Soldier of Fortune
|Game Name:||Soldier of Fortune|
|Genre(s):||First Person Shooter|
I suspect that Soldier of Fortune will forever live in infamy. “Starring” former real-life mercenary John Mullins, SoF offers 27 levels of hard and fast paramilitary action. It has a wide selection of weapons, inventory items including grenades and plastic explosives, and a storyline full of intrigue as you track down four nuclear weapons stolen by the enigmatic terrorist organization known as The Order. You’ll conduct night operations, day operations, assault a subway, palace, oil refinery, and a moving train with your buddy Hawke lending support and the booming voice of Michael Clark Duncan.
None of this matters. Soldier of Fortune will always be known as the game where you shoot people in 20-something “dismemberment zones” and watch their pain-wracked bodies bleed out from shattered limbs in a unique way for each spot.
Now “pain skins” had been around since Quake II (whose engine this game runs on a modded version of), where the texture of an enemy got swapped out with a bloody/damaged version after a hit. SoF takes these and runs even further, with even more off-the-hook results. Limbs can be removed from models on the fly. Small triangular polys can get added to models to suggest exit wounds, so a blown-out hole can be simulated on the back of an enemy’s head or torso. Sprites stick out of severed limbs to suggest a ragged edge and bloody pulp. Polygonal intestines can poke out of gutshots to varying degrees (though they never spill onto the floor). And blood textures splatter on the walls and floor in real-time, to further sell the carnage.
The technology that runs this is called GHOUL, and it’s mostly an engine plugin to an otherwise standard FPS action game. The major question thus becomes: does the GHOUL system make the action more visceral? My answer is a strong yes, because your directed digital death has clear and painful results. Aside from simply removing arms and legs, character reactions are also far more accurate than the usual “get shot and fall down” animations from similar games. Most obvious is that victims don’t always die right away. They’ll wallow around on the ground screaming, struggle to grab at stumps of former limbs, twitch and spasm, or even lie paralyzed while blinking and trying to move their mouths.
In one case, I was under fire from a sniper and had little recourse but to assault his position while firing a Magnum. I tagged him in the balls with my first shot, sending him to his knees, blew off his leg with the second, and ripped open his throat with the third. He stayed up on his good leg at an odd cant, clutching his throat and gargling while painting the walls with geysers of his blood, before finally falling to his back and rolling around for a few more seconds of simulated agony. I can’t even remember a “how I a killed a guy” story from another FPS; by contrast, I won’t soon forget what I saw in those few seconds of SoF.
Not that sympathy matters much, because you can’t play the game without enacting the GHOUL system somewhere. The simple act of firing a shotgun in a bad guy’s general direction causes limbs to pop off torsos like uncapping snakes-in-a-can. It’s easily the most elaborate damage system put forth in a game (barring, obviously, Solider of Fortune 2), and you’ll have one of three possible responses. 1) You’ll marvel at the care put into animating polygons getting shot. 2) You’ll play enough to be horrified and go running for the parental controls, or 3) You’ll think GHOUL is the most killer, awesomest, fucking sweet-ass system you’ve ever seen because you can mutilate a dead body into component parts and stringy bits with your knife. If you fall into that last camp, well, I’m not gonna judge, but I think one of us is missing the point. I kinda hope it’s not me.
It is just a game. But does it go to far? I had to wonder then when I watched a hostage get her face literally blown off while screaming for her kids. It wasn’t a scripted moment – just an emergent situation combining that model with that line and that crossfire – but it was enough to make me wish the violence here had a point other than sheer entertainment. If you think you’ll be offended, stay away, because you will be. And it is a reminder that we can never intellectually defend violence in games as something good and enriching, we can only hope to argue that it doesn’t really affect us.
While I think SoF wanted to be the most realistic simulation of shooting people out there, everything else is pure, bombastic Hollywood action. In general gameplay, you’re going to be using the submachine guns to mow down countless guards and soldiers in true FPS fashion. None of the SMGs are powerful enough to enact the GHOUL system. Instead, you’ll charge around firing at guards coming around the corner, and watch pretty sharp recreations of movie blood puffs come off their chests and appear to stain their uniforms as they sprawl to the floor. If you’re expecting to play an authentic recreation of undercover special operations with photorealistic wounds, you won’t find it here. If you’re expecting to play a pretty excellent recreation of your own action movie, with occasional outlandish spots of violence, you’re on the right track.
Gameplay is a cross between Rambo storming endless prison camps and James Bond traveling the world. You’ll get missions referenced from an organization called The Shop, and collect them from a contact with an elaborate underground lair attached to an innocuous book shoppe. Missions take place in such politically incorrect hotspots as Serbia, Iraq, and the Sudan. Mullins fills the role of gunslinging lawman quite well, with his Charles Bronson mustache and floppy swamp hat.
The plot is jingoistic Americana, as Mullins rushes into foreign countries to track down the nukes, protect America’s interests, and in doing so, probably make the rest of the world safer, I guess. Your enemies will be natives of dubious political allegiance, made different solely by the appearance of some civilians whom you’re not supposed to shoot (but nothing happens to you if you do anyway.) It’s breezy shoot-em-up fare with a license to invade foreign soil and kill anyone and everyone in sight. We’re at least spared the indignity of actually seeing what John Mullins in a foolproof Arab disguise looks like.
I played on two difficulty modes, “normal” and the next level up, “challenging.” The disparity between the two is striking. In normal, enemies have horrible aim from any range, bullets sting like mosquitoes, and stockpiles of ammo flow like a cool mountain stream. In challenging, snipers call you up before you roll out of bed and shoot you over the phone. Difficulty levels not only control damage and AI accuracy, they also dictate the number of quicksaves you get per level. While challenging is a good difficulty for vets, the hard limit of two quicksaves a level requires too much frustrating creeping ahead and backtracking to the previous save to better re-plant the other save. You simply won’t know how much more level you have left. Comparatively, you can beat normal with one eye open, a hangover, and someone else holding the mouse. You can’t mix and match difficulty settings to your liking.
Other than the gore, graphics retain the patented Quake II engine look. Blocky architecture, some fairly hammy explosions, decent lighting, a pretty cool fog effect, and lots of brown. Some nice texture work helps the various spots on your world tour look diverse. While every level will share long corridors with recycled textures, you do get some memorable sections now and again, and a fair amount of scripted events with deforming buildings and exploding objects.
You’ll also run across some shiny textures here and there, especially on the guns, whose models suggest loving care in their craftsmanship. They’re loosely based on real-life counterparts (for legal reasons, they say) but do contain enough moving parts and smooth angles to allow the kind of people who would read “Soldier of Fortune” magazine to be able to identify the gun that’s being represented. The SMG in particular has a windowed clip with a bullet texture that “feeds” into the gun as you shoot. You have your ammo counter as usual, but a quick look at the gun model itself will also show you how close you are to running out, just as the real gun would. Pretty neat.
There are no real surprises with John’s controls. You follow the WASD movement standard, and it works as well as it always does. You do gain access to a lean option by holding down the Use key while pressing Strafe Left or Right. It’s extremely useful to protect yourself in the harder difficulties, though the implementation is a little clunky. The default bindings move Use to the space bar for easier access, and Jump to the E key. I never stopped getting the two confused, and you can’t bind “Lean Right” or “Lean Left” to specific keys.
You have an inventory, scrolled through with the brackets and deployed with Enter. Objects you can carry range from useless C4 and nightvision goggles, to grenades with 3D models you actually “throw” out into the world. A final point of note is that every weapon has two modes of fire with different results, and two “alternate” keys that trigger a superfluous animation – you’ll wipe blood off the knife, switch the hand your pistol is carried in, or flip the shotgun around in the air. Just another example of how the game hearts its modeled boomsticks.
Average, but quality, effects await you in the sound department. Enemy voices are usually only grunts and screams, but when they do talk, they will do so in the language of the current region. Mullins and Hawke duel back and forth for Most Gravelly Action Hero Voice (and MCD wins), and you’ll get a lion’s share of ridiculous action movie lines as you progress (my favorite: “Kill me and you’re a dead man.”) Gunshots boom when they need to, and even the smallest weapons convey power and believable reports. Music is thumping action, with a dynamic feature to switch between ambiance and action movie moment depending on the situation. This works well, with only a few instances where you cycle back and forth between the two (usually as new enemies arrive) a little too quickly to make the effect seamless.
Sound also plays a limited role in the game itself, with a meter along the bottom that tracks your stealthiness. It has nothing to do with movement or actual noisemaking, as only gunshots make it rise. The idea is that once it hits the red area, the game will spawn more enemies to attack you. In practice, it doesn’t matter at all as only large, prolonged gun battles between you and multiple foes cause the meter to reach this point. A few extra bad guys rushing in to the line of fire you’re already laying down don’t matter that much. You’ll at least never have “stealth missions” that fail if you raise alarms or the like.
Soldier of Fortune’s legacy is the outlandish gore, which never looked particularly realistic – and looks downright primitive today. Still, it’s a bit of a shame that the GHOUL system overshadowed everything else about the game. It’s one of the the most true-to-film action games I’ve played, and it really nails the moments when you’re running through complexes and blasting at ineffective guards. The plot is almost too dumb to enjoy even ironically, and the difficulty system could have used a real overhaul, but the rest can be good fun. If you don’t like the offer of shattered limbs and protruding guts, turn the parental controls on and enjoy an otherwise intense interactive B-movie.
The gore doesn’t make the game better per se, but it doesn’t get in the way of another fine FPS title. Some of the gore, like the excellent blood puffs, actually help it feel more like playing an action film instead of just another game with blocky, brainless characters.
Gore sometimes goes too far in that it can distract from the game. Your personal tolerance will decide how far in this line is. Little genre innovation other than the gore, but still a capable effort.
“Excuse me, Mr. Hussein, but I need the General alive.” –John F. Mullins