Soldier of Fortune: Payback Review
|ESRB rating: M
release date: Nov 27, 07 (released)
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The entire AT staff gladly remembers Soldier of Fortune 2: Double Helix. It was an excellent single-player FPS with a highly addictive multiplayer to keep you going. Raven Software (also responsible for games like Quake IV and Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast) did a terrific job on that one.
Much to our dismay, they didn't handle Soldier of Fortune: Payback, albeit they did offer a few pointers to the developers.
The third iteration in the Soldier of Fortune series was entrusted to an Activision Value studio, based in Slovakia - i.e. Cauldron (the same dudes who created Chaser). It was also noted that Cauldron received creative input from internal Activision studios like Treyarch and Call of Duty creators Infinity Ward. Initially created as a Value product, Payback gained the status of a full release and was given a $40 price tag ($60 for the 360 and PS3 versions).
As soon as you jump in the game, you are introduced to the strapping male protagonist with an intense macho attitude. To make things even cornier, our hero receives assignments and advice from a female associate, whom he prefers to tease every once in a while. Now, if you are prepared to swallow all the testosterone-filled baloney, you'll be able to discern a pretty standard but passable plot structure. You're a mercenary, one of your partners turns on you and you end up hunting down one bad guy after another - each one's a terrorist, of course. All clich's aside, with this type of game, you get what you pretty much expect.
By all rights, this is a pretty standard FPS. The classic FPS mechanics are in there, except things are way simpler and far less challenging than in contemporary triple-A shooters like say Crysis or Halo 3. Simply put, the AI is hardly what you'd call intelligent, but we'll get to that.
The fluent and fast-paced gameplay certainly has its up sides. With non-stop action and armies of foes marching towards you, things are quite dynamic throughout the entire game. Still, Soldier of Fortune: Payback remains strictly linear. The appearance of certain levels may confuse you into thinking that your character can head off into any direction. Regrettably, invisible walls prevent our hero from straying off course. Not that we expected any elaborate Oblivion-style exploring, but it's just that other on-the-rails shooters have at least managed to be a bit more subtle when restricting the game environment (Call of Duty, MoH, etc.). Hell, even TimeShift did a better job in that respect. The trouble with this game is that the surroundings are at times just too restrictive. In one of jungle levels, I was overwhelmed by enemies and had very little room to maneuver. Strafing and crouching like a mad man (for some reason, you cannot go prone), I tried to avoid enemy fire, but was soon gunned down. As I've come to realize, it's definitely not about tactics or outsmarting the enemy in this game. It quite simply boils down to rushing at your opponents and eliminating as many of them as possible.
To do this, you'll be packing the customary arsenal, including assault rifles, shotguns, pistols, rocket launchers, grenades, etc. Using more destructive weaponry usually causes chaos amongst enemy ranks. Toss a grenade into a group of opponents and just watch as chunks of meat fly every which way.
So, how exactly did Cauldron make this game challenging? Simple. You'll either face more foes than you can handle or you'll have to cope with situations in which CPU-controlled opponents have a rather unfair advantage. For example, in one of the missions, you are tasked with protecting a prisoner who has to show you a way deeper into enemy territory. Instead of waiting until the coast is clear, the unarmed NPC dimwittedly runs ahead of you, often falling directly into enemy hands. So, what you have to do is outrace the poor bastard before someone blows his brains out. It's a small segment, though it perfectly illustrates how absurd this game can be. Later on, as you get closer to the final level, enemies become insanely accurate. Also, instead of displaying realistic behavior, enemies often spawn out of nowhere and then just lay in wait behind corners. So, most of the time you won't know what hit you. The inequitable actions of the AI hardly make the game challenging. They just keep pissing you off.
On the other hand, the over-the-top carnage in Payback can be hilariously fun. The developers tweaked the physics and made it better than Raven's old GHOUL system, so models are now fitted with an increased number of hit zones. Seriously, the in-your-face gore may prove entertaining, even if it seems ridiculous and unrealistic most of the time. You can literarily remove the limbs off of enemy troops with accurate fire from any weapon you happen to be wielding. One time, I managed to shoot off both arms from an enemy solider and I actually laughed as he started screaming and trying to run away with no arms. Yeah, I'm a sick bastard, deal with it.
Occasionally fun, easy to get into, solid variety of locations, excessive gore can be entertaining;
Technical issues, short single-player, nobody likes AI that cheats, generally mundane FPS experience.