The Soldier of Fortune series of games has long been a guilty little pleasure for many gamers. Developed by Raven Software (the guys making a little title called Quake 4), the first game starred a real-life mercenary named John Mullins and was made popular due to its unusual (for the time) real-world topical settings and violent, visceral combat. A sequel was made two years later in 2002, also starring John Mullins, titled Soldier of Fortune: Double Helix and upped the ante considerably in terms of gore and violence due to their much publicized GHOUL 2.0 dismemberment system.
Though neither game was ever considered a top-tier quality title, both Soldier of Fortune games have managed to attract and keep a solid cult following with many gamers (including myself) playing one or both of the games even to this day. So when Activision suddenly announced earlier this year that they were bringing the violent series back, many people were quite excited -- if a little confused by the news that Raven Software was no longer the development company. Things didn't get much better when it was found out that a small company named Cauldron out of the Slovak Republic would be handling the development, but still people held out hope. I mean how can they mess up with such solid groundwork already laid in place by the previous games?
Unfortunately, it doesn't take long for cracks to start showing in Soldier of Fortune Payback's facade. Right off the bat, you find out that they've ditched the series protagonist John Mullin in favor for a generic faceless mercenary who sounds like he's trying to pass an unusually large kidney stone every time he opens his chew-filled mouth. The rest of the voice acting in the game varies from much worse to slightly better and completely fails at drawing you into the characters or the story itself.
Speaking of which, while the story has never been a crucial part of the Soldier of Fortune series -- the 'story' in Payback is borderline gibberish. It is like the developers decided what kind of environments and levels they wanted to put in the game, and then wrote a story that stitched the levels together in some kind of vague narrative fashion. The story is filled with double-crosses, conspiracies and secrets-within-secrets, but in the end feels like nothing more than an attempt to justify why your faceless merc is bouncing around between the Middle East, China, and Russia. In reality you can sum up the whole story in one word -- TERR'RISTS.
Graphically speaking, it's unfortunate but one of the biggest problems with Soldier of Fortune Payback is that it has been released at possibly the worst time ever. With Call of Duty 4 hitting stores just a couple weeks before the bar has been raised to an almost impossible height for any similar game released around the same time. COD4 has what could easily be considered the best graphics for any multiplatform PS3 game, while Payback ... well it looks like somebody tried to do a COD4 total conversion using the Quake III engine.
Almost everything in the game looks washed out and bland, like the brightness has been cranked way too high (and of course there is no ingame option for turning it down). This makes the already sketchy textures look even worse, and gives the whole game a bland look to it. I kept waiting for the high-quality textures to pop-in after a second or two (ala Uncharted) but alas, what you see when the level loads up is the best it's gonna get.
Things aren't all bad though, as some parts of the Payback actually look *almost* pretty. In the jungle levels, there are a considerable amount of foliage, the character models have some decent lighting effects applied to them giving them a bit of depth, and the explosions giving off by grenades are surprisingly. The environmental lighting is also solid enough and occasionally helps inject a bit of mood into the levels, and thankfully the framerate is quite steady throughout the game -- even when faced by half a dozen different enemies at the same time. Overall though, the game gives off a strong low-budget look and never manages to really ever wow you with its environments or special effects.
Historically speaking, the strongest point of the Soldier of Fortune series has been its gameplay. Tight, visceral, and unbelievably gory -- gameplay is what has given the SOF series such long lasting legs. Unfortunately, Payback drops the ball here as well. While Double Helix had a 32-point dismemberment system and the ability to cut open the skull of a dead enemy and watch their brains fall out -- Payback is filled with what I could only assume as compromises in this post-Hot Coffee and Jack Thompson gaming environment.
Replacing the grotesquely accurate GHOUL 2.0 dismemberment system from the second game is an engine that fails to even live up to the gore of the first game. Sure, you can still blow off the heads of enemies and watch the blood spurt four feet in the air, or kneecap a guy and watch him hobble around on one leg until he dies from blood loss -- but it's considerably less advanced than the five-year-old Double Helix. Also, when you shoot the enemies, it is like they have grenades stuck in their joints. You can sweep an AK-47 across a row of four or five guys and they will practically explode into a collection of limbs and bloody stumps. A 7.62x39MM round should not be capable of ripping off a whole leg -- let alone turning an entire head into a mist of blood.
Quite a few reviews have complained about the difficulty of the game, and honestly that completely confuses me. True, I had just finished the Call of Duty 4 campaign (which is brutal) but I absolutely breezed through Payback on Medium difficulty. I definitely was killed quite a few times, but I never had to retry any one section more than two or three times and most of the game I was able to go through without breaking a sweat. The main reason is that the enemies take almost no effort to kill. Utilizing almost any of the machine guns, you can just sweep fire back and forth across the ranks of enemies and watch them die in horrific manners.
You can also take a ridiculous amount of bullets without dying, with only shotguns or grenades posing any real threat to you throughout the game. To top things off you also regain health extremely quickly utilizing the popular Halo style health-regen system so you merely have to duck behind a box for a couple seconds before you are in proper fighting form again.. The only difficult points in the entire game were some of the boss battles and one of the last levels where there are three or four guys waiting around almost every corner with guns that kill you in two hits. You get used to both though, and even those couple of sticking points become a non-issue (here's a hint: stab bosses to death and use grenades around corners to blow away the waiting enemies).
The one good part of the gameplay in Payback is the surprisingly satisfying weapons. Before each level you're able to change which weapons you want and customize them as well -- adding scopes, silencers, grenade launchers, etc. It allows you to really mix up how you kill people, since most of the guns you are able to equip you never see in the game itself. There is a really large selection of weapons too, and they all feel and sound fairly different. The wide variety of killing instruments combined with the (albeit gimped) dismemberment system are really about the only reasons to play Payback when it comes down to it. The campaign is short (four to five hours) and the online play is currently nonexistent. Over the course of a week I only ever saw three servers -- total. When a server was up, the online play was surprisingly fun. Good luck finding somebody to play with though.
Overall, I'd have to say that Soldier of Fortune Payback is one of the worst games I've ever played all the way through. Between the static and washed out levels, the simplistic AI, the lackluster story, the horrible voice-acting, the toned down violence, and the ease of the game -- there's really no reason to recommend it to anybody. It did have this weird so-bad-it's-good attraction for me, but when it comes down to it -- you should just go play Call of Duty 4 and pick up Soldier of Fortune: Double Helix on the cheap somewhere. You'll satisfy both your need for a fantastic, intense FPS as well as your need for horrific violence and gore. Unfortunately, Payback offers neither.
PS3 Fanboy score: 4.5