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Soldier of Fortune | review | game | Lollipop

Soldier of Fortune

(Activision for the PC)
by Eric Johnson

From the Hessians, who got their clocks stopped by Washington one frigid Christmas morning, to the Vikings hired to protect the Byzantine Emperors, for centuries mercenaries were the go to guys for monarchs too stingy to support a regular army. With the French Revolution and the unstoppable conscripted armies of Napoleon, fighting for national identity was suddenly in vogue and the freelance soldier was rendered militarily impotent. The 20th century has witnessed the once great Soldier of Fortune relegated to second-rate action films, assisting third-world despots, and rescuing the employees of H. Ross Perot from the clutches of Iranian Revolutionaries.

Soldier of Fortune is an intense first-person shooter produced with the assistance of real-life mercenary John Mullins, a man with a killer resume, buckets of moxie, and more clients than a sixteenth century Swiss Pikeman. Not delivering the unparalleled realism promised in the ton of pre-release hype, SoF is a very good game exhibiting some unfortunate shortcomings that can easily be addressed in future expansion packs. As a bare bones first person shooter, SoF mostly relies on the "just try to survive" mission structure found in early incarnations of Doom and Quake. Taking on the roll of Mullins, the player must negotiate 36 scenarios ranging from the retrieval of stolen nuclear warheads, to infiltration, hostage rescue, and occasional assassination.

Stacked up against recent, more experimental games in the genre (such as Thief II and Half-Life), the straight up action of SoF may come as a welcome relief or a sour disappointment. The plot is insignificant, relying on the standard-issue B-rated action movie standby of stolen nuclear warheads; it does, however, provide an excuse to travel to lawless hotspots the world over. The controls are simple, straightforward, instinctive, and completely customizable in case preferences differ. The graphics are lovely, gritty, and realistic with lots of detail, including vulgar graffiti and bizarre tattoos. The sound is just fine, nothing unique, but the music definitely leaves something to be desired; classical music will always beat out canned techno for atmosphere.

What sets Soldier of Fortune apart from other titles in the genre is its unparalleled hit location system. Other games have sported comparatively primitive hit location with the head, torso, groin, and limbs separated, but not like this. Every limb and area of the body is subdivided into sections so that a wound to the knee, shin, ankle, foot, or thigh produces a unique wound and a completely different reaction from the computer-controlled characters. Extremely violent deaths are produced if you hit particular "gore zones," with grotesque effects such as severed limbs, spurting jugulars, and heads that explode to reveal lonely brain stems and spinal columns. Even the head is subdivided to the point where a knife slash can take off a diagonal section of the scalp.

It goes without saying that this is a supremely violent game, maybe the most violent I've ever witnessed. There's a good chance that someone, somewhere will kill someone and try to blame it on this game. In addition, one must take into account the fact that the computer-controlled opponents are quite clearly human; most first-person action games shy away from human-shaped opponents. There's also a low violence Wal-mart approved "tactical" version of this game, but shooting someone in the head with a shotgun is disturbing and not meant for kids, bloody consequences or not; besides, when you get to the mission where you hunt down and assassinate Saddam Hussein, you want the money shot, you want the pay off.

On the down side, in single player mode, the enemy AI is absolutely pathetic. Bad guys will never flank you and rarely even make an effort to leave their point of origin. They're almost always riveted in place waiting for you to run out and dramatically take them down. Some sort of AI patch for this game is desperately needed. It stands in the way of this game's potential greatness. The best way to avoid the depressing enemy intelligence level is to concentrate on multi-player mode, which is really where the positive aspects of this game come alive. It may take some time to find a good server, but taking down thinking human opponents is an absolute blast. Of course, it's similar to multiplayer modes in other games, with death matches and capture-the-flag scenarios, but the levels are well-designed and Assassin mode is amazing. Death Matches grow old fast, partially because of the belligerence and skill level exhibited by other players, but a good capture-the-flag scenario is like electronic crack. After checking out the online competition, the single player game loses some of its luster, but most purely action-oriented first-person games have evolved toward becoming totally multiplayer experiences, and coming packaged with 36 single player missions sure does add value to the purchase.

Soldier of Fortune needs expansion packs, more complex missions, and better enemy AI. It has a great engine, look and feel, but the single-player mode gets as monotonous as those damn Rambo movies. I want to see Medal of Honor (reviewed last issue) imported into this engine, but retaining the intelligence profile that made it great. Come to think of it, Vietnam scenarios would kick ass -- all sorts of historical scenarios could be thrown together adding tremendous longevity to the title. Ultimately, Soldier of Fortune is a visceral masterpiece worth checking out, even if only in demo form. It's shortcomings need to be addressed, but the raw materials for a strong franchise are there. I appreciate the elements of realism, but unparalleled realism was promised and unparalleled realism should be delivered. Unfortunately, too much of the wrong kind of action movie influence permeates this game, tedious standby flicks like Rambo and Commando had too much influence on the final design. This must be remedied. Someone take John Mullins to a John Woo flick.


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