50 Cent, famously, has been In Da Club. He rapped about it. It was a popular rap, and you’ve probably heard it. While he was there, however, it appears as though he stole just about everything of note from last year’s sleeper hit The Club and put it all into his own game.
It’s not as though borrowing ideas is anything new in the games industry, but 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand doesn’t really have many new ones of its own, except for the peculiar combination. Take the scoring system and waves of enemies from The Club, add in the cover system, AI helper, and slow-walking conversations from Gears of War, and then lump in bullet time (annoyingly titled Gangsta Time) and you have BotS.
Astute readers will have already noticed that two of these ideas don’t really work well together. The Club was a fast-paced shooter focused on keeping your kill-combo high and pulling off impressive shots to boost your score. Gears of War, conversely, was a game where you cowered behind rocks and popped out temporarily to shoot at people. It doesn’t help that these elements haven’t been translated perfectly and don’t work quite as well as they should.
So, as 50 Cent, you run around a random bombed-out Middle Eastern country, shooting random Middle Eastern gentlemen with a variety of guns and with a member of G-Unit by your side. Some trick-ass fool, you see, stole Fiddy’s pay for the last show in his Middle Eastern tour, and he wants it back. Of course, that’s not as easy as it seems and every identikit bad guy in the unspecified nation is keen on getting in his way. It all looks surprisingly good, in no small part thanks to the Unreal 3 Engine. The cutscenes are slick and sharp, with decent facial animation and lip-syncing, and most of this follows through into the game itself. Perhaps most impressive of all is the framerate, which remains consistently high throughout. I can’t honestly recall a single instance where it dropped, and this adds a lot to a game as frenetic as this. Sadly, a high framerate can’t save an average game, and this game is average at best in almost every other respect.
Levels are laid out much as you’d expect – there’s an unlikely smattering of waist-high objects strewn about the landscape, and plenty of walls to hide behind. The cover system occasionally gets in your way, not letting you lean out in a particular direction to open fire, but by and large it works, even if it’s nothing exciting. The environments themselves, though, are almost all brown-yellow sand and half-destroyed brown-yellow buildings. There is also, it would seem, a lack of doors in the Middle East and so you’ll spend a lot of timewatching Fiddy kick through wooden boards. Which, I’m sure you can agree, is a hoot. There’s very rarely anything exciting in the environment. Explosive barrels are commonplace and enemies dozily cower next to them, seemingly waiting for death from either barrel explosion or several bullets to the head.
Fiddy doesn’t just shoot his opponents, though. If you get up close you can engage a close-combat sequence by tapping a button, which works like a very easy quick time event. Fiddy’s attack animation plays out, and when a red circle appears on screen, you press the button again. And then again. And again. They’re slickly animated, and occasionally brutal (who knew Fiddy was a master of every martial art on earth?), but they have glitches of their own. If the enemy is behind cover, their death animation doesn’t play out; they just suddenly appear on the ground exactly where they were in cover. If the animation involves movement, Fiddy’s teleported back to where you initiated the attack, which is more than a little disorienting when you’ve got bullets whizzing past your head – and disorientation isn’t a good thing in a game where you get points for killing quickly and efficiently.
The man himself lives up to his bullet proof moniker, too. Whoever shot him nine times didn’t bring nearly enough artillery to the attack, because I’ve now seen Fiddy take three rockets to the face without so much as flinching. Health regenerates in the standard Halo way – don’t get shot for a few seconds, and you’re back at full health.
It’s a bit of a schizophrenic game. On the one hand, you’ve got the occasionally fun run-and-gun action, spiced up with a bit of brutal close-combat fighting – which is all made far too easy by the liberal amount of health. On the other hand, you’ve got a game that asks you to take aim at your next enemy and down him in less than a second, lest you lose your entire combo streak, which is far too hard. It’s frustrating, and not for any good reason; the health regeneration seems to be there to make it possible to keep your combo meter up, but then it’s almost impossible to die – and so to make it a challenge to get your combo meter up, you need to have memorised the levels. Not good game design, and two disparate elements that are desperately in need of balancing.
While you’re aided in your quest to raise the combo meter by huge red “DANGER” markers highlighting where enemies are about to come from, your combo will have ended by the time they spawn. Individual “scenarios” crop up fairly regularly and form perhaps the only original idea in the game, but these usually just task you with killing a certain type of enemy within a time limit for some extra grenades, money, or points, and the only real impact is to change the order you shoot the targets in your path. The extra money acquired from these can be used to buy extra weapons, close-quarter moves, or taunts from payphones, but the latter two are purely cosmetic upgrades, and the former are mostly just weapon upgrades along very generic lines. None of the weapons are overly different from each other barring damage levels – perhaps they have a different ammo capacity or a higher accuracy, but within each class, they’re usually fairly identical.
Unless you’re a huge fan of 50 Cent you’re unlikely to bother trying to get those high scores, though. The reward (and yes, I realise I’m playing it fast and loose with the word “reward” here) for completing levels with high scores are “unlockables” – music videos, cheats, and more soundtracks. The fact that the background music is from 50 Cent’s discography (and apparently features 18 brand new tracks!) will bring joy to some. The fact that I could turn down the music in the options menu brought joy to me.
Speaking of the soundtrack, the dialogue is utterly banal. The voice acting is certainly authentic, but all that means here is that it’s voiced by 50 Cent and the rest of G-Unit, and voice samples are repeated endlessly. The sound effects are fine, with some of the weapons having a palpable thump as they fire, but it’s more often than not drowned out by your G-Unit cronies shouting for you to take cover, five times in a one-minute period, with the exact same line each time. Which usually contains swearing or a racial epithet. Hell, 50’s first line in the game starts with “motherf-” and ends with “ker,” which sets the tone perfectly.
Blood on the Sand isn’t a bad game – it’s just a terribly, terribly average one. It takes the ideas that made other, better games stand out, and tries to combine them in a way that just doesn’t quite mesh. It’s doubtless going to sell in huge quantities (thanks in no small part to the license) but only the most ardent fans of Mr. Cent are going to bother playing through it the amount required to unlock everything, and it’s unlikely that even they will enjoy most of what they have to do.