Friday, December 07, 2007

Soldier of Fortune: Payback Review

Soldier of Fortune: Payback, developed by Cauldron and published by Activision.
The Good: Nice selection of customizable weapons, lots of gore, multiple multiplayer modes
The Not So Good: Very difficult single-player, checkpoint-only saves, generally unoriginal gameplay, only five multiplayer maps
What say you? A budget shooter with a couple of nice features at a non-budget price: 5/8

My most vivid memory of the Soldier of Fortune franchise is of the first game: shooting someone’s legs off with a machine gun and watching them fall vertically to the ground. Ah, good times. Well, the Soldier of Fortune franchise is back with its extreme violence in Payback form (Mel Gibson not included). It’s been a long seven-and-a-half years since we last saw limbs flying off and necks spurting blood where a head used to be. First person shooters have been leaning more towards the realistic side of the equation, so it’s nice to see an over-the-top representation of modern combat. How does Soldier of Fortune: Payback stack up against the large number of shooters on the market?

Soldier of Fortune: Payback uses a proprietary engine made by the developer and it offers some average to good visuals. It obviously does not compete with top-of-the-line shooters, but it holds its own well and slides next to the recent Half-Life 2 episodes in terms of overall quality. The environments in the game range from sandy to tropical and they have an overall shininess to them that’s a bit too bright for my tastes. The character models are OK and the environments have some places that exhibit good detail. Soldier of Fortune: Payback features some neat rag-doll physics with slumping bodies and the like. The weapons look good with some nice animations and combat is chaotic with plenty of explosions going on around you. The gore is back in Soldier of Fortune: Payback: although it’s honestly not as impressive as when we first saw it almost ten years ago, it’s still fun to shoot someone’s arm off and see the bloody aftermath. So overall, while Soldier of Fortune: Payback doesn’t feature the best graphics in the genre, the game looks good enough to be enjoyable. The sound is a little worse off: while the in-game dialogue is voiced, the generic music and repetitive enemy sounds do get annoying after a while. The guns are very loud (probably realistically so), making finding people in multiplayer games simply based on audio a possibility.

Soldier of Fortune: Payback sits somewhere between a totally arcade shooter like Unreal Tournament and the full-on realism of ArmA: you can take an unrealistic amount of damage, but the enemies can’t. To balance this out, you are typically up against two to five enemies at once and that makes the game very difficult. Soldier of Fortune: Payback features a fourteen-mission single-player campaign: its length is OK since you will die often. Soldier of Fortune: Payback does come with Internet multiplayer in four unoriginal modes: deathmatch, capture the flag, elimination, and demolition (defusal from Counter-Strike); team variations are available where appropriate. Also, there are only five maps to choose from, severely limiting variety. The game does save your last load-out from previous games, though, and joining matches is relatively easy. It should be noted that pings are absent from the game listing and selecting a match with the mouse only is impossible (you have to point to the server with the mouse and press enter join). I did encounter occasional warping during multiplayer games with players jumping around the map, but lag wasn’t too much of a problem. Soldier of Fortune: Payback doesn’t feature anything innovative in terms of features, somewhat of a problem in today’s competitive marketplace.

Soldier of Fortune: Payback does feature guns, lots of guns. I mean, you are a mercenary for hire, after all. Divided over six classes (assault, shotgun, sub-machine gun, machine gun, sniper, explosives), each weapon is rated in terms of accuracy, rate of fire, damage, reload speed, and magazine capacity. During each mission (single-player and multi-player), you can carry two main weapons, a sidearm, and grenades. Each weapon can also be fitted with various attachments, like scopes, silencers, grenade launchers, and handgrips. Each of these things grants a change in stats, although the game doesn’t show what the change is until you select it. I haven’t seen a real different between the eight or so sights Soldier of Fortune: Payback features other than a change in visual range. Still, giving the player options is always a good thing.

As I mentioned earlier, Soldier of Fortune: Payback is a strange mix of realism and fantasy. You can only run in straight lines (a great balance) and you need to crouch and stop in order to be accurate, but you can take a lot of damage before dying. This is a good thing, since the single-player campaign of Soldier of Fortune: Payback is terribly difficult. You are almost always outnumbered and this is how the game stacks the deck against you. You will need to use cover and advance carefully to stand a chance: running and gunning will result in dying and reloading. Speaking of reloading, Soldier of Fortune: Payback features a checkpoint system that doesn’t allow for saves at all times, though checkpoints are usually present after you complete each objective and you won’t have to backtrack too much. The AI is heavily scripted, always appearing at the same location when you past their trigger point; while this makes replaying the same level easier, it doesn’t make for good replay value. There are a couple of other interesting nuances in the game: the background blurs when you reload (since you shift your focus) and you can still return fire if you are shot in the legs until you bleed out (important for multiplayer matches when you think you finished someone off and then they shoot you). This results in a lot of mutual kills in multiplayer games. I did have fun playing the game in both single-player and multi-player forms, but I couldn’t get past that feeling that I’ve played this before in countless other games (including previous Soldier of Fortune titles). Soldier of Fortune: Payback doesn’t feature enough new elements to make it worth the almost-full asking price. While Soldier of Fortune: Payback isn’t exactly the most ground-breaking first person shooter on the market, it is still enjoyable and would be a nice game overall if it were priced correctly at $20.

Soldier of Fortune: Payback features a balanced mix of realism and over-the-top action that brings back good memories of the previous titles. The game brings back the visceral graphics, although they have been toned down a bit (with the exception of head-shots). There are a lot of customizable weapons to choose from, and the single-player campaign can be lengthy since you die often. The rest of the features are just run-of-the-mill: plagiaristic multiplayer modes with only five maps, heavily scripted AI, and some console artifacts in the interface. Unfortunately, Soldier of Fortune: Payback is twice the “normal” budget price of $20, so its limited features and derivative gameplay become less acceptable. Of course, we are still better off than the console players, as they have to pay $60 for this game (suckers!). Did I have fun playing Soldier of Fortune: Payback? Sure, but I don’t think I had $40 worth of fun. Unless the price drops, you can skip this title and just choose from any of the other quality shooters available. This game is a true sequel and it’s very reminiscent of past Soldier of Fortune games, but Payback doesn’t bring enough new things to the table.