After spending a significant amount of time with Soldier of Fortune: Payback, I am convinced that they were aiming to create a low budget, late 80’s action hero simulator. This might seem like high praise; go and watch Commando again and tell me it stacks up to modern cinema in both action and storyline. This same critique holds true for the latest installment in the Soldier of Fortune legacy.

The story revolves around a mercenary who’s been hired to protect a foreign dignitary. There is a betrayal, and then you spend the rest of the time chasing down the people responsible to get to the next bigger fish in the international terror pond.

If I don’t sound enthusiastic about it, then you’re starting to get the picture as to how the story is told. From waypoint to waypoint, you are basically riding on the rails in a predictable rollercoaster. Enemies appear based on scripted events, and there is little to no choice in direction or approach.

Let’s open the pretty gloss cover and examine the contents, shall we?

There was no graphical tearing present in the game, and the models and textures were serviceable. This game wasn’t aimed at being a showcase, but there are elements in the graphics that really show the lack of attention.

The lighting brings the right mood for some of the outdoor missions. Beyond that, it leaves a lot to be desired. From inexplicable ambient lighting in some caverns to the use of darkness in the parkade had me reaching for the remote to alter the brightness.

Apparently Activision licensed the Havok physics engine; I think they should have coughed up a little extra for the manual. The number of times I’ve been able to sever a limb (or completely remove a head) with a single bullet astounds me. The thing is, when said limbs hit the floor, they would look very unnatural. In some extreme cases the limb would actually dance around.

The press release was careful to compare the graphics and models against the predecessors rather than current generation games. To say the visuals are better than the last game, SoF II: Double Helix (2003) should be a given. I found, however, that the modelling system of the previous two were much more shocking than this version. The 27 different parts of the skull that would break apart was far more disturbing than random limbs popping off and heads disappearing with the ubiquitous fountains of red kool-aid. Sure, the enemies shot in certain areas of the body could stagger around based on locational damage and sometimes recover to shoot, but I found it was unbelievable and often unnecessary.

I couldn’t identify if an M16 sound effect was authentic or not. This game may accurately reproduce gunfire sounds and that, for a game based on a gun magazine, is fine and good. That being said, the weapons are loud and convincing enough. The problem is, you will hear AK-47s most of the time. And by most of the time, I mean all of the time; it’s probably the most used sound in the game.

You may as well get used to music that queues up like a jukebox for combat situations; often the combat music starts before you have even seen an enemy. You have just tripped over the invisible trigger for the next set of Bad Guys ™. It’s predictable and boring.

The voice acting is about as exciting and innovative as oatmeal, without brown sugar, bananas or raisins. No spice here, just serviceable voices that end up reading out what your next loading screen is going to tell you anyways. The youngish-sounding woman doing intel for the lone soldier is very reminiscent of Grimmsdottir from the Splinter Cell series or even Cortana from Halo, so we`re really not straying from the mainstream.

Soldier of Fortune hasn’t been an innovator in any category; controls are no different. They go with the same FPS controls that you’ve come to expect, with only a few minor deviations.

To crouch or stand you press down on the directional pad, and the left joystick can be pushed to sprint. The LB and LT are used for special modes for your gun, and to zoom in (respectively). The RB is used to throw grenades (and by throw, I mean catapult into the next level, every grenade toss is to the outfield). If you are dual wielding then the LT/LB mimic the RT/RB controls.

The jump button is effectively useless as there are less than a handful of locations where you need to hit it, and reasons are pretty weak. The B button is used interact with the environment and to swap out weapons. Note that you’ll need to be looking down to get the “Hit B” message, and it takes some time to pick up a weapon. Picking up ammunition for a gun type you`re carrying doesn’t require anything more than passing over one on the ground, but it needs to be the exact same weapon.

The gameplay development team hit the autopilot on this title, and it shows. It is hands down the most generic first person shooter I’ve played in quite some time. The AI is non-existent, most boss fights feel tacked on. Rather than using skill, environmental challenges or ability, the bosses have beenh given more resilience to bullets than a Kevlar factory.

That’s ok though, because so do you. There are objects to hide behind, but no cover system for you to use. No peeking, no concealed shooting to speak of, and certainly no challenge from the average enemy unless you’re facing someone with an RPG (rocket propelled grenades) or close range shotguns. You can survive by never crouching or hiding for 95% of the game on normal difficulty. I have literally stood out in the open and aim through a scope while I’m being shot by several enemies. The image is temporarily disturbed as the bullets find new homes in your body armor, and then you take your precision shot to cleanly remove their head.

That takes me to the biggest problem with Soldier Of Fortune: Payback. Your enemies have no AI to speak of whatsoever. If you’re not visible or haven’t hit the invisible map trigger for their scripted actions they either don’t exist or are in a catatonic state. Enemies won’t flank nor do they take cover unless it’s been scripted (such as a surprise encounter where they retreat behind cover. For the most part they spawn in dead-end hallways or passages and if you happen to be running you actually get to see them “drop” in. I have witnessed endless enemy respawns during a boss fight, and since I was standing behind the their spawn point the terrorists would appear, run 20 feet away from me, and then turn around and start shooting at me. If you get too close to a terrorist, they often decide to run up and punch/pistol whip you instead of shoot you. Sad thing is, it’s more effective (including the melee attack you are armed with).

The maps weave in on themselves to the point where you could have skipped three quarters of a level by simply knocking over a set of stacked barrels, or blasting open an iron gate. Mysteriously you can’t, even though you are armed with as many bricks of C4 as you require for missions. I would have overlooked it if this happened on a single level, but in Payback there are far too many maps that repeat this design.

The weapon loadout screen in Payback is cumbersome and has its challenges. You would think Soldier Of Fortune would have full weapon writeups and easy comparisons listing strengths and weaknesses. No, you have almost no detail to the guns, the benefits to the attachments, and red bars at the bottom showing you damage, reload time, etc as compared to the maximum stats. You can`t even switch between weapons on the same screen to see which guns are rated higher or lower, you actually have to back out and select the new weapons from a popup menu in the previous screen. 

You can run out of ammo in a mission and are forced to pick up a fallen enemies weapon. No weapon has any variance; they are all stock weapons with no scopes, grenade launchers or silencers. There is little point in using silencer as enemies don’t react based on user actions, but at least a scope would be nice. What that translates to is a smorgasbord of AK-47`s fresh from the crate to choose from.

Xbox Live was having problems during my review of this title, so my exposure to the multiplayer is limited. That being said, I did get a couple of sessions in of each type, and I can tell you now that it is bland, uninteresting and sometimes a little frustrating. The weapon selection screen in multiplayer actually has to be backed out with the start button; the “B” button that indicates back doesn’t actually work. I have been killed while selecting weapons, as the game spawns you regardless of whether you are ready or not. The game doesn’t chose your spawn point based on how active the area is, so you will likely end up appearing in the midst of a gunfight or be the victim of “spawn-camping”.

In the single player game there is no excitement, it really is just another shooter. Nearing the final missions I felt like I was completing a chore. Games shouldn’t feel like work, but it was a sense of accomplishment and looking for something to like that kept me going; Payback’s storyline made little impact on me to propel me further.

As I stated earlier, the conditions of the Live network prevented longer exposure the multiplayer field, but I’ve had a chance to play it and I can say this: there is nothing to see here that hasn’t been done in other games, and significantly better. Deathmatch is deathmatch, and with spawn-camping being so prevalent I found it initially frustrating. Multiplayer of any kind is based partly on the game and partly on the people you play with; since I was playing with decent people I had some fun doing it.