2000's Soldier of Fortune offered gamers a first-person opportunity to outsmart evil terrorist plots and battle international criminals with real life state-of-the-art weaponry. Running on a modified version of the Quake III Arena engine, Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix boasts more detailed 3D environments and a more accurate representation of character damage, both of which are designed to add new aspects of strategy and realism to the proven gameplay of the original release.
Resuming the role of international anti-terrorist expert John Mullins (a character based on a real-life Special Forces officer of the same name), players embark on missions set around the world to disarm dangerous plots through intricate covert operations and powerful head-on battles. Soldier of Fortune II includes a "violence lock" feature designed to remove most of the graphic violence and mature dialog, making the gameplay more appropriate for a wider audience.
Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix isn't just a solid shooter -- it's a huge leap over the original, both technically and in terms of gameplay, and contains a number of advancements that may influence the genre for years to come.
As in the original game, SoF2 casts you as John Mullins, a real-life mercenary-for-hire working for a covert anti-terrorism outfit known as the "Shop". Don't expect to see many other ties to the original game, however -- this time around, you're tasked with investigating a terrorist group bent on unleashing a deadly bio-weapon somewhere in the U.S. The plot is decent enough -- it has just enough mystery to keep you interested, and is far better than what you'll find in most shooters.
The game opens up with a flashback mission in Prague, and over the course of nearly 60 levels, you'll visit locations such as Colombia, Hong Kong, Kamchatka, and even an ocean liner en route to Tampa Bay. While a few of the levels are a little shorter than what you'd find in other shooters, SoF2 overall is a pretty big game. Missions are a healthy mix of outdoor assaults and tight indoor combat, with a number of stealth missions and arcade-style levels where you'll ride in a truck, helicopter, etc, shooting anything that gets near you.
To help you get acquainted with the game's weapons and gadgets, a short tutorial mission is included. Once you've finished the flashback mission, the game returns you to the Shop, where you're given intel and even get to choose your weaponry before each mission. There are about 15 weapons total in the game, including a variety of machine guns, shotguns, pistols and grenades. Also returning is the combat knife, which you'll find handy on many of the stealth missions.
The high point of SoF2, by far, is its combat. There are only two games in the last year that I think match up to it on a purely visceral basis -- Halo and Medal Of Honor: Allied Assault, mostly due to the game's improved AI. Unlike the original game, SoF2's enemies are NOT pushovers, even on the easiest skill level. They'll hide behind trees, peek out to shoot, throw grenades, chase after you, call for reinforcements and even duck down into grass to hide. Enemies respond to the sounds of gunfire, and will also react when they notice a fallen enemy. Aside from the graphics, the AI is easily the biggest improvement over the original SoF, and it's most welcome.
If I had to single out one thing that bothered me about SoF2, it would be the stealth levels, of which there are a few. It's understandable that the developers would want to break the action up here and there, but many of these missions ultimately amount to one huge puzzle, and are usually solved by trial, error ... and lots of quicksaving. Some people might enjoy it, but I just wanted to get back to shooting the bad guys. In the grand scheme of things, it's a small nitpick, but one worth noting.
On the topic of graphics, SoF2's are top notch. Using a heavily modified version of the Quake 3 engine, Raven is doing things that we didn't think were possible not long ago. Many levels are set in huge outdoor areas, transitioning pretty seamlessly to interiors. The detail in the character models is nothing short of jaw-dropping, and while I wasn't particularly impressed with the textures from Jedi Outcast (Raven's other recent game), SoF2's are of an almost photorealistic quality. There are lots of scalability options, so regardless of what kind of system you have, you should be able to get things running smoothly.
The star of the show, however, is Raven's "GHOUL 2" skeletal modeling system. Each character's body is broken up into a number of "zones" that produce different reactions when hit -- a clean headshot with a shotgun or sniper rifle will kill most enemies, while it's possible to take someone's arm clean off or even shoot the weapon out of their hands. While this system also appeared in Jedi Outcast, the effects are far more obvious in SOF2 -- enemies react in different ways depending on where you shoot them, and really helps sell the illusion that you're not simply fighting a bunch of computer-controlled robots.
SoF2's technical brilliance doesn't stop with its visuals. The sound effects are amazingly effective, especially the way bullets clank off metal objects. Voice acting is also well done, with lots of chatter from Mullins and professional talent handling many of the other characters.
It should be mentioned that SoF2 is a VERY mature game, with lots of gore and sensitive themes like terrorism and biological warfare. While the gore levels can be adjusted (and even password-protected), things can get really ugly at the highest levels -- a shotgun at point-blank range can take someone's head clear off, bodies slumping to the floor, convulsing in a pool of blood. Should that stop you -- or encourage you -- when deciding to buy the game? Hard to say ... but it's certainly worth noting.
When you've finished the single-player campaign, SoF2 offers a LOT of features to keep you busy. Perhaps the most interesting is the random mission generator ("RMG"), which can generate an entirely new map for you to play on, complete with weapons, enemies, and even different objectives such as assassination, escape, demolition, etc.
For those familiar with the complexities of mapping for Quake 3 games, this may seem like the stuff of pure fantasy ... but it works, and it works pretty well. There's a definite similarity to the maps (they're all set outside in large open areas, with the same structures appearing throughout), but if you have twenty minutes to kill and don't have a fast internet connection, you can load the RMG up at any time and get a quick fix. Even better, each map generated by the RMG has a code associated with it, so you can easily "save" your favorites and even share them with friends. It's a brilliant addition to an already excellent game, and one of the most impressive innovations to hit first-person shooters in years.
The Final Word
I could spend days exploring the fine points of Soldier of Fortune 2. At first glance, it may seem like most other shooters, but it does so many things well, and offers so much replay value within the random mission generator and multiplayer modes that it's easily one of the best action games of 2002.
People who downloaded Soldier of Fortune 2: Double Helix have also downloaded:
Soldier of Fortune, No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, No One Lives Forever, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Resident Evil, Silent Hill 2, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis
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