Who knew that British artist Damien Hirst would inspire the latest adventures of Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson? Spurred into action immediately following a purported $10 million tour, 50 Cent cocks a shotgun and goes to collect his lump sum payment from a man named Anwar. But the money’s been stolen and the only compensation Anwar has to hand over is a diamond-encrusted skull…one that bears a striking similarity to Hirst’s aforementioned iced-out work of art. No sooner than that skull is handed over, 50 Cent’s own convoy of SUVs is sabotaged and the skull is taken from him. But this isn’t like taking candy from a baby. 50 Cent brings to bear a standard arsenal of short-, medium- and long-range weaponry on his enemies, not to mention a frighteningly successful run as a gangsta rapper.
Just as Hirst’s skull was taken as inspiration for Blood on the Sand, Swordfish Studios (whose last assignment was Rugby Challenge 2006) cherry-picked gameplay inspiration from other recent video game successes. The stop-and-pop movement is recognizably Gears of War, while the gimme-a-lift co-op from Army of Two is similarly forged. But to say that Blood on the Sand ‘builds’ upon the successes of those two titles would be to arm it with too much credit.
The design document certainly swiped a plethora of strong ideas from existing third-person shooters: a functional cover system, blind fire, close-quarters combat, ample ammo caches, vehicular combat--in addition to the obligatory turret-gunfire-from-a-circling-helicopter section--as well as drop-in/drop-out co-op. And despite this thorough checklist, the things that go most right are the breakneck pacing and unmistakably arcade nature of 50 Cent’s universe. Alarm bells and blinking red lights warn of impending enemy approaches, a constant white dot aims you towards your objective, and endless crates filled with bling populate side rooms and corridors. There’s even a flaming “Gangsta Fire” bar that fills up, which is the term used here for bullet-time, though it’s not nearly as firm and toned in execution as we’ve seen pulled off in Max Payne nearly eight years ago.
The unlockable rewards, however, are distinctly 50 Cent in nature, with music videos reaching all the way back to “Wanksta” from Get Rich or Die Tryin’, and as recent as “Still Will” from 2007’s Curtis album. Nothing that can’t be found on YouTube, but that’s not the point. Plus the soundtrack is pure, unadulterated 50 Cent, with a smattering of appearances with his long-running crew, G-Unit. (Part-timers like The Game, Spider Loc and, surprisingly, Young Buck are not included.) With 42 tracks populating the soundtrack, getting Fiddy fatigue is a distinct possibility, and for every club banger like “I Get Money” and “Disco Inferno,” there’s “Puppy Love” playing cushioned piano riffs or “Crying” filling up the tracklist with lazy, redundant beats. But, for the reigning king of gangsta rap (for better or worse), this is, with only a minimal stretch of the imagination, a string of career highlights. Those highlights, however, are lazily applied. With no dynamism in their presentation and not a moment of silence between tracks, it makes it sound like 50 Cent runs through battles with his MP3 player relentlessly looping his favorite singles: no mixing or remixing to induce flow. You will no longer take it for granted when a developer creates a soundtrack that locks to the action and downtime onscreen.
Punctuating the soundtrack are the death cries of a surprisingly low variety of enemies, all dressed in bright, easy-to-spot primary colors, as 50 Cent and his selected partner (either Tony Yayo, Lloyd Banks or DJ Whoo Kid) wreck shop. Even though Blood on the Sand takes place in an unspecified Middle Eastern city, the bad guys look like bandana-wearing Bloods and Crips from America’s urban zones. It’s a unique if not anachronistic way of smashing together 50 Cent’s Hollywood gangster motif with a “relevant” modern combat setting. With dust, litter, abandoned vehicles, and propaganda posters scrawling along the walls, the arenas are somewhat disposable and entirely unremarkable. The various maps expose little differentiation between themselves, and if it weren’t for copious indicators prodding 50 Cent along, it’d be understandably easy to get lost in one bombed-out location after another.
The enemies move about with very simple choices at their disposal. Often, the ‘blues’ and ‘reds’ will step in and out of cover like a Police Trainer arcade, while the ‘yellows’ will made subtle shifts in where they pop out of. They’ll all be variously armed, but that’s the brunt of the bad guys’ roster, and all of them will exhibit confused behavior if you’re on higher ground. You’ll run into the occasional attack helicopter, but there will be palates of rocket launchers lying about during those encounters.
To be expected from a rap artist that makes millions of dollars on explicit lyrics every year, Blood on the San is quota-filled with endless expletives. There are even oddly expensive sets of insults that can be purchased from a black market trader over the phone. The luxuriously-priced ribaldry serves no practical purpose in-game, unless returning verbal fire against a bad guy yelling “You’re going to regret that, you f*cking f*ggot” ranks high on your list of in-game kicks. The insults provides a startling contrast to the characters’ out-of-character appreciation of the Napoleonic and Islamic architecture in the region, but that’s just before they handily refer to every woman as a b*tch in an expected allocation of misogyny, and then proceed to blow up and burn down everything they run across anyway.
Figuring that such sparkling levels of dialog served the game well, there’s no voice chat to be had over co-op matches online. As a friend or a complete stranger, you can drop in and drop out of another person’s game, but the copious cussing and direction-pointing voiceovers serves as the only talking to be heard. This officially kneecaps the amount of cooperation, either through the rare flanking opportunities or in the abused scenarios in which it takes two players to lift a storefront gate or give each other a lift up to the second story of a building.
Once Blood on the Sand steps out of the ominous shadows cast by its Gears of War and Army of Two inspirations, then 50 Cent is finally able to flex a little muscle. In a language that speaks very clearly to the likes of 50 Cent, two sets of numbers will ferociously scroll at the top of the screen: one for the money, two for the points. Whether or not you absolutely, positively have to blow up everything in the room--do it anyway. Destruction equals points and ranking that give you bragging rights on leaderboards amongst your Xbox Live list of friends. Destroy crates full of cash for points and money (double whammy), and call up that shady arms dealer who puts increasingly more damaging weapons into your hands. Come on in, the ammo’s fine.
Blood on the Sand builds upon--without any surprises from the storyline or gameplay--the character (or caricature, depending on your point of view) that 50 Cent has constructed for himself over the past half decade. Like the man’s music, the game is gut-wrenchingly shallow and undeniably catchy for short stretches of time.