Reviewed: July 9, 2002
Released: May 22, 2002
The original Soldier of Fortune game was arguably one of the best and most controversial shooters of 2000. Featuring some of the most extreme violence ever seen on the PC, this game was as equally despised by senators, as it was loved by the gaming community. With a hit-sensitive damage model, players quickly discovered the joys of shotgun decapitations and dismemberments.
But Raven Software’s killer action title wasn’t all about the violence. SOF managed to incorporate a really good story, excellent enemy AI and an incredible variety of levels from all over the world. Building on this proven formula, Raven is back with the much-anticipated sequel, Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix.
SOF2 uses the Quake III Arena engine to create one of the most realistic covert-operative gameplay experiences ever brought to the PC. You once again slip into the combat boots of operative, John Mullins, only this time you are working for a top-secret anti-terrorist group known as The Shop. The Shop offers you a much wider range of missions than the previous game, as you travel the globe consulting with military personnel and participating in stealth, combat, rescue, and intelligence gathering operations.
Missions are based on actual political hotspots from around the world with some missions loosely based on actual missions of the real-life John Mullins, a former Green Beret and military “consultant”. Here are just a few of the exciting locations you will find yourself:
The new GHOUL II technology expands upon the detailed skeletal animation system of the original game allowing for even more lifelike animation and hit-specific damage responses. Characters will recoil and react based on where they are shot. The blood and guts damage model is not quite as over-the-top as the original, but it is still quite graphic and perhaps more realistic.
SOF2 is first and foremost an action game; although this time around Raven has incorporated some clever design twists to mix up the traditional FPS gameplay. You now have a meter that indicates how much noise you are making. This device combined with your new ability to lurk in the shadows lends itself to some stealth tactics that are put to some interesting uses.
Stealth missions are quite unforgiving. You need to dispatch enemies with total silence. While the easiest way to do this is with a quick pistol whip, this only knocks them out and once they reawaken an alarm will sound. This forces you to kill unconscious enemies then dispose of the bodies just in case a random patrol comes wandering by.
The mission design has been tweaked to take advantage of new enhanced AI for both enemies and military personnel who may be assisting you during any given operation. You will often be required to mix both stealth and combat tactics, and the AI is programmed to act and react based on your actions. If you catch a lone soldier he will often retreat and try to recruit reinforcements, rather than putting up a one-man fight.
Group of soldiers will attempt to flank you or lead you into a trap. I still recall the time I was hiding behind a crate and the enemy on the other side blew it apart with a shotgun leaving me totally exposed to the M60 mounted in the hillside bunker. You can throw grenades and they will catch them or pick them up off the ground and throw them back – sometimes losing an arm if they aren’t fast enough. I’ve even managed to shoot a soldier’s arm off as he was cocking back to toss a grenade. The grenade fell to the ground still clutched in his hand before blowing everything to bits – it’s realism at its deadliest.
SOF2 has also upped the skill level considerably. I generally play most FPS games on the Normal skill level my first time through, but the normal mode of SOF2 is like the Nightmare level of any other FPS title. I ultimately had to swallow my pride and settle for the Consultant skill level just to get this game finished for a timely (yet still late) game review.
The skill level you pick at the beginning of the game also dictates how many times you can save during a mission. This is a pretty clever way to appease the people who dislike the carefree use of unlimited saves and the perceived reduction of suspense versus the people who abhor the lack of any mid-mission saves. You can also create your own custom skill level by choosing a variety of settings. This lets you tailor the difficulty to each gamer’s own skill level.
Double Helix does things with the Quake engine that even the programmers at ID probably never dreamed possible. Of course, if you want to experience this title in all its glory you can forget those system requirements. You are going to need some serious horsepower and a killer 3D card to make this title shine.
My 1.4Ghz Athalon with 512mb DDR memory and Ti500 GeForce 3 video card fell to its knees in respect for this title, as it struggled to maintain 42fps at 1280x1024x32bit resolution. There are dozens of options you can tweak to customize this game to any system that falls into the acceptable range, but prepare for a less-than-mind-blowing experience if you try to force this game on a sub-powered system.
Each of the games massive levels are some of the most wondrous environments ever seen in a FPS title. Jungles are alive with a variety of vegetation and trees that sway in the breeze. Tall grass appears to be rendered down to each individual blade that moves aside as you crawl through it.
Buildings are based on architecturally sound and logical design principles. There are no rooms or areas that seem out of place, and everything flows together for a realistic indoor experience - something uncommon to most titles in the FPS genre.
Weather effects are spectacular. The rain looks great falling and each drop splashes on the ground and collects in reflecting pools that splash when you walk through them. There are real-time lighting effects with spotlights that light up the area (until you shoot them out). Lights cast dynamic and realistic shadows (assuming you have this option turned on) that lead to the only visual bug I could find in this game. Seated characters cast shadows that extend from their knees (hovering in midair) rather than their feet. Also, some shadows extend through opaque objects. These are only minor glitches that will most likely be fixed with either a game update or new video drivers. I was disappointed that the shadows are merely eye-candy and not detectable by the enemy AI.
One cannot review SOF2 without mentioning the trademark violence of the franchise. The bloody mayhem of the first title is back, although the gore seems to be targeted more towards realism than pure shock. Shotgun blasts will blow off targeted limbs (or heads), and you can carve a variety of designs into a corpse with your knife. You can even slice the cranium off a skull and watch the brain spill out onto the ground. Like anything taboo, the “forbidden charm” of this violence is quickly lost, and the gore slips into a nice supporting role to the action.
Missions are tied together with excellent cutscenes rendered with the game’s graphic engine. This creates a seamless blend between the action and the narrative, so you are never taken out of the game for a single moment. Movies actually end in the same scene where you take control over your character. The effect is so seamless that you have to watch for visual cues so you know when you can finally move John around.
The music in SOF2 is the typical military themes you have come to expect from these types of games. For the most part the music is restricted to the cutscenes leaving you with only the true-to-life sound effects and ambient noises during the missions.
There are over a dozen military issue weapons and each one has their own very distinct and very real sound effect. These effects are also enhanced based on the environment and the range at which you hear them. Shots, footsteps, and voices will echo in large empty areas or vary in volume according to the range at which you are listening.
EAX is put to incredible use with full spatial 3D effects for reverb, occlusion, and reflection. With a surround speaker setup you can stand in a room with someone who is talking, spin around and listen to their voice swirl around you in real-time. This effect is put to more strategic use when you can hear the snapping of a twig as an enemy soldier is sneaking up on your 5 o’clock.
Dialog is very well written and performed by some excellent voice actors (Mark Hamill and Alan Oppenheimer to name just two) creating a cinematic experience from start to finish. John and all the main characters have voices and attitudes that match the visual style of the characters. Supporting roles and enemy soldiers have authentic accents or speak in the appropriate sub-titled foreign language.
No matter which skill level you pick to play the single-player campaign, you can expect 20-30 hours of gameplay. When you have exhausted every ounce of fun and spilled every last drop of blood in these missions you can then move on to the innovative mission generator that will generate random terrain maps and create unique sets of goals for virtually unlimited gameplay potential.
Of course, you can only have so much fun playing by yourself so you will want to check out the amazing multiplayer modes of SOF2. While you can use the random map generator to create simple outdoor levels for online play, they are nothing compared to the amazing multiplayer levels that Raven meticulously crafted for your online gaming pleasure.
The built-in interface is easily accessible and you can join an existing server or start your own with little effort. SOF2 supports all of the standard multiplayer modes including; Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Elimination, and Infiltration. Even with a standard dial-up connection I found the game quite playable online, even though I did have to lower my resolution down to 1024x768 – a small price to pay to school some wannabe commandos.
Raven Software has had a long line of successful FPS titles dating back to the early days of Heretic and Hexen. They have steadily improved with each new release making use of the best of current technology as their recent releases such as Voyager: Elite Force, and Star Wars: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast clearly prove.
While Soldier of Fortune 2 may not have the Force, it does offer some very realistic and challenging gameplay with computer AI and tactics that are seldom found in action titles such as this. SOF2 walks that thin line between a tactical sim and an action shooter, yet it never stumbles and is sure to please fans of either genre or even both. Don’t miss out on one of the best FPS titles of the year.