Soldier of Fortune has been on a hiatus lasting over four years now. Though, to be perfectly honest, it isn't a franchise many missed, because it was only worth playing on the PC. You see, in the past, there was a rule of thumb for Soldier of Fortune games: the PC versions were good, but the console games sucked. Simple, right? Though, to be fair, the Dreamcast port wasn't bad for its time, but it wasn't spectacular, either. But with all of the brute behind our new consoles, that means that now the PC and console versions are of the same caliber, right? Well, no…
There are elements that make Soldier of Fortune Payback a good game, but there are far, far more elements that make it a very poor game. I have to admit that I was always skeptical of the game's development and its announcement. It's very unusual to have a game announced, and reveal that its release date will be in a mere six weeks. My immediate inclination was that we're going to get a very rushed product, released solely for the sake of meeting a holiday deadline. And I'm going to say that I was right. Soldier of Fortune Payback plays like a game that only meets the criteria for an alpha build, meaning very early/unoptimized game code – it just doesn't seem complete.
The first, and most obvious indication of this is the framerate, which may very well be one of the worst I've seen in a first-person shooter, thus far. Slowly panning your view side-to-side renders a picture that moves at an alarmingly stuttered pace. 30 frames per second, this game is not. In fact, I wouldn't doubt if it ran at no more than 20 most of the time – things get worse if you play in 1080i or 1080p. And the more you play Payback, the more the framerate annoys you.
Because the framerate stutters so much, it really puts a damper on the entire game, and prolonged playing will give you a headache, as well as an eye-sore. Again, framerate this poor is something commonly only found in unfinished games. For instance, back at E3 in July, Sierra's TimeShift was running on an alpha build with a framerate as bad as Soldier of Fortune's. But the final release runs pretty smoothly, despite the fact that the overall game isn't very good. Payback clearly needed another 3-4 months of optimization before hitting store shelves, because in its current state, it's barely playable.
As far as the rest of the visuals are concerned, Soldier of Fortune doesn't really excite here either. Texture detail is just below average, and things like smoke effects aren't very impressive. Explosions from grenades and such don't look so bad, but when you've got games like Call of Duty 4 setting the bar way up high, a lot of stuff will pale in comparison. Furthermore, character detail isn't high, but the fact that you can shoot off an enemy's limbs and head is rather cool, if a bit unnecessary. For the squeamish, you can turn the extreme gore off. The detail in scenery isn't bad to look at, provided you don't try to get too close and examine it. Honestly, Soldier of Fortune Payback couldn't have come at a worse time, again, with Call of Duty 4 burning every FPS in sight, there's just a lot to compete against. At the very least, for being such an average looking game, Payback could've offered 60 frames per second. Shame.
What's more shameful is the framerate actually ruining, what otherwise seems to be, a pretty good game. Yes, beneath the dreaded framerate lies a game I can actually see myself enjoying. That is not to say that that Soldier of Fortune Payback is good. Instead, its goodness is censored by something so irritating that it's infuriating. Think of a high-end supercar. And imagine it being limited to a 60MPH top-speed. Or imagine Halle Berry getting nekkid, only to have big censor blocks obscure her entire body. Buzz-kill, right? That's exactly what a bad framerate does.
Soldier of Fortune's story may not be very well fleshed out, especially not compared to, say…Call of Duty 4. But it does feature a large selection of weaponry, including RPGs, sniper rifles, machine guns, handguns, and more. As you progress in the game, you'll be given the ability to customize your weapons to your liking, which is certainly a nice touch. But beyond that, the single-player campaign isn't very engaging with objectives that aren't very interesting.
Furthermore, variation isn't a strong point here either, and so tedium will set in quick. In total, the single-player offers 14 missions to blast through, so the overall value of the game isn't spectacular – give it a few hours and you'll be done. And to make things worse, the A.I. is as dumb as a rock, missing shots a blind man would hit, as well as not featuring a single human quality. I've frequently had an enemy run out in front of me, wait, and then shoot – not what I'd call smart.
I do like the fact that it doesn't take 20 bullets to take down one enemy, 1-3 well placed shots is about all that's needed to level someone. Shooting also feels satisfying, as each gun possesses a solid feeling thanks to pronounced gunshot sound effects. Beyond that, all that's left in Payback is the online mode, which is only good for an unusually limited 12 players. Multiplayer modes include the standard affair of deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, elimination, team elimination, and demolition. We couldn't tell you if the online is any good, seeing as how there wasn't a soul logged on when we checked. But seeing as how the gameplay is marred by inconsistent framerate, I wouldn't expect anything different when the game is online – perhaps even worse.
Lastly, the audio is probably the game's only decent bit. Voice acting is acceptably acted out, even if it isn't very interesting. But I primarily enjoy hearing the ranging soundtrack of gunfire – everything from the sniper rifles to the automatics to the handguns. The weaponry really has a solid pop with every fired cap – and the loud explosions certainly don't hurt. Much like any FPS game, you'll also hear chatter in the background, just to add to the atmosphere.
At the end of it all, Soldier of Fortune Payback isn't what I was expecting. I would hope that for the franchises' third entry we'd see a really spectacular entry. Perhaps Activision should've gotten some of the Infinity Ward guys to help out with the development of Soldier of Fortune Payback. I can clearly see a solid game here; it's just that it is really marred by a poor framerate and boring campaign structure. It doesn't offer much value as a single-player game, and with a barren online community, it most certainly doesn't have any multiplayer value to speak of. I'm certain that with another four months of development, this could've been a decent release. But as it stands now, Soldier of Fortune Payback is one to pass on.