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Soldier of Fortune: Payback Review

geoff_hunt By:
GENRE Shooter 
PLAYERS 1- 12 
PUBLISHER Activision Value 
DEVELOPER Activision 
M Contains Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language

What do these ratings mean?

More than suicidal tendencies.

I once heard from a very reliable source that Dick Cheney only feels aroused when he sees the blood of a terrorist. As such, Soldier of Fortune: Payback would give the man a raging hard-on. Crap, I just befouled your mind, didn’t I? Did an tumescent Dick Cheney go too far? Oh well, get some soap and scrub your brain. Because you’re going to need some practice before you’re done.

click to enlargePayback is about the travails of a mercenary in our modern climate of sectarian violence/terrorism/religious extremism/imperialist pig-dogism/Jesus, Bush, why?/I can never show my face in Europe again, awareness. Ditching the lovable John Mullins from the first two Soldier of Fortune games, you play as some douche named Mason. Mason feels like a ghost from a bygone era of video game main characters. He’s an emulation of Jack Bauer wedged into the ethos of Duke Nukem: grizzled voice but always ready to toss off a lame one-liner.

The first impression you’ll get is of blocky, lame menus. Even coming from a PC gaming background, it’s just sad. They do the job, but it’s the user interface equivalent of refusing to buy that new Prius because the 1950 Chevy Bel Air still runs. Your mileage will not vary here.

When you finally bludgeon your way past the clunky menu system, you’ll confront an even clunkier game. If you ever wanted to know what a first-person shooter from 1992 would look like upgraded to the modern day, Payback is that very game. Movement is floaty, and the lack of feedback drains any sense of impact in the action. Guns feel preposterously light yet are monstrously effective. Recoil apparently isn’t a problem for Mason. The controls are also laid out as awkwardly as possible, defying many of the conventions FPS games have agreed upon in a positive way. B is for bash, people, not clicking in the right thumbstick!

More concerning is the level design; many areas are built to look and feel open, with useless dead-end alleys that contain neither foes nor pick-ups. Yet there’s always obvious choke-points that you’re forced to go through. They could have just made a straight corridor run and be done with it - all the fake openness is more insulting than it is enjoyable.

The artificial intelligence is likewise deplorable. Foes are stupidly aggressive, rushing straight into the barrel of your shotgun every chance they get. If they’re at a distance or the pathway is blocked, they’ll stand in place and fire merely annoying bursts at you. Why bother taking cover?

click to enlargeGiven that two-thirds of the enemies volunteer for death and the other third stand around like sitting ducks, the game’s a total breeze. With the exception of a couple intensely frustrating challenges and the occasional batch of enemies spawning in places where you just shot their friends to hell, the game requires little more than a pulse to get through - and roughly six hours.

Boss fights in Payback are artificially difficult. Every single boss you take down is unreasonably tough, taking dozens to hundreds of bullets to kill and usually showing up to the fight in helicopters and tanks. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a classic video game cliché for a lone gunman to take down a tank or a helicopter, but here it’s just ridiculous.

If you happen to like obscene amounts of blood and gore, like our friend Dick,  then Payback’s wonderful. Most opponents have limbs that fly off at the slightest provocation with buckets of blood splurting onto the walls. And that’s just the first half-hour of the game. It’s done reasonably well, at least visually, but it’s so over-the-top that it comes across as a desperate attempt at silliness.

While I admit to laughing the first half-dozen times I blew some poor bastard’s arm or leg off, and watched him crawl or stagger away, clutching at the stump, it quickly became dull - and then it began to get offensive. After the first few cheap laughs, it becomes obvious that the game is disturbingly racist, and that it’s presented in light of what can only be called mega-violence makes it worse.

Every opponent you fight, except for one guy at the start, is a stereotype of a choose-your-non-white’s culture wrapped in the general heading of ‘terrorist’. I’m not one to be politically correct, but this is simply bad taste. When you wipe out an entire village of generic Arab folks, all of them men with keffiyahs and AK-47s, all the while listening to Mason mutter disturbing one-liners about ridding the world of ‘terrorist scum like these guys’, the game feels like a love letter to the concept of genocide. I am not easy to offend, and I can honestly say that this game offends me.

click to enlargeAll of this mucking around in foreign nations, murdering just about everything that moves, occurs in the most paltry framework of a story since Genesis Rising. After some guy betrays you in the first twenty minutes, you run around various nations tracking down every leader in the terrorist organization that hired him. Dull.

The only completely positive thing I can say about Payback is its graphics: excellent textures, some very slick field-of-view and haze effects, and some nice touches to the animation. It doesn’t set any new graphical standards nor does it have the same stylistic impact as Gears of War, but it’s a visually appealing game… when you’re not staring at dismembered corpses.

The essential problem with Soldier of Fortune: Payback is that it tries very hard to appear realistic while trotting out silly gameplay mechanisms. It’s hard to tell if it’s a serious shooter covering the military side of contemporary politics, or a parody. If the gung-ho jingoists of the government were to make a game, Payback is what they’d come up with. But there’s little reason to tag along: Save your brain a scrubbing, and just walk away.
D- Revolution report card
  • Blowing off every human extremity...
  • ...but it's far too excessive.
  • Good graphics, especially field-of-view effects
  • Lame story
  • Disturbing philosophical outlook
  • Politically, morally, and intellectually offensive
  • Paints gamers as disturbed individuals
  • Amorous Cheney = Stab My Eyes Out

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