When you think of 50 Cent you probably have quite a few things running through your mind, but we highly doubt you picture him as a shotgun carrying, grenade belt wearing action hero. This is the Fiddy you play in THQ and Swordfish's 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, a quite ridiculous third-person shooter that takes inspiration from Gears of War and SEGA's run and gun gem The Club, creating something of an unexpected pleasure in the process. Be prepared to wipe the dreadful Bulletproof from your memory because this is how rapper/action game crossovers should be done.
We'll touch on the plot briefly, but won't dwell on it as it's both utterly brilliant and completely ludicrous. After walking off stage from the final show of his tour, Fiddy is told that he's not getting the $10 million he's owed. A few extreme swear words later he's got a shotgun, pinning a guy to a wall and demanding his money. Expectedly, he doesn't have Fiddy's $10 million, but he does have a valuable diamond encrusted skull in a safe, which he hands over as payment. Cue a plot that sees the skull stolen, some backstabbing and Fiddy going all Marcus Fenix on an unsuspecting enemy army in the Middle East.
Blood on the Sand appears to be a cover-based shooter, with a similar cover mechanic to that in Gears of War, but in reality it's a run and gun shooter that rewards risky play. You can amble about, hide behind cover and take out enemies at your own pace, but this isn't how the game was designed to be played. You're actively encouraged to do things as quickly as possible, through the use of kill combos and on-the-spot timed challenges that are triggered while you play. For example, when a helicopter drops off five armed guys, a timer will appear on the screen and you'll be told to kill them all within 25 seconds - do this and you'll earn a score bonus and maybe even a weapon bonus.
Once you've settled in to the game's hectic pace things really do become very enjoyable. Fiddy is stupidly strong - he isn't downed easily unless you stand around aimlessly next to a guy with a shotgun, or go window shopping while an attack gunship is flying by, so you're free to have fun. On our first run through the game on the default normal difficulty our first death didn't occur until the fifth level, such is the rapper's seemingly superhuman ability to deflect bullets.
On top of the score-based multipliers there's an awful lot of collecting in each level. Posters are on walls, circular yellow targets are hidden and crates full of cash are more or less in every room that's slightly off the beaten path. Collecting everything earns you a bigger score, which can be used to unlock the game's impressively large selection of tunes, while money can buy new weapons, take downs and taunts.
Take downs are Blood on the Sand's up close and personal melee attacks. Run up to someone and hit the melee button and you'll enter a short QTE - hit the controller buttons that match those flashing on the screen and you'll kill the enemy. Initially these are basic, but throw some cash around (conveniently placed phone booths let you call in new weapons and moves) and you can get hold of much more exciting finishers.
Taunts aren't new to video games, but here they're extremely crude, and priced accordingly. Your default taunt pack will see Fiddy laying into enemies in an unpleasant way, but it's nothing you won't have heard said by rudeboys on-board a London bus. Hand over what seems like an absurd amount of cash and Fiddy will suddenly have a new cuss repertoire, allowing him to belittle his foes with even more crassness than before. In any other game this mechanic would seem juvenile and pathetic, but in the context of Blood on the Sand it works.
For reasons unknown there's no sign of competitive multiplayer in Blood on the Sand - a strange move given how a Gears-esque four vs four mode would have worked well - but there is two-player co-op via system link or online. This drop in and out mode sees Fiddy and a member of G-Unit fighting alongside each other (when alone your partner is well controlled by the AI), and the game features numerous co-op elements, such as doors that require the strength of two to open and platforms just too high to reach alone. In truth it's all quite contrived, but the core gameplay is more thrilling when you're fighting with a mate - just be careful your partner doesn't skip through all the entertaining cutscenes. The lack of split-screen two-player is a disappointment seeing as Gears and its sequel both had the feature, but it's something we can live with.
As entertaining as Blood on the Sand is, we just can't overlook its many flaws. Enemy AI is the biggest offender, with the goons you face rarely putting up more of a fight than you'd find in a Saturday morning children's cartoon. The level design is uninspired, coming across as even more boxy than Gears of War, and the cover system doesn't work as smoothly as we'd have liked. The use of a bullet-time effect (labelled Gangster Fire) also seems clichéd, which is something we could have easily overlooked had it not made an already easy game even easier.
Built using the Unreal Engine 3, Blood on the Sand is a surprisingly good looking game. The levels are quite square in appearance, but the texture work is good. There's plenty of stuff going on in each scene and Fiddy himself is almost as big as Gears star Marcus Fenix. When you get to drive a Humvee the visuals aren't quite as impressive, and from time to time the frame rate takes an unfortunate nosedive, but Swordfish should be commended for making such a solid looking game. The music on offer here all comes from Mr Cent, so you should know what to expect (it's about as non-family friendly as the rest of the game) and the voice acting teeters on the edge of cheesy, but in a good way.
A few months back our expectations of 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand were so low that we wouldn't have been surprised had no one picked the game up after Activision Blizzard dropped it. Looking at it now the real surprise is that the mega publisher let this highly enjoyable game slip through its fingers, giving THQ an extremely solid next-gen action game in the process. 50 Cent fans are going to love every minute, and non-fans are likely to have a pretty good time too. Just don't expect a deep gameplay experience.