50 Cent: Blood on the Sand PS3, Xbox 360
Did any of you play Mr. Cent’s first foray into the world of video games – 2005’s Bulletproof? I did, and still have a few things to say about it even to this day. Take one multi-million selling rapper and pandering his gangster fantasy to the masses was an awful idea for a video game to begin with, so the patchier controls were the final nail in the coffin for most gamers. The question is, why did I play it? It was because I was intrigued by a lot of the reviews for the game; without making any broad generalisations but us bitter games journalists are hardly the target audience for anything 50 Cent related. I had a feeling that a lot of the negativity surrounding its release was down to the fact that people didn’t like him, or anything to do with him. What I found was a game that had the usual problems that 3rd person shooters had in a pre-Gears of War world – poor aiming and a woeful camera instantly spring to mind – but nothing that warranted some of the critical maulings it received upon its release. In contrast, the 24 game was released shortly after and was somewhat better received, despite being no better or worse. Think about it.
Now, 50 Cent is about to embark on his second videogaming adventure, making him an equally as prolific video game character as Max Payne, and in a world where huge changes have taken place in the 3rd person shooter genre. Will he get rich, or die trying?
Right off the bat, it appears that Blood on the Sand is a game of few original ideas. Two games are instantly noticeable as influences – Epic’s gargantuan Gears of War series and Bizarre’s underrated “Da Club” – sorry, The Club. The Gears influence is a strong one, due to the use of the Unreal Engine 3. “Fiddy” even looks like one of the bulky COG soldiers from Epic’s game. The cover system, also brought to popularity by Gears is another important part of the game, a quick jab of X/A will have him diving towards the nearest hiding place, dodging bullets as if they were bottles at his infamous Reading Festival performance.
The Club’s influence is perhaps less obvious. That was a game where killing became a real skill – replaying levels over and over again until you found the optimum route through them, whilst killing your targets against the clock. Here, every time you kill one of the many enemies, a meter fills up. Keeping this meter filled is key to getting the highest scores, and to do so, you’ve got to kill as quickly as you can. Sure, you don’t have to do this, but like The Club, the rewards for doing so are worth aiming for. You’ve also got a regenerating health bar a la Halo and a “Gangster Time” bar, which is nothing but a silly name for bullet time, which last time I checked had gone out of style in 2004. Do they not know it’s all about quick-time events these days? Actually, they clearly do, as they’re here too! Hitting the action button when next to an enemy activates a violent quick-kill attack, should you complete the required button combination. Despite all of these obvious riffings on popular titles, and while it never really reaches the heights of those other games, perhaps the most surprising thing about Blood on the Sand is how well it borrows from others, creating a fun, if a little ridiculous, shoot ‘em up.
Lets start with the borderline insane storyline. 50, or “Arthur Dollar” as he is known to his friends, is playing a gig. In a war zone. After walking off stage, grenades strapped around his waist, he goes to the promoter to collect his pay. After attempting to rip 50 off, he gets a shotgun thrust in his face and hands over what appears to be an ancient treasure – a diamond encrusted skull. Happy with his haul, 50 leaves in an armoured convoy, only to be ambushed and have his skull stolen by a female ninja, causing the delivery of what will soon no doubt be one of the more legendary video game lines of dialogue – “Bitch took ma’ skull”. So, 50 decides to go shoot anyone in his way until he gets it back. There are a few double crosses and a bit more detail along the way, but that is the general gist of it.
I’m not sure if it is supposed to be funny or taken deadly serious, but you’ll find it hard not to laugh at some of the games more surreal moments. One of the world’s biggest selling recording artists shooting a helicopter down with a rocket launcher, in Iraq, whilst swearing profusely. Clicking in the left stick causes the man born Curtis James Jackson III to swear on demand, with increasingly vulgar ones waiting to be unlocked. It is quite funny, but in an unintentionally hilarious way. You wouldn’t see Miley Cyrus doing this sort of thing, and that is indeed a shame. Supposedly, the man himself had some input into the storyline, as well as doing all of his voice acting. Genius.
On the subject of genius, one of the original ideas Blood on the Sand has is the constant use of objectives. You’ve got your normal, run-of-the-mill objectives that will progress the game, but in every firefight, mini-objectives are thrown at you constantly. For example, you’re shooting at enemies in a courtyard. Suddenly, a load of other troops rush in, all carrying rocket launchers. The game will suddenly tell you to take them out and a countdown will begin. All the targets are given a red outline and killing them within the time limit will give you loads of bonus points, as well as some weapon upgrades like incendiary bullets, which literally set your enemies ON FIRE. Yep. It is a really clever way to constantly keep some variety in the game, giving you a new target to aim for if you’re gunning for the high scores needed to unlock awards and achievements. There are hidden targets and posters to keep you exploring, while pick-ups of “shine” – which has nothing to do with anything Mario found in Super Mario Galaxy – can be used to acquire new weaponry, close-combat kills and taunts.
As is becoming the standard these days, you can play through the entire campaign in co-op, with a friend taking the role of one of 50’s chums in G Unit. If you do find yourself friendless, the AI does a competent job in filling in, rarely getting in your way and calling out the positions of hostiles as you go through the game. It still isn’t great, but it is far less annoying than say, Dom in Gears of War 2 wandering around scratching his arse while you lie next to him haemorrhaging from your nipples.
The old proverb said “It ain’t easy being a gangster”. Blood on the Sand would like to have a word with you. It is actually bloody easy. Really bloody easy, in fact. You’re rarely punished for any stupidity and you’ll cruise through the levels without many deaths – especially on co-op – and there is plenty in the way of ammunition and checkpoints to be found. Clearly, this is a decision to appeal to the more casual gamer, perhaps fans of 50 Cent interested in his video game, as opposed to the more hardcore shooter fan. Getting any challenge out of the game comes from completing the mini-objectives and trying to finish the level with the silver and gold awards. In fact, perhaps the biggest challenge is the one with the slightly twitchy control system. Aiming is a bit loose, especially when firing from behind cover, and the context sensitive dodging/cover button occasionally leaves you leaping around like a moron rather than diving behind the nearest waist-high piece of scenery, while 50 finds himself, yet again, riddled with bullets.
Despite all of the explosions and best attempts of the mini-challenges and score-based metagame, things do drag on a bit towards the end. Played in co-op or in short bursts, Blood on the Sand does enough to last the distance, but prolonged play gets a bit tedious. The few sections that do deviate from the constant shoot-outs are a few short vehicle sections, which are only slightly rubbish in co-op play, with one person driving while one mans the guns, but in single player are really, really poor. You simply hold down accelerate while the AI shoots away at the enemies, hitting a few jumps from time to time which are supposed to be exciting set pieces. Although this may not be a huge complaint to his fans, the soundtrack is really poorly implemented, too. In defence, there is a remarkable amount of music on offer here; over 40 of his songs are unlockable by spending the points gained in-game, as well as a load of music videos and other 50 Cent related bonuses, but the music just plays in the background, like someone has simply put on an album, rather than being used for artistic effect.
The thing is, Blood on the Sand is a weird, weird game. On one hand, it borrows good parts from great games with enough content and unique ideas to make it competent enough to stand aside from the bullshit posturing 50 Cent and his crew bring to the table, and perhaps reach a bigger audience of gamers and be a better game for it. On the other hand, gamers are incredibly fickle creatures, and at least this way THQ have guaranteed some sales within a huge fan base. You can’t blame them for playing it safe. The biggest chunk of praise needs to go to Swordfish, though, who have managed to take what – on paper, at least – is an awful idea and turn it into a decent shooter, even in a very crowded market. Ultimately, strip Blood on the Sand down to its basics and you are left with a good video game and, fan or not, that’s all that really matters, right?