2007 has without a doubt been the year of the shooter. From the incredibly creative BioShock to the insanely addictive Call of Duty 4, the yearnings of shooter fans from all console camps have been appropriately satiated with brilliant games to play. With all of this year’s fantastic titles already available, can Soldier of Fortune: Payback keep up with the pack?
We’re not going to keep you waiting; Payback doesn’t live up to the franchise’s name. Raven Software’s mastery was nowhere to be found within this title. In fact, Raven Software wasn’t even involved in its development. Developer Cauldron spearheaded the title’s development, and they’ve managed to contort this beloved franchise and put the remains on store shelves. Simply put, we don’t love it.
You’re put in the shoes of a mercenary who’s backstabbed by his supposed comrade. You’re then forced to get (gasp) payback. The story is easily forgettable, and seems to be present to simply provide an excuse for the various locales within the game. It doesn’t even feel like they’re trying to pass the plot off as cohesive and intriguing. A pleasant young American intelligence coordinator blandly explains each mission too you via a laptop, then you proceed to carry out said bland mission. Rinse, wash, repeat. The story isn’t one for the books.
The graphics are the high point in Payback. Unfortunately, that’s actually something to be embarrassed about, namely because the graphics aren’t all that amazing. The environments and characters are passable, the lighting is respectable, and the gore is plentiful, but we’ve seen better in numerous other titles this year. The title does look fairly striking when it’s running at a rock-solid framerate – which is approximately 2% of the time (that isn’t an exaggeration). You’ll also have to get used to the commonplace pop in. Now, if this was a near-launch title exactly one year ago, we’d probably be gushing over how brilliant the game looked, but that just goes to show how quickly standards change in this industry.
The animation within Payback, like the graphics, is quite the mixed bag. Cauldron has licensed Havok’s physics system, and it’s implemented it surprisingly well. You’ll often see high-quality death animations combined with the Havok physics to bring over-the-top scenarios to life. Arms and legs will fly, heads will roll, and blood will spurt (this game isn’t for the young ones, though there’s an option to tone down the graphic violence). However, just as often, you’ll see repetitive animations and body parts and corpses disappearing PS2-style right in front of your eyes.
Forgetting presentation for a moment, let’s take a look at what makes any game a classic – gameplay. Frankly, Soldier of Fortune: Payback is deeply lacking in this area. The control layout and gameplay style feels similar to Call of Duty 4, which is why we’re baffled that the game generally isn’t entertaining. The game makes a solid first impression, but soon you’ll come to realize that what you did in the first level is all you’ll get. Repetitive running and gunning just won’t cut it in this generation.
We do appreciate the fact that you have access to a large number of weapons that you can customize with differing scopes and features. However, you’ll soon run out of ammo (which doesn’t necessarily replenish between missions), and you’ll find yourself picking up an enemy’s crappy AK far too often. We’re perplexed by the fact that Cauldron limited one of the best assets that Payback had to offer.
You know who’s even more perplexed than us? We do: the enemies you’ll be facing throughout the entire game. They seem less intelligent than the Koopa Troopas in the original Mario Bros. It’s almost embarrassing – the enemies in Payback sometimes run completely by you and continue in the opposite direction. On other occasions, they’ll dash towards you to perform a melee attack when shooting from afar would have been far more effective.
Yet still, on countless occasions the enemies provide a great challenge, but for the wrong reason. You’ll often find yourself shot at and killed by a seemingly invisible enemy. Your adversaries just blend into the background too well, making for some frustrating encounters. During these occasions, we literally had to scroll our cursor over a general area, note where it turned red, and then zoom in and take the enemy out. Not to even mention when foes spawn behind you in areas you’ve already passed through.
A recurring trend in this generation lays in short single player experiences, and Payback has clearly jumped on the bandwagon. With a campaign that’ll clock in at around six hours (that you most certainly won’t want to play again), at least there’s multiplayer to look forward to. Regrettably, the multiplayer isn’t all that captivating.
First of all, the online mode, which offers play for two to twelve combatants online, removes all gore, which was the best thing that Payback had going for it. Offering a standard feature set seen in plenty of other shooters (deathmatch, capture the flag, etc.) just isn’t enough anymore. It’s entertaining for a bit, but ultimately an unoriginal and forgettable addition to the title.
Soldier of Fortune: Payback isn’t terrible; it’s just not superior to anything else on the market as of now. Its one unique attribute, extreme gore, is all this title has going for it. Decent graphics don’t overshadow glaring gameplay flaws and lazy development decisions. Fortune doesn’t shine on this soldier.