When 50 Cent hit internationally back in 2003 with the release of Get Rich Or Die Tryin', there was a fire and intensity to him that almost seemed supernatural. Here was a man who, unlike the gangsta rappers of the past, genuinely looked the part and had the past to match--how many times did you hear some news report rattling off the fact that he had been shot nine times? He was packaged, pushed, and marketed perfectly, setting him up as some kind of over-the-top supergangster, harder and smarter than any of the rappers to come before him. For a time, it worked. He was the biggest thing going. He was the latest in a long line of pop culture that makes parents squeamish and makes the kids get wild.
After a few years of huge fame, though, 50 lost a step. His impact diminished. Chalk it up to whatever you want, from the unrealistic and ridiculous expectation that gangsta rappers somehow continue to "live their lyrics" to an increasing focus on his other business interests, but these days, 50 Cent comes off as a weird parody of the image he personified so well only a few years before. In light of the watering down of 50 Cent and his continuing struggle to remain relevant, his second foray into console games is probably the hardest, toughest-sounding thing 50 Cent has put his name on in years.
That doesn't mean that 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand isn't just as ridiculous as a lot of the other stuff that 50's been doing lately, though. Or that it's as great as his music can be. Blood on the Sand is a big chunk of often-hilarious nonsense, putting 50 and the G-Unit against a nameless nation of Middle Eastern criminals as the crew attempts to recover a diamond-encrusted skull given to him as collateral for a $10 million debt owed after they play a show in an impossibly war-torn nation. As you've probably already guessed, the skull gets jacked at the very beginning of the game, giving you a clear objective to strive for right off the bat. If the skull had some sort of hokey supernatural power, this whole thing would just sound like a rejected script from an old G.I. Joe cartoon, but the story isn't played up for laughs. Well, it isn't played up for intentional laughs, anyway.
The story is mostly nonsense, with a lot of half-assed dialogue that's usually delivered by people who sound like they have a plane to catch. 50 Cent and the G-Unit--that's Tony Yayo, Lloyd Banks, and DJ Whoo Kid in case you're keeping score--do most of the in-game talking via some chatter between characters and a taunt button that lets you curse at the people you're shooting at as they die. Even though you can purchase additional packs of taunts with in-game currency as you play, most of the taunts sound kind of forced and are largely unimaginative. The amount of cursing is obviously appropriate, and it's great the the developers pull very few punches on the language, but with that kind of carte blanche, I was left wishing they had come up with better M-rated quips than "fuck you, pussy!" Though Tony Yayo does threaten to end his foes' "whole generation" from time to time.
The game itself is a competent-but-repetitive Gears of War clone. You can take cover behind walls, blind fire around or above your cover, and dive to quickly get out of the way when required. The shooting is reasonably satisfying, though it's a little too easy to rack up head shots without using a scoped weapon due to the extreme accuracy of the pistols and assault rifles. This makes the rest of the arsenal, like shotguns, machine pistols, and full-on machine guns feel like a huge waste of time. The game has a combo system of sorts that rewards you for killing in quick succession, getting headshots, getting kills while not behind cover, getting kills while you're injured, taunting while you kill someone, and really just about any other "man kills another man" scenario that the game allows. At the end of each section, your score is tallied and medals are given out accordingly, leading to the unlocking of concept art and music videos.
Playing Blood on the Sand is most enjoyable when playing with a friend. The game always has you playing as 50 Cent with any one member of the G-Unit serving as your sidekick. Online, a human player can join up and take control of that sidekick, once again letting us live the dream of filling Tony Yayo's considerable shoes. Not to dwell too much on the voice acting, but the developers seem to have recorded identical dialogue for each one of the three sidekick characters, making them completely interchangeable. While they constantly address 50 as "50" in every single line of dialogue they spit, 50 never says his current partner's name. It makes all three members of the G-Unit seem impossibly needy, and this turned out to be one of the weird things about Blood on the Sand that actually made me enjoy it just a little bit more. I kept envisioning scenarios where Yayo and Banks were fighting over who would be the one to get 50 a bottle of Vitamin Water out of his jewel-encrusted platinum mini-fridge and other struggles for Papa 50's attention.
The game isn't difficult, and when it does manage to progress beyond the standard run-and-shoot formula, it's only to interrupt things with a few lifeless vehicle sequences or to pit you against a missile-spewing helicopter. I lost count, but you either fight four or five helicopters over the course of the game, and they're all taken down in the exact same fashion--with your rocket launcher. The last meaningful thing you do in the game? Fight yet another helicopter. You get the impression that this game could have either cut down on repetition for a shorter, tighter experience, or that the developers should have spent more time on unique encounters against meaningful foes.
Blood on the Sand has a collection of appropriate, nice-looking environments, from torn-up urban areas to a movie theater that happens to be on fire as you're working your way through it. Things like animation and the character models are also fine, though there isn't a lot of enemy variety across the game. The game has passable facial animation in its pre-rendered cutscenes, but in-game, all the characters have stiff, zombie-like faces that don't animate at all, not even when they're speaking lines of dialogue. Between that, and a few other rough edges, parts of the game sort of look unfinished.
The game's soundtrack primarily comes courtesy of 50 Cent's back catalog, with over 40 tracks in all, some as recent as his most recent solo release, Curtis, with others like Wanksta and In Da Club dating back to his initial splash. The game's packaging touts "18 exclusive new tracks," but none of the exclusives really jumped out at me at all. Plus some of the songs that aren't already album cuts have been released online as random diss tracks or other mixtape fodder. The music just sort of plays at all times. While the freedom to manipulate the song list isn't an awful idea, there are enough iconically gangsterous tracks in this game that saving one or two of them specifically for boss fights or other high-tension situations might have made the entire game feel a bit more cinematic.
Parts of this 50 Cent adventure are downright enjoyable, but I think the most enjoyment I got out of Blood on the Sand came ironically. The action is pretty generic, but it's functional enough to keep you moving from one bout of unintentional comedy to the next. Will 50 Cent get his skull back? Who will double-cross him next? How many instances of "motherfucker" can you put in one video game? If you have a soft spot in your heart for thuggish braggadocio and don't mind playing through something that resembles a weird mix between Gears of War and The Club, you'll probably enjoy discovering the answers to these questions.