gambling? Yes. All your actions in game are based around how much money you have. While there's a war on, there are also convenient terminals for you to buy new armour and ammo. "Sorry gents, I'm just stepping out of the firefight to get a new helmet..." The more you kill, the more money you get. It's a weird scenario that seems deeply contrived. Why, when you are struggling for survival in a world of hate and death, is there a TV show being made?
So you kill a whole lot. The weapons and impact all feels fairly robust, but people don't react to bullets as they should and combat exists in a parallel dimension of unlikely physics and stupidly robust men. Compare this, for instance, to the exquisite torso-bursting gun-play of F.E.A.R. and you see what a wide gulf BoS has to cross just to be a decent gun game. Don't get me wrong, Bet on Soldier is very much an average gun game, with all the shrugging and equivocation that such experiences entail.
Anyway, the gambling element sees you bet on how tough a boss opponent you expect to be able to kill in each section. Once defeated he'll thicken your wallet accordingly. These boss encounters crank up the barely noticeable television references, just to let you know that you are, in some obscure way, supposed to believe that you are in a crazy gameshow. The bosses are singularly uninteresting, and die like everyone else in the game, only after shedding a lot more hitpoints. It's deeply incongruous, and would be more believable as drama of some kind of profound mental illness: a soldier escaping from an endless war by somehow believing that he was the star of a TV show, perhaps? I don't know.
Bet On Soldier wants to be smart, and throws in some things like a riot shield which you can use as an extra layer of armour in the firefights. It struggles to innovate like a cat in a bag. But the basic problem, the one that it cannot escape from, is that there's no energy here, no threat and no weight. The fights all follow the same course and baddies offer no believable sense of danger. You don't care about the incoming bullets, and always have enough money to buy yourself out of death.
As an amusing aside, I should mention the enemy soldier 'barks', where they let you know that you've been spotted by yelling 'to each other'. During one moment of mannequin-slaying trench war I jumped out from behind a wall to the cries of "there he is, get him!" I jumped back behind the wall and heard "where is he? We've lost him." Jumped back out: "there he is!" And back: "ach, we lost him..." And so on. Looks like the reality TV of the future really will have installed 3-second memory spans in the brains of its viewers. Perhaps they're better off that way.
So, what were we talking about again? Ah yes, the attempts at war. There are a few moments when the game seems to offer something more. Beautiful stompy mech 'bots make an appearance, but even their cameo can't save the performance as a whole. If the entire game had evolved in their shadow then perhaps there might have been something more to recommend in here.
Because Bet On Soldier isn't without potential - the brutalist martial environments are fairly pretty and might even be described as impressive in some instances. They're varied too, with lots of things to see and shoot. Guns aplenty, non-linear combat inside non-linear mission structures. But... the mere running around, pointing the crosshair, shooting... it's all just drained of life. Not even the option of mercenary sidekicks makes much difference, they just happen to be the chaps you can't shoot. And they die without consequence. Poor fellas.
Will you support Eurogamer?