If reviewing videogames has taught me one thing, it's that I really shouldn't be impressed by a good idea. All too often games start with a great idea, and then run it into the ground with terrible execution. Bet on Soldier: Blood Money is one such game. It takes the relatively exciting idea of brutal murder being structured as sport and televised as mass media entertainment, and does absolutely nothing interesting with it, just like The Killing Game Show, Flashback, and Headhunter before it.
An action-intensive first-person shooter (FPS), BoS is set in a terrifying dystopian future where two factions wage all-out-war on one another, with the vicious battles being televised to keep the civilian population entertained and angry at their foes. The two factions themselves are both actually controlled by a single evil mega-corporation that uses the continuing battle as elaborate theatre to distract from the world's real problems. The plot is even more convoluted than I've suggested here, and most of the game's problems come from it trying to hit too many targets with too little ammunition. This isn't a slow-paced adventure game, after all; it's a blast-fest, and there isn't enough story in the game to explore, or even adequately explain, the premise.
What's worse is that even in the places where the game's premise touches on the gameplay the two don't integrate well. Over the course of the game the player upgrades their weapons and armor by using money won by killing enemies in the levels. The money is also used to repair armor, buy extra ammo, and save during combat. This setup creates a nice incentive for skillful players—the less ammo they use killing their opponents, the more money they'll have to spend on upgrades later in the game. Of course, this concept doesn't make much sense in the game's world—are all of the combatants in the field athletes involved in the game show, or just the main character and the bosses he fights?
Also, the player is allowed to decide which enemy 'star players' they're going to be fighting in the level they enter, and how much money they're going to bet on the fight. This raises the question of exactly how the enemy champions know where to wait—the levels are established as actual military conflicts, so it seems a little strange that one side is sending their battle plans to the other so that a champion can be placed in each of the level's choke points for a forced battle.
There is one interesting idea in the boss fights—that the player must kill the enemy champion within sixty seconds or they lose the fight, and the money they bet on it. This is a nice idea, but most of the areas the bosses are fought in are too small, and the bosses themselves too deadly for the player to survive more than a few seconds in combat against them. It's either kill or be killed, which removes a lot of the strategy from the situation.
It's too bad that the concept is so half-baked, because the game itself is extremely technically proficient. While the character designs are attractive and the physics are good, the level design is on a level wholly unexpected in a game like this. While some of the levels are the traditional hall-crawling grind, there are enough open-concept areas to add a level of strategy to the way the game is played—and ensure that the player becomes very good at sniping if they want to succeed. There's even quite a few levels that feature my own personal favorite design choice, elaborate scaffolding skyscrapers with plenty of railings to blast people over.
In addition to the skillful level design, there are a few other features that help this game stand out from the crowd of strictly average FPS titles. Certain levels feature tanks that can only be defeated by climbing into a suit of power armor. Even though it controls the same as just playing the game normally, using the overwhelming power of the armor is a nice change of pace—after hours of moving carefully down corridors, picking off enemies one by one, it's always nice to just open up with terrifying amounts of firepower and slaughter hordes of them in just a few seconds. The other nice feature is the decent partner AI. At the beginning of most levels, the player can choose to hire a couple of soldiers that will follow them around, assisting with the fighting, or repairing armor for free. There aren't any complicated commands available, partners can only be told to stay where they are or follow along, but they're decent shots, and fairly good at keeping themselves alive, which makes them a useful addition to the game.
There's only one level where the game really lives up to its premise, and it's the best level in the game. There's a single arena that features a single multilevel building, a large uneven battlefield, and a series of tunnels running underneath it. In the level, the main character and a partner have to fight a few waves of enemies in quick succession, each one with a different theme and weapon loadout. It's a tense, challenging experience, and it's good enough that it made me wonder why the creative team didn't go all the way with this premise, and make a series of arenas with tightly-scripted challenges and opponents.
Bet on Soldier: Blood Money isn't as good a game as it could have been. It gets halfway there with an elaborate backstory and interesting premise, but it gets too stuck in standard FPS design conventions to ever really distinguish itself as anything special. Maybe someday, someone will come up with a way to do an interesting game about a murder-themed game show, but this isn't it.