Soldier of Fortune 2: Double Helix
Has anyone noticed that in press conferences the United States’ General Tommy Franks refers to al-Qaeda terrorists as 'The Bad Guys’? Why not just use the term terrorist? Maybe it’s a subtle reminder to us civilians that these people are bad because, after all, it’s easy to forget that flying passenger jets into skyscrapers and thereby killing thousands of innocent people in the process is actually wrong.
Meanwhile, President George W Bush is trying to convince the world that this is a war of good against evil. Get a grip George - it’s not bloody Lord Of The Rings. There is no good and there is no evil. OK, the acts of terrorism we all witnessed last September were completely deplorable and totally unjustifiable, but this current situation is also partly to do with the fact that two totally different cultures have little or absolutely no understanding of each other.
It may be crass to draw comparisons, but videogaming presents a similar cultural divide. On one side you’ve got those who enjoy gaming and the escapism it offers, and on the other side there are those who rarely play or understand them yet are quick to cite them as the reasons behind mass shootings and general moral decay. If only it were that simple. A game, like a film or even a book, may trigger an action in an already disturbed mind, but it’s certainly not the cause.
And so we come to the evil FPS I known as Soldier Of Fortune 2. When it’s finished it will be so difficult to differentiate between the game and real life that people will run out their homes and shoot each other in the head the moment they’ve finished playing it.
John Mullins, an ex-Green Beret I with 20 years service to his name, and whose exploits the game is loosely based upon, believes realism is where Soldier of Fortune 2 wins out over its contemporaries: "We’ve tried to keep it as realistic as possible. You’re not going to slap around a 50-calibre machine-gun - not unless you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger. There’s none of that nonsense. All the weapons are real. There aren’t any proton guns - or whatever the hell it was in the first game. The weapons in the game are all based on guns that are in use or you mid encounter on a mission - AK 47s, AK74s, RPG 7s and various other pons that the enemy might have."
Alas, if you find it difficult to get hold of these particular guns to bark upon your real-life killing e, you’ll find it nigh-on impossible ing your hands on SOF2's star pon, the OICW, or Objective try Combat Weapon. For those of you who aren’t Guns&Ammo fibers, this real-life prototype pon has, according to Mr Mullins, been in development for 15 years but is not yet being used by the US military because of technical problems. It’s easy to see why. The OICW carries an onboard computer that actually identifies potential threats by flashing up a warning message in the sight saying 'hostile’, or in the case of General Franks, 'bad guy'
Jordan'S Digital Thrills
Whereas John came in relatively late on during the development of the original Soldier Of Fortune and didn’t get to influence design as much as he would have liked, the situation for SOF2 has been different. "I’ve been on this project from the start and I helped develop the scenario. I gave some ideas of real world places that I’ve been and places that we have operated, what they were like and what kind of things we faced."
The result, rather surprisingly then, is an all-action thriller where you must destroy a group of bio-terrorists before they can unleash a deadly virus and annihilate humanity as we know it. The James Bond-esque race against time encompasses ten exotic locations including Colombia, Prague, Kamchatka, Hong Kong and Jordan. Jordan? Exotic? We asked if she ever got her wobblers out at all, but nobody seemed to understand, least of all John who slipped into one of his 1,000-yard stares.
Still, the Colombia levels offered their fair share of titillation with amazing jungle landscapes (designed using the TORR terrain system) featuring fantastic swaying grass and superb foliage that you can use as cover. There are also some snazzy Q3 Arena-powered environmental effects like snow and rain, and some very authentic-looking mist and fog. The variety of enemies is equally diverse, ranging from coke-addled drug lords to terrorists (sorry, 'bad guys’), as well as America’s erstwhile foe, the Russian soldier.
It was also interesting to see that during our playtest each enemy exhibited not only different levels of Al (the LICH system apparently), but different grades of strength and endurance too. It doesn’t take much to frag a jeans and tee-shirt clad terrorist, whereas a heavily protected Russian soldier needs a lot of lead inside him before exploding in a blizzard of gore.
Obviously the amount of damage your enemies take is also dependent on the weapon used. Sounding more and more like the drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket, John was happy to affirm this: "The game’s main weapon is the M4 carbine with the M2 grenade launcher, which is the primary weapon of all Special Operations troops from the United States today. It’s the weapon they’re using in Afghanistan -and it’s a very, very good little weapon. It fires a 5.56mm cartridge, which is good up to about 350 meters -devastating in its effects. You hit somebody in the middle of the chest and they’re going down." Quite.
145 Million Levels
One of the features that the game’s developer Raven is particularly proud of is the Random Mission Generator, or RMG if you’re into acronyms (and Raven clearly is, what with its LICHs and its TORRs). Basically, you decide what type of terrain you want, what the weather should be, how many buildings you want and a whole host of other options. The generator then throws down what you asked for and you get to play a multiplayer game on that level.
Though it may not be as precise as creating a level on an editor, it does ' mean that nobody can gain advantage over other players by learning a map before a match. In fact, according to Raven there are a total of 145 million different maps available using this technique. While not infinite, that’s still a fair few to keep you occupied and the chances of the same one coming up twice are about the same as winning the lottery.
However, the downside appears to be that you can’t actually save the map if you create a particularly good one. Why Raven can’t do this is unclear, but we got the impression that it’s an issue that will be remedied in the future.
Still, if it all sounds too much for you, you can always frag your way through the six standard multiplayer maps including the infamous Raven office. Apparently players rather enjoy running around an exact replica of the office spreading each other’s brains over the developers’ desks. Call it sick. Call it evil.
Call it what you want. We call it SOF2, it’s got loads of bad guys in it and it’s out in April.
Download Soldier of Fortune 2: Double Helix
You may think it’s easy to pull any game to pieces that doesn’t meet our high standards, to vilify with violent gusto all its shortcomings and build layer upon layer of witty insults and scathing comments. It isn’t.
You see, unlike you, we get to meet a lot of the people who develop these games and, for the most part, they’re a decent and earnest bunch of chaps who’ve spent the better part of a year putting their whole heart and soul into their baby. And when you finally see that the fruit of their sleepless labours is a certifiable piece of cack, you tend to feel sorry for them, finding it hard to rip said baby up limb by limb. Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just too nice. Which is why it might surprise you to learn that I was looking forward to laying into Soldier Of Fortune 2 with all my might. It’s not that I have anything against Raven, but I do have a problem with this game’s licence, which is taken from America’s Solider Of Fortune magazine, which in a country plagued by gun problems is sick and wrong unless you’re the sort of redneck who thinks it’s every American's god-given right to shoot anyone who doesn’t kiss the flag every night. You know, the sort of people South Park's Jimbo and Ned caricaturise so brilliantly.
It’s the reason so many of us had a love/hate relationship with the first game. It was enjoyable in a deeply dumb and visceral way, but there was something unmistakably wrong and xenophobic about it. Maybe it was the fact that you got a tally at the end of each level telling you how many groins and windpipes you’d hit. Maybe it was the fact that you were penalised for shooting American civilians but not Arabic ones. Most of the fun came from the pure carnage rather than the poor level design or the rather rotten Al.
So, how come I don’t hate Soldier Of Fortune 2? How come I think it’s one of the best first-person shooters I’ve ever played, probably only behind Half-Life and Medal Of Honor?
Well, for one thing it’s a much more liberal affair than the first game. It wisely avoids Islamic terrorists and lets you loose on Russians, Colombians, Chinese and even Yanks. The sick scoring system has gone. Your closest associate is a woman. And, the real clincher, killing any civilian of whatever nationality means you automatically lose the game.
But the thing that really sets it apart and above other shooters is the sublime Al, the very best I’ve come across since Half-Life's legendary black ops.
Things start off rather badly though, with a first level that is as predictable as it is forgettable, set many years before the main story (Mullins is clean-shaven but still looks like he shoots dogs and beats up women for fun), dull brown environments and enemies as thick as bricks.
It’s not until the second mission, set in a Colombian jungle, that things kick off properly. The Colombians not only work in teams (even shouting to each other), they duck behind tall grass, they hop over walls, they round you up and shower you with grenades. And then you come across a group of marines who join you on your mission and display some great Al of their own. One of them is sent to scout ahead and waves for the rest to follow if the coast is clear, and the commanding officer tells you off if you wander too far from the team. They react to situations as well as the enemy, hiding behind trees and running back when a grenade is sent their way. It’s a shame more use isn’t made of friendly Al.
Sneak And Destroy
The next mission presents another surprise: stealth. It’s not exactly what you associate with what was once little more than 3D Operation Wolf, but Raven has made a bold move to add some variety to the missions (you can even carry bodies to hide them Th/ef-style). The problem is that the Quake engine just isn’t built for stealth - as Raven itself should have learned from the sneaky Voyager levels. And these are even more annoying than the ones in Medal Of Honor, where you had to stop the enemy from reaching the alarms. Here, the enemy need only catch sight of you and the bells start ringing followed by plenty of manpower, as if they were all connected telepathically. These levels never last long though, and you can just ignore the stealth and go for pure action since the mission isn’t forfeited once you’re discovered. So you can do your best at avoiding trouble and killing silently and then just let rip when they’ve seen you.
I should mention at this juncture that, played on one of the higher levels, Double Helix is a real hard nut. The limited save games are still a great idea, but you’ll be thankful that you can select an unlimited amount if you want without compromising the Al quality. The upside is that nearly all the levels later on are so good that it’s no punishment to play through whole sections again. I still have save games from Half-Life where you come up against soldiers or black ops that I can play over and over again without getting bored. It’s the closest to fighting other people, and Soldier Of Fortune II comes close to replicating that.
And then there’s the gore. You have to question how much fun it is to see someone's face explode, their leg blown across the room, their windpipe gushing blood, time and time again. But if the violence bothers you that much, you can always turn it off.
There are other problems that stop it from being the game it could have been - small bugs, ridiculously heavy fogging in some areas - but on the whole it oozes quality. The graphics are tremendously detailed (though enemies do have a generic look) and the levels exploit the Quake III engine to the full. You’re never lost without knowing what to do (something that happens all the time in Raven’s Jedi Knight 2) but it still manages to feel like you’re not being led down a path. It’s also full of S/'M-style diversity (shooting from the back of a truck travelling at breakneck speed and then from a helicopter, hovering above a whole level as you descend in a parachute, carrying an injured character out of a burning building and so on). And, above all, the enemies are a joy to fight against, which is exactly what we want from our shooters. Just don’t, whatever you do, go out and buy the magazine.
The Gore Never Ends With The Random Mission Generator
If all you want is a quick blast without all of the hassle of playing through the actual game, you can set up a randomly generated map in just the type of environment you want, with just the sort of weapons you want. You can choose between assassination, escape, infiltration and demolition, although they all take place in similar locations and aren’t exactly overflowing with detail. Still, it’s a nice little addition, and it does work quite well, particularly when you tweak the difficulty all the way up and try to find out just how good you are against a time-limit. But this isn’t the only way to ensure the longevity of the game. A multiplayer test demo has already proved popular online and there are several mods on the way. Considering the quality of the Colombian jungle mission, a Vietnam mod shouldn’t take long to arrive.
The original Soldier Of Fortune may have appalled and disgusted due to its graphic portrayal of bodily mutilation, but that was back in a more innocent age. Since the events of September 11, the goalposts have moved, perhaps irreversibly, and releasing a game involving terrorism is virtually asking for outraged headlines, particularly when the plot involves the threat of biological warfare. Clearly something of a political hot potato, development on Soldier Of Fortune 2 is nevertheless carrying on regardless, and at this stage it is unlikely to be changed into a game in which bouquets of flowers are handed out to the nasty men.
It would be irresponsible of us to ignore the issue though, and during a demonstration of the game we spoke at length to Raven Software's project administrator, Kenn Hoekstra. He claimed: "There's been a lot of sensitivity to the issue and a lot of people trying to make judgments about what the American public can handle and what they can't. I think what it comes down to, if you want to talk about freedom of choice, is that people can choose to entertain themselves however they want. They can watch what they want to watch, do what they want to do, and we're not going to try to make that judgment for people. This game has been in development for two years and we're sticking to our development philosophy and our design and just trying to make the best game we can."
That game will again feature real-life Vietnam veteran John Mullins, who has recently spent some time at the Raven office in his capacity as mercenary consultant. The story begins with a prelude mission that takes place 15 years ago. when Mullins was sent into a Soviet complex in Prague to extract a biological weapons scientist. Back in the present day, and the virus that the scientist was working on shows up in Colombia. It's another excuse for Mullins to grab his passport, and off he sets on a globe-trotting odyssey of slaughter and pain that takes in such exotic locations as an ocean liner en route to Tampa Bay, a Hong Kong prison, and a top secret underground complex in Kamchatka, wherever that is.
There is even a level set on an aeroplane in flight, which we really had to question. Hoekstra was keen to stress that the plane had not been hijacked, and even gave us a tour around it to confirm that there were no passengers. The idea is that it actually belongs to the terrorists, who are now being pitched as some kind of James Bond-style SPECTRE outfit intent on world domination. Perhaps wisely, there will be no reappearance of the Middle Eastern level. As Hoekstra says: "Actually I think one of the things we got flak about in the original game was the Middle Eastern connection.
Out of respect for not trying to classify everyone as a terrorist, we opted for the more kind of SPECTRE-esque, taking over the world idea."
Second Time Around
It's certainly an elaborate tale, and Hoekstra admits: "We tried to focus a lot more on the story this time around. In the last game the story was an afterthought and this time we planned it from the beginning. You kind of unravel the mystery of what's going on - I know that's in increased demand in FPS games."
Also in demand is decent AI, which is one of the criticisms of the first Soldier Of Fortune. This time around, Raven is implementing different levels of AI, with trained enemies working in a more tactical manner. Conversely, so-called thug AI will be used for more basic foes, such as I long Kong street gangs.
Whoever you're fighting, there is still plenty of scope for doing damage, and we were given a graphic demonstration of a blood-drenched corpse being shot repeatedly in the eye. Other visceral treats included bones sticking out from the still warm flesh of your enemies. However, if this isn't your bag, a password system is being implemented enabling you to lock out specific aspects of the game, such as blood or dismemberment, effectively letting you tailor the violence to a level you deem suitable. Or you could just play something else.
At the end of the day, Soldier Of Fortune hits always been about running around shooting people in the face, and the sequel will still offer this. But as Hoekstra says: "We've tried to remain true to the original gameplay as far as action goes, but we've also tried to put in more stealth elements and multiple ways for you to complete missions. You can run and gun and shoot everything that moves or you can try to be stealthy and avoid security cameras."
What Raven, and by association, Activision, won't be able to avoid is the inevitable criticism that the game will receive when it hits shelves next year. Tile US games industry has a reputation for being extremely violent as it is, and this can only help to reinforce that. But as Hoekstra admits: "The timing is unfortunate but it's fundamentally trying to give people entertainment. We're not making a political statement."
You want infinite missions? You got 'em
Unusually for a first-person shooter, Soldier Of Fortune 2 will not feature multiplayer action, the official line being that this is now almost a genre In itself and that simply adding a few half-arsed Deathmatch levels would not be doing it justice.
However, a huge amount of value is to be added by the inclusion of a random scenario generator. Essentially this will wortc in the same way as random maps in real-time strategy games, with variables selected such as what enemies you want to fight and what environment and terrain you want to employ.
And if infinite random missions aren't enough, you can even design your own, by placing buildings and so forth, and deciding objectives such as rescuing hostages, meeting a contact or straightforward seek and destroy. Sounds like a treat for all budding game designers.
One of the more shocking revelations of the show came during the demonstration of Soldier Of Fortune 2. The developers were keen to point out that there'll be considerably less gore this time round, which is either a blessing or a curse depending on your mental stability.
The good news is that the Quake III Team Arena engine was throwing out some lush-looking graphics. We were taken through some of the vehicles that you'll be able to pilot, including tanks and helicopters, the latter of which will give you the chance to man the gun turret and leadhole some bad guys. Needless to say, we were more than a little eager to have a go.
The story is once again based around John Mullins, the hero of the first game. You'll have to lead him through a series of missions, including search-and-destroy runs and intelligence gathering. Ultimately it'll be your goal to stop a deadly virus from being released onto an unsuspecting public. While the developers were keen to demonstrate the inclusion of a random map generator, they were somewhat cagey about multiplayer options, even going so far as to hint that there won't be any. Which is a huge shame, especially as the engine is literally crying out for multiplayer fragging action. However, the single-player game is looking fantastic, so let's just console ourselves with that and save any complaints about the potential lack of multiplayer options until we see the finished product.
Like Halo, Soldier of Fortune 2 is made up of a series of intense shoot-outs--but unlike Halo, your foes aren't smart enough to make the combat infinitely compelling. Geographically, Fortune 2 provides huge bang for the buck with nine massive levels and a unique random -mission generator (although it rarely generates fun levels). The single-player game is certainly enjoyable in short sessions, but it can turn into a dull parade of enemies too stupid to put up any real challenge in a fight, yet frustratingly too wary to sneak up on with a silenced pistol. Fortune ll's single-player game is a bit too straightforward and unpolished, with choppy animations, blocky graphics, and weird dead-body physics. Its online modes, though, add just enough to make it worth picking up. Playing Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Capture the Flag with real people offers unscripted (if somewhat no-frills) manhunting thrills. If you don't have Xbox Live, though, consider renting rather than investing.
Fortune 2 delivers buckets of gore, but you'll actually wanna play this sequel for reasons other than turning the opposition into amputees. I'm talkin' tough enemy A.I. and enough gameplay change-ups (like tricky stealth missions or being a helicopter's gunner) to make it feel less like your run-of-the-mill shooter. But would I choose to fight the good fight against bioterrorism over annihilating Wolfensteiifs undead Nazi legion? Nope. Fortune II doesn't have the same visual polish or addictive team-based online play of Activision's other wartime offering.
This game tries to be part Doom, part Medal of Honor, and part Tom Clancy, but it doesn't try very hard. The extremely bland graphics and inconsistent A.I. (some enemies have Superman hearing; others don't notice me shooting people five feet away) dog an otherwise average experience. And I certainly don't agree with Joe with regard to online: No way I'd play this plain-Jane, dumbed-down shooter online when I can fire up Unreal Championship or Wolfenstein instead.
While something can be said for innovation, something can also be said for good old solid dependability. Being a big fan of the original Soldier of Fortune 2, I looked forward to the Xbox version of this title, as right from the get go I had heard rumors of many fixes being made to the multiplayer, correcting the sometimes horrendous multiplayer experience from the PC version of the game. Additionally, another game with realistic weapon effects, and a real world storyline is always worth a look to me, given how many Tom Clancy novels I read.
Right off, you should notice that the level appearance and design, while confusing at times, is good but not quite top notch. Buildings and props look realistic, but still have a rather low-res feel to them, compared to other games that manage crisp if somewhat spartan visuals. Aurally, there isn't much going on here. Music doesn't get in the way, and it sometimes seems that weapon sounds are a little louder than they need to be, but that isn't without adjustment.
At times, the gameplay can get a little tedious, switching between long moments of necessary stealth and furious gunplay. Sadly, it didn't seem like the hit location based damage was even as detailed as I'd seen on SoF1, as head shots didn't do much, and the only thing that tore off any limbs was a really close shotgun blast. While I'm not addicted to the gore, if it's one of the staples of the series (and let's face it, SoF1 did offer the goriest action around) I expect to be well treated with some chunkariffic action. As is commiserate with the previous title, the enemies do increase in toughness, making the end of the game somewhat frustrating.
Multiplayer was difficult to diagnose, as almost every time I leapt online the servers were nigh empty. However, being rather dogged, I managed to play quite a few sessions, and I found something there that surprised me. The multiplayer was well done, with multiple gameplay modes, and a code base that actually lets you fight an opponent, if sometimes it does seem like you're well tougher than you should be. There's also a random mission mode that sadly is more tacked on than a post it note about your next dentist appointment. This was my single greatest disappointment in the game, as the random missions were small, boring, and frequently displayed the downside of the SoF2 graphic engine.
In summation, I can only say that SoF2 had good, but lackluster, multiplayer gameplay. This is a very traditional realistic FPS, lacking in any serious innovation, relying on the same gameplay that's worked before. However, ultimately, I found it a bit boring, and I'd be hard pressed to pick this up in a bargain bin.
Assume the role of John Mullins, a mere working for the antiterrorist group The Shop, in the hyperrealistic (and extremely gory) first-person shooter Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix. As in the first Soldier (PC, PS2, and DC), Mullins tackles everything from hostage rescues to search-and-destroy missions, wielding more than a dozen meticulously re-created real-world weapons.
State-of-the-art modeling and animation, location-specific damage, and scenarios based on Mullins' experiences (he's a former Special Forces officer) lend authenticity to the game. Bad guys await your bullets in such diverse locales as Prague, Hong Kong, and Kamchatka. Best of all, Double Helix supports various forms of online bloodletting (Deathmatch, Team DM, Elimination, and Infiltration) via Xbox Live.