Soldier of Fortune: Payback Hands-On

The limbs are still flying in Activision's new follow-up to this ultraviolent first-person shooter series.


If you've been fiending for a new Soldier of Fortune game since the release of 2002's disturbingly violent Double Helix, Activision is finally here with more gore. The company just recently announced the next Soldier of Fortune, Payback, and surprisingly, the game is already planned for release in November. Veterans of the previous two games may also be surprised that franchise creator Raven Software isn't making Payback, at least not directly; that duty has fallen to an Activision Value studio located in Slovakia. But Raven and a number of other internal Activision studios, including Treyarch and Call of Duty maker Infinity Ward, are said to be contributing some technology and input to the game's development.

Regardless of who's making Payback, it has all the hallmarks of the Soldier of Fortune series. You've got your real-world weaponry, your story of international turmoil and intrigue, and, of course, an ultradetailed dismemberment model that lets you blow the arms, legs, and heads off of your scores of opponents with deadly aplomb. In fact, the new engine can model the break points on enemies' bodies with greater detail than Raven's old GHOUL system used in Double Helix. A leg, for instance, is now broken up into a foot, ankle, lower leg, and two sections of thigh. Headshots don't just kill an enemy, they cause the head to burst in a fount of blood and cranial matter. If you don't believe us, the game is so violent it just received ade facto ban in Australia. Then again, you can also watch our new gameplay movies to see for yourself.

See? It's a bit bloody. Totally not kidding.
See? It's a bit bloody. Totally not kidding.

If all this sounds a bit sadistic, well, that's just how Soldier of Fortune rolls. You might be surprised to find out that when members of the development team viewed some real-life dismemberment footage as part of their research early in production, they were actually quite disturbed by the horrific nature of the video. We'll spare you the specific examples we heard about, but in short, this inspired the team to ratchet Pay Back's violence into stylized, exaggerated territory, rather than grounding the combat in stark realism. Like the previous games in the series, it's sort of gruesomely comical to see the combat in action here; it's just that over the top.

Payback's story goes that you are, in fact, a soldier of fortune--a mercenary--and you and your partner have been contracted to head to the Middle East, retrieve a Chinese government official in possession of sensitive intel, and escort him to safety. But no sooner do you complete this mission than your "partner" turns on you, kills your ward, and sets off a whole string of international incidents. You'll spend the rest of the game fighting through more fictionalized Middle Eastern locations, as well as levels in places like Burma and Russia, as you track down the bad guy (or guys--you know there are always more of them) and try to restore global order. Let's hope somebody is paying you handsomely for going to all this trouble.

Still not kidding. At least that guy got to keep his arms.
Still not kidding. At least that guy got to keep his arms.

In practice, Payback plays like a typical run-and-gun shooter, emphasis on the gun. Before each mission you can select a primary and secondary weapon, a sidearm, and a grenade type. There will be around 40 guns in the final game, and you can customize them with add-on grips, scopes, grenade launchers, and other gear that you'll unlock more of as you progress through the game's 12 missions. We got to try out some of the first mission in the dusty streets of the Middle East and found that the controls will be very familiar to shooter fans, especially those who have played the Call of Duty 4 beta (or will have played COD 4 itself by the time Payback ships). You can sprint from point to point by clicking the analog stick, raise your weapon to aim down its sights with the left trigger, and so on--with the focus here squarely on the deadly efficient elimination of everyone standing between you and your objective.

If you're looking for extreme amounts of gore couched in straightforward first-person shooter gameplay, Soldier of Fortune: Payback looks like it will satisfy that particular itch. The game doesn't look half bad, either. It's not up to the level of a Call of Duty 4, say, but the environments and character models look surprisingly good coming from a developer with "Value" in its name. The game is planned for release in mid-November, so we'll be back with a full review at that time.

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