Until about a week ago, I wandered through life confident that all limbs and extremities were firmly attached and unlikely to pop off without undue provocation. However, after ten minutes in the sweaty grasp of Soldier of Fortune: Payback, my certainty began to falter. If this game is to believed, the fact that most of us go through life without losing at least one appendage is close to a miracle. So terrified am I that I’m daren’t walk through my kitchen without the light on—a stubbed toe could end up in the loss of at least one leg.
Yes, indeedy. Soldier of Fortune: Payback is a game that loves shooting bits off people. Nothing wrong with that, considering the pedigree of the franchise—the previous two Soldier of Fortune games were notorious for over-the-top damage models, wherein a casual shotgun blast would literally rend enemies into little shreds. I played them both when they were released onto the PC between 2000 and 2002, and while the violence was extreme, it seemed to me to serve a purpose: namely, to show that war is never the clean-cut, sanitized version presented to us by the Halo and Call of Duty series. If someone is unfortunate enough to get caught up in a fragmentation grenade burst, they don’t merely rag-doll to the ground—there’s blood, guts and a horrible stain that doesn’t come out for weeks.
Joking aside, the ultra-violence of the Soldier of Fortune games was a powerful device, highlighting the disturbingly brutal and bloody nature of warfare, and giving something of an insight into the trauma that must be inflicted onto real-life soldiers every day on active duty. In my opinion, the games came across as a powerful anti-war message. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for Soldier of Fortune: Payback.
From the shoddy, threadbare plot to the awful scripted AI, everything about Soldier of Fortune: Payback seems carefully crafted to distance us from any possible anti-war sentiments we might otherwise have developed. Take the AI—wave after wave of enemies appear out of nowhere, either taking up static positions behind cover, or standing out in the open, firing at random. Enemies caught in the open make no attempt to move to cover, nor will they react if a grenade lands at their feet. The only enemies that every move are the ones scripted to charge at you, kamikaze style. And despite their ineptitude at finding cover, these poorly-trained paramilitaries somehow manage to achieve the levels of accuracy that crack military snipers could only dream of. Get used to seeing that terrible “red mist” damage effect on your screen—you’ll be seeing it a lot.
Frankly, compared to its peers, Payback is more like a FPS from the Doom era than a game released along with the Half-Life 2s, Halos and F.E.A.R.s of the gaming world. The plot is hackneyed, with the emphasis firmly on gung-ho silliness (and not in a good way). The irritatingly cheesy twists and turns in the insipid storyline begin with a routine escort mission turned bad, and wind their way through every cliché in the book, hitting each and every clichéd global location along the way. Just reading through the first few locations is like reading from the Game Developers Textbook of How Not To Do It. Dusty Middle East city? Check. Jungle level? Check. Contains obligatory temple section? Check.
Even the weaponry, supposedly one of the main draws of the game (if the back of the box is to be believed), is disappointing. Sure, there are a lot of different guns available, but, as they’re all hugely overpowered and poorly modeled, they soon become entirely interchangeable. That a pistol, a submachine gun and a shotgun are capable of tearing off limbs at long range means that the advantages of using each in their appropriate tactical situation is largely negated. Even my knife is capable of tearing off a head with a single swipe. When you can guarantee messy death with every weapon, the only concern you have about the gun you’re using is the amount of ammo it can hold. Payback achieves the previously unimaginable—it makes shooting stuff boring.
It doesn’t even look particularly nice. The graphics are somewhat similar to those of the 360 launch titles, in terms of texture detail and character modelling. This is no Mass Effect, to be sure. The NPC characters are dull and lifeless, and the locations are poorly represented. Clipping errors abound, with enemies ending up half-way through walls and the kamikaze-type combatants ending up stuck on obstacles with depressing regularity. And good luck playing this title on a standard-definition television—all in-game text is presented in glorious Eye-Straino-Vision font, nearly unreadable even on my HD set.
Soldier of Fortune: Payback is the product of an unfortunate combination of factors: a mistaken impression that ultra-violence for ultra-violence’s sake can excuse a lack of actual gameplay in a first-person shooter, poor presentation and production values, and an attempt to produce a lazy cash-in on an already well-established and successful intellectual property. I implore all readers to go out to their favorite game emporiums, stand in front of the Payback jewel cases on the shelves, and implore every man, woman or child who looks at it with intent to buy to resist and instead select any of the vastly superior warfare titles currently available. Paying good money for such low-return software is the beginning of the end of our hobby as we know it.