Summary: Raven's released a sequel to its gore-tastic shooter, Soldier of Fortune. How does SoF2 stack up to its somewhat controversial predecessor? Is there a game underneath all that blood? Find out in our review
Soldier of Fortune II official home page: http://www.activision.com/games/soldieroffortune/
For every popular game there’s three sequels waiting
When Raven first introduced Soldier of Fortune 2, most people thought that it wouldn’t be more than another blood and guts fest. The first SOF didn’t have much in the plot or character department, and was carried by its fast and bloody gameplay. A lot has changed since then, moving from the Quake 2 engine to the Quake 3 engine, but more importantly Raven has put a few more games under its belt for experience.
Raven is really building its name up to one of the most well-known developers around. With hits like Star Trek: Elite Force and Jedi Knight II, everyone expects games with Raven on the box to be high-quality. They seem to be the masters of taking an existing story or theme and converting it into a good first-person shooter. One big exception is Soldier of Fortune, which is a home-grown Raven product. While it still uses id’s engines, SOF is Raven’s baby.
So how much has Soldier of Fortune progressed since 2000? While there’s still plenty of gore, the really the only thing left from the original SOF is John Mullins, the man with the worse mustache in the world. They’ve changed everything from the GHOUL rendering system to a story you may actually want to pay attention to.
As good as the Godfather 2?
One marked improvement from the first Soldier of Fortune is the story. Everyone agrees that the story, especially the ending, of the first SOF was about as good as a swig from a can of paint thinner. Barely any plot, terrible characters, and an ending worse than an episode of Thundercats. Thankfully, Raven spent more than five minutes on the story of SOF2. The plot involves John Mullins saving the world from an evil organization bent on terrorism and world domination. Well maybe it’s not that different, but this time there arefar fewer plot holes. The story doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the action, but you’re still definitely not playing to move the story along like a good RPG. It does the job and little more.
450 MHz CPU
128MB of RAM
16MB TNT Video card
1.5 GHz+ CPU
512MB of RAM
GeForce3 or better
Cable/DSL for online play
Ghouls and ghosts
Besides using the Quake 3 Arena engine, SOF2 also uses the GHOUL2 rendering system (as seen in Jedi Knight II). The GHOUL2 is the perfect match for this type of gameplay. It allows character models to have 36 different damage zones, which means that a character model can reflect 36 different areas where he’s shot. Add in the ability to remove limbs at several spots and there are dozens animations for injuring an enemy. There are also tons of death animations, from a headless body squirting blood out of its neck and falling lifelessly to the ground to a soldier choking on his own blood from a neck shot to a gang member falling over after you blew his leg off. All of these animations are top notch. It looks like Raven spent a lot of time and money on motion capture, because the character animations are some of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s satisfying to see an enemy’s arm fly off, rather than seeing the same four death animations over and over. It’s more entertaining than realistic, but the real payoff is seeing your handiwork portrayed.
Soldier of Fortune 2 also uses decals very well. Every time you shoot someone blood appears on their clothes at the area where you shot them. Shoot someone next to a wall and you’ll see the blood splatter on the wall and the ground. Blow and arm, leg, or head off and their body will squirt blood from the stump, complete with stains from the gushing blood. Bullets and explosions always leave scuffs on the ground and walls. The decal system is so good that you could recreate the cause of death at a death scene from the blood splatter, scuffs, broken glass, and bullet casings on the ground. This is no kid’s game.
Some of the minor details in SOF2 add to the quality of the graphics. Bullet casings eject out of weapons – nothing new there – but the casings are real objects with physical properties, unlike most games that do this. So if you’re standing close to a wall on your right, the bullet casings will eject out of the gun and ricochet off of the wall instead of just falling to the floor. Knocking head gear and weapons away from enemies is common (as seen in the first SOF). Textures add a lot of detail to the models, from wrinkles in a soldier’s uniform to scuffs on a used weapon.
The maps take advantage of a lot of graphical effects. The environmental effects, such as snow, rain and fog are some of the best around. The rain is especially good, as you see a blanket of water splashes as the rain comes down on the map. There are a lot of movable and deformable objects on the map as well. While you can’t blow chunks of out of every building on the map, the scripted deformations are done very well. Grass in the jungle levels are cool – you can duck down and hide in the grass, but enemies can too, which leads to some very difficult gunfights.
The sound effects in Soldier of Fortune 2 are some of the best to date. The best aspect is that everything fits together well. The in-game voice acting is just as good as the cut scene voice acting. The weapon effects are great, as are the sound of ricochets and explosions. There’s nothing quite as unnerving as the sound of bullets plunking the ground beside you when someone is shooting at you from afar and you’re too far to hear the gunshots.
The sound is so good that it makes an integral part of the gameplay. SOF2 is one of the few games where you really need to use your hearing to play. When you’re trying to sneak it’s very common to hide in a shadow and listen to a guard’s feet walk up, pause, and fade away as he walks off. In gunfights you hear enemies communicating to each other, “He’s over here!” or “He’s mine!” and “Grenade!” You can also use audible clues to estimate how many enemies are in a room or listen to see if you hurt someone when firing through a smoke grenade. A door opening behind you can alert you of a sneak attack.
The music of SOF2 isn’t very memorable. Most of the time the music needs to be turned down because you need to listen for enemy movement and make sure you’re not making a lot of noise. I didn’t really notice the music much because of this. In multiplayer, the music is pretty cheesy. It reminds me of bad 8-bit Nintendo MIDI music. Good thing this is a Quake 3 engine game so you can listen to your own MP3’s instead.
SIDEBAR: Use thermal goggles when going into a close quarters situations with lots of doors and rooms. Turn the thermals on when you’re standing next to a door and you’ll be able to see enemies on the other side, Predator style. You can’t shoot through the walls, but at least you know what to expect.
We don’t need no stinking stealth
The pace of SOF2 is completely in your hands – a big plus. I generally don’t like slow, stealthy FPS games because I like to play games where you have to make life or death split second decisions; just like multiplayer FPS games. In SOF2 there are several levels where the game suggests that you sneak around enemies, take them out with a knife or silencer, but you’re almost never forced to go quietly (there’s one short section in one mission that you have to). I really like having the option, since it allows me to run and gun through a level if I feel like it. One level requires you to get into the cargo hold of a ship – an alarm indicates if the crew knows you’re aboard. I tried a few times doing it slowly, but it annoyed me too much so I started blasting away with my shotgun. To my surprise the game didn’t fade to black; it let me blast my way through the whole ship. This was the harder approach, since the entire crew came at me guns blazing, but it was much more fun to me than sneaking. If you do like stealthy FPS games the option is always there. I could even imagine completing the entire game with just a knife (minus a few bosses).
Soldier of Fortune 2’s weapons strive to be realistic. They do sacrifice some realism for playability, like a fully automatic MAC-10 empties a clip in less than a second, but in SOF2 you have a lot of time before you need to reload. As a whole I would have liked more variety in the weapons. You’re generally using an automatic rifle or a shotgun the entire game. All of the automatic rifles act the same (besides the secondary attack) so they can be a bit boring after a while. The shotguns are more fun than your average FPS since they’re one shot kills at close to medium range, and they tend to make very messy deaths. Grenades are good, but it’s not so easy to get kills with them since the AI will run away or throw them back at you. The “exotic” weapons like the OICW and Grenade Launcher aren’t as useful as Raven intended. Launching grenades is too hard in close quarters and it’s much easier to snipe at longer ranges. The knife is one of the best melee weapons in an FPS game because you can throw knives for quick, silent kills. In multiplayer games I would much rather fight with a knife than a handgun.
The AI in Soldier of Fortune II is a strongpoint of the single player game. I actually found myself playing to outsmart the enemies, rather than out-aiming them like one would normally do in a single player FPS. The enemies will use cover like walls and crates (more than most FPS games already), but they will also move between locations to get closer to you. If you knock their weapon out of their hands (again, already better than most FPS games) they’ll run away knowing you have the upper hand until they can pick up another weapon. Some soldiers will reach down to their leg and unsheathe a pistol. They use grenades frequently – if they spot a grenade that’s too close they’ll run for cover or even pick it up and throw it at you. Enemies also react to the sound you create (that’s why the sound meter is so important). If you make noise walking up to a door, enemies on the other side will raise their weapons in anticipation of your arrival, or even open the door before you get to it. Enemies will also react to comrades that die next to them. No more walking on like nothing happened, they’ll freak out, search for cover, and try to figure out where the shot came from. If they know, they’ll hunt you down. All of these AI features add up to a different type of FPS than a run-of-the-mill kill everything and go shooter. Yes, you end up killing everything, but the process is far from mindless.
Enemies only spawn when you get close to their spawn points. What’s the big deal with this? There’s a tendency in single player games to use “loading ESP” – when you reload a saved game and kill an enemy before you see it. Everyone does it; how did you ever beat Contra on the NES without completely memorizing most of the levels? In SOF2 this is toned down a lot – you can’t throw a grenade over a wall to an area you can’t reach for five minutes and kill the soldiers waiting for you, because they won’t spawn until you get near the area. This is a fairly minor point, but it does add to the single player experience.
In a similar vein, the scripted in-game events are done very well. On some maps you have to retrace your steps to escape or gain access to a new area. A lot of FPS games would just allow you to walk through a cleared area, but in SOF2 new enemies spawn. For example, in one level you need to destroy a lab. You clear all the enemies up to the detonation spot, but as soon as you blow up the lab more soldiers come streaming in from the area you just cleared. This is a good feature because you never know what’s coming up. You always have to be on your toes, and you’re always on edge waiting for the next bullet heading towards your skull.
SIDEBAR: Korean manufacturer Daewoo (known for their line of Korean cars that are trying to take off in the US) is the manufacturer of the fully-automatic shotgun seen in SOF2.
Be a man
Soldier of Fortune 2 is one of the few games where the difficulty setting makes a big difference in the gameplay. That is, if you play on easy you’re not experiencing the game properly. In real life you would never blindly run into a room full of armed soldiers guns blazing (even if you’re a ninja). On easy you can do just that, knowing the AI will miss a few shots and you can take a dozen bullets before dying. This reduces the game to, “just another FPS,” and takes a step away from realism. While this game isn’t completely realistic, it does aim to be more realistic than not. On Consultant and Soldier of Fortune modes, the AI will drop your ass with a few shots the instant it sees you (you are fighting gangsters, militia, and trained military). This forces you to really think about what you’re doing – how to outsmart an enemy, rely on stealth, and get the tactical advantage to take them out. This is how SoF2 was meant to be played, and I think you’re missing out if you only play the single player on easy (which is insultingly easy).
The Random Mission Generator is a nice way to extend the life of SOF2. It allows you to play a single player mission, ranging from Assassination to Escape from Jail to Infiltration (similar the multiplayer game type). The game generates a random map based on the tileset, time of day, and playing conditions you choose. The random maps don’t really feel that random however. While the buildings and trees are mixed up, the overall feel of the maps are the same. You always slowly work your way to the goal, picking off enemies in buildings, heal and reload frequently, and finally accomplish the goal. The random maps are a good idea, and I hope Raven makes a better version in its next FPS.
There are some flaws in the single player campaign. The AI can’t handle shooting you when you lean around a corner. They keep shooting at the center of your body as if you weren’t leaning, so they end up shooting the wall. This is a fairly easy trick that allows you to kill a lot of enemies. The biggest problem however, is that there is no sense of accomplishment. After you finish a mission you see a few cut scenes that move the story along, but there’s nothing that allows you to use the experiences of a previous mission to accomplish the mission at hand. Role-playing games allow you to level your character, unlocking more skills and abilities. Most FPS games give you new weapons. In SOF2 there’s nothing distinguishing one mission from the next (besides a little story). You could probably play the missions in a random order and walk away with the same sense of accomplishment.
My biggest problem with the single player campaign is that the enemies can see you before you can see them in the foggy levels. In these levels you’re supposed to use the OICW, which has a “threat indicator” built into the scope. Basically if someone’s carrying a gun in your scope, it will put a red box around them, even if they’re behind a tree partially obscured by a wall. This sounds like a good idea, but it doesn’t work very well. Enemies always see you before the threat indicator works, so by the time the red boxes appear you’re already exchanging fire. Luckily there’s only the one level that this happens a lot (but it’s a very tough level).
The level design in SOF2 leans towards realism. Since all of the action is supposed to take place in the real world, the buildings are laid out like real hotels, office buildings, and airports. There are no space aliens or daemons in this game, so all of the buildings need to look like they’re made and used by people. This is good because it adds to the realism of the game, but it’s also bad because some of the levels can be predictable. The better levels keep you guessing. The Columbian jungle is spread out with a lot of tall grass and trees, enemies patrol the fields and man guard towers, groups of tents create small outposts – all of which add up to a sense of the unknown. Some levels take an obvious location, like a hospital, and create confusion by blocking doors and creating barricades so you can’t take the easy way out – a good design. Other levels use the same tricks FPS games have been using for years. Crawling through air vents and gun fights in warehouses have been worn out. A couple of rail shooters are done well (levels where you’re stuck on a moving platform and all you can do is shoot a gun) – the truck shooter is fun. Enemies roll up next to you with their own turrets and try to knock you off the road and gun you down.
On a side note, I didn’t experience any bugs while playing SOF2. Apparently there are some serious bug problems with the initial release. I didn’t experience any, so I can’t comment on them.
SIDEBAR: There’s a level where you’re escorted by a couple of marines through the jungle. Be smart and get in formation with them. They’re excellent shots, they have unlimited ammo, and they can take a lot of damage. Keep them covered and they’ll do the same for you.
Raven made the correct decision in completely rebalancing the game for team multiplayer. A lot of the parameters in single player would completely ruin a team game. For example, you can only carry one primary weapon (i.e. an M4 or a AK), one secondary (Shotgun, Uzi), and one type of grenade. In the single player you can carry four primary weapons. In multiplayer your ammo is limited to the Consultant, or Hard level of single player - you can only carry 20 sniper rifle bullets.
Capture the flag maps use Raven’s new random map generator, a very nifty feature. The server creates the map, and sends clients the info to create the map on their system. They’re very large, in the same vein as the Tribes series of games. Although the maps are randomly generated, they end up being very similar - Big open maps with hills creating a few choke points and random buildings or trees creating cover. There are different tile sets, and it can be either day or night, but they all play the same. Most of the fighting happens at the choke points, teams need to relay flags to capture since there’s not a lot of cover, and everyone loves to snipe. Big open maps tend to be very sniper happy, especially when the weapons have no maximum range. You’d think that random maps would lead to a lot of varied gameplay, but that’s not the case. CTF in SOF2 could benefit from more maps with more variation in gameplay.
Infiltration is SOF2’s answer to Counter-Strike. The concept is basically the same – two teams, one protecting a briefcase, the other trying to steal it. Players are eliminated and don’t spawn until the next round. It doesn’t work quite as well as CS however. There’s no money system, so every player spawns with whatever weapons and equipment that they want, taking away the momentum of CS. There’s a smaller variety of weapons, and the maps are ports of single player and Deathmatch maps. I don’t blame Raven for not completely copying Counter-Strike; where’s the fun in that? Infiltration is pretty good gametype, and hey it’s free so why not give it a shot.
Better than Quake 3 graphics:
Gore may be too much:
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