On the Cheap: ’50 Cent: Blood on the Sand’ [Review]
If you’re a regular listener of ComicsAlliance’s War Rocket Ajax podcast, then you’re probably already aware that I’m in the habit of picking up video games from a few years back on the cheap while we’re waiting on newer titles like Saints Row the Third or Mass Effect 3. My most recent buy was 2009’s 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, a game for which official description on the publisher’s website is, and I quote, “50 cent is gonna kill all the badguys for REVENGE!!!!”
As a special Valentine’s Day gift to me, editor-in-chief Laura Hudson allowed me to review it, despite the fact that it has virtually nothing to do with comics. And it is probably one of the most amazing games I have ever played.In terms of gameplay, Blood on the Sand is a lot like another ancient title that I just got around to recently, Gears of War. It’s the same sort of cover-based third-person shooter (or CBTPS) about a character who has the mystical ability to recover from multiple gunshot wounds by ducking behind one of the thousand four foot high stone rectangles littering the landscape, with you hovering over his shoulder, holding down RT while pointing at various members of a nameless horde that you want to die. There’s even the mandatory Bullet Time mechanic, hilariously referred to here as “Gangsta Fire.” But while I found Gears to be a little boring — which is weird when you consider that it’s a game featuring a rifle with a chainsaw stuck on the end of it for good measure — BOTS was engaging right from the start.
It really just comes down to presentation. While Gears has at least a slight hope of being taken seriously despite a main character with a soul patch, a leather do-rag and a name like “Marcus Fenix,” BOTS suffers from no such delusions. As a result, this thing is every bit as over-the-top as its premise demands. This is a game in which anything that could possibly explode does, and while it’s a cover-based shooter, it’s also a game that invites you to run directly at a man with an assault rifle and do karate at him.
In that respect, it reminds me a lot of yet another game from a few years back, also put out by THQ: The Punisher.
I loved this game. In fact, it was playing this game that turned me from a guy that kinda liked the Punisher into a guy that read every single Punisher comic ever published in the span of about three weeks. It had a style to it, and in those hazy, pre-Arkham City days, that was a rare thing to find in a licensed super-hero game. It combined the ultra-serious character of the Tom Jane movie — he provides the voiceovers for the game, including narrating the Punisher Armory style database entries for all the weapons — with a structure that threw everything at the player and just didn’t let up. This was an ultraviolent Punisher game that ended with the Punisher on the roof of Ryker’s Island fighting Jigsaw and his suit of bootleg Iron Man armor. It’s fantastic.
And that tradition carries right over into Blood on the Sand. Admittedly, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the pressing X to bust out of a coffin and blow away mourning mobsters with an assault rifle at a funeral, but the tradeoff is that you get mechanics like the ability to upgrade not only 50 Cent’s weapons and melee combat moves, but also his taunts, which allow you to unlock new levels of profanity.
I’ll say that one more time so we’re all clear that this is a thing that happened: You unlock new levels of profanity for 50 Cent to say to the people he’s shooting in the face. That is f***ing genius, even before you get to the part where the different levels are headlined in gothic script written in Latin — the highest level, “Mack Daddy,” is under the headline “REX PATER.”
It’s all part of creating a feeling, and in both of these games it’s the way that they apply that feeling to the otherwise standard gameplay that makes them work. The difference, of course, is that with Blood on the Sand, you’re playing as a real person.
Well, sort of. The 50 Cent of the game is based on the real 50 Cent in exactly the same way as the Sgt. Slaughter that helped GI Joe defeat Cobra Commander was based on the dude that lost his title to Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania VII. They both provide their own voices, for instance, and while voice acting seems pretty far outside of Mr. Cent’s skill set to the point where he’s not quite convincing playing himself, there’s a charm to it. The fact that he’s having a good time with it comes through pretty well, especially when he starts laughing at stuff like G-Unit’s DJ Whoo Kid’s awesome cartoony declaration that “these ruins are hundreds of years old — Napoleonic, if I’m correct!”
They’re also both apparently trained in the use of all NATO and Warsaw pact small arms, but I’ll get back to that in a second.
Because what really sets Blood on the Sand apart and makes it amazing is the story. It usually just gets summed up in exactly four words — “b*tch took my skull” — but that really just scratches the surface. Let’s walk through it, shall we?
The story opens on Mr. Cent and his pals in G-Unit performing onstage in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Incidentally, the only reason you know that it’s Middle Eastern is that it says so on the box; everyone has an accent but they’re not exactly what you’d call distinctive, and it could just as easily be pretty much any other war-torn Not-America setting. I honestly thought it was Eastern Europe for a while — there’s a mention of “The Scourge of Odessa” early on — but then I realized that “Blood on the Sand” was a pretty big tipoff, since this game doesn’t really do well with subtlety.
Anyway, the danger inherent in this performance is highlighted by the fact that Cent is rapping onstage in a bulletproof vest with hand grenades dangling from it, but it’s worth it: G-Unit has been promised a $10,000,000 fee to be collected after the concert. Ah, but when they go to collect, it turns out that the weasely concert promoter, Anwar, has been robbed.
As you might expect, Cent’s reaction to this is anger, but he doesn’t come off as all that surprised. If anything, he seems like he expected it, and I sort of got the impression that in the universe of Blood on the Sand, this kind of thing happens to him a lot. You’d think he’d start asking for payment up front, but I guess hindsight is 20/20.
Fortunately, Anwar has an alternative source of payment: an ancient diamond-encrusted skull. Why does this low-rent concert promoter in a bad suit have a priceless relic? How did it the robbers who got away with ten million dollars in cash miss it? Never really explained, and honestly? In this game, those are the wrong questions to ask.
Cent agrees to take the skull as payment, but then he’s immediately ambushed and robbed by a woman named Leela, who’s working for Kamal, the same guy who robbed the concert promoter. Thus, Cent and company embark on their mission to kill all the badguys for REVENGE!!!!, which they’re able to do because apparently 50 Cent is a super-hero.
Seriously, there’s a part in this game where, after surviving yet another wave of enemies, Cent says “I guess Kamal forgot I was bulletproof.” In the context of the game, this isn’t just a reference to his previous video game effort, or even to the real-life incident where he was shot nine times and survived. It’s just a fact, and while it’s not uncommon to watch a video game character take a rocket to the face without much trouble, the fact that it’s basically a real dude whose expression and tone of voice change a bit makes it hilarious. Throw in the fact that you can do insane martial arts combos that involve snapping necks and stabbing dudes in the face, while Cent raps on the soundtrack about how he does not know karate, and it’s just brilliant. Not even kidding.
About three quarters of the way through the game, though, the plot goes off the rails with a determined insanity that I’ve only ever seen matched by Assassin’s Creed 2, and that game had to go all the way to having a fistfight with Pope Alexander VI and his magic powers and then being yelled at by aliens underneath the Vatican to do it.
See, it turns out that the girl who stole the skull, Leela, only did so because Kamal was holding her family hostage, but then it turns out that she was lying to you, because she was actually working for this other dude who shows up for the last two levels to fill the suddenly vacant role of end boss because he wants you dead so that he can sell your organs on the black market. At least, I think that’s what he wants? He’s trying to blow you up with a helicopter at the time, which you’d think would make organ harvesting a little tougher than it should be. It turns out that this guy is the mastermind behind the whole thing, to the point where he organized even the initial ambush by buying off Anwar with the skull. Which Anwar already owned.
It makes absolutely no sense. It’s glorious anyway.
Because making sense isn’t what this narrative is trying to accomplish. The goal here was to take elements of something that was already over the top — Cent’s infamously brag-heavy rap — and put them into a setting that would be even bigger. And it does it. It even tells you that it’s doing it right in the opening cutscene, when Anwar hassles Cent for bragging about how “the gangsters run the streets” when he’s in a country where the gangsters run everything. It all comes back to making things bigger.
Even if it doesn’t take itself too seriously, that doesn’t mean that Blood on the Sand isn’t deceptively smart about it. The best thing it does is have fun, to the point where you can actually hear genuine laughter from the stars coming through. And believe it or not, I think there’s a lesson there.