Soldier of Fortune
|Game Name:||Soldier of Fortune|
|Genre(s):||First Person Shooter|
Soldier of Fortune struck out for infamy at the onset, and retrospectively, it’s one of the few that maintained that over the many years. “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, where the texture of an enemy got swapped out with a bloody/damaged version after a few hits. SoF includes these, but also adds deformation to what were historically static models. Limbs can be removed from models. 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.
All of this is generated on the fly by the GHOUL (it doesn’t really stand for anything) enhancements to the Quake II engine. Enemy models no longer stay unscathed regardless of what absurd damage hits them, nor do they simply turn into a pile of bouncing “gibs.” Stock animations still provide the tumbles enemies take after defeat, but now they may do them with a missing head or profusely bleeding stump. It also allows parts of models to be swapped out from a pool of premades, giving enemies some variety in terms of hats, masks, and faces.
So is there a point to all this? I think so. Gamers were excited because, after being used to technical limitations that made rocket hits leave simple black puffs on walls, and enemies that took a shotgun blast to the face and simply dropped backward in the same way as the last fifty guys, any form of variety that looked to break these limitations was welcome. Sure, you’re going to get the crowd that gets excited because you can now break up a dead body into component parts and stringy bits, but I think the real achievement here comes from being an incremental step to making the action more dynamic, and less like a stiff, polygon cartoon show.
Not to say this game was never out to garner free marketing through controversy with that gore, because there’s simply no way that it wasn’t. GHOUL’s effects seem comical at times – 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. You can allegedly shoot a gun from an enemy’s hand, but any high-power weapon is likely to take that arm off with it. You can empty entire clips into enemies and watch them spaz around like Jimmy Caan in The Godfather. And an unscripted moment for me saw a hostage’s face literally blown off while screaming for her kids. It’s hard to justify enjoying this gore in any intellectual way, we can only hope to argue that it doesn’t really affect us.
This is where SoF’s infamy starts to get in its own way – in all the talk about GHOUL, the actual gameplay gets lost, and what’s here is actually a pretty excellent shooter in the vein of the most ’80s of Hollywood cinema. Low power weapons don’t even activate GHOUL, so most of the game is spent using SMGs to lay out charging guards coming around the corner, and watching pretty sharp recreations of movie blood puffs come off their chests and appear to stain their uniforms as they collapse 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 dopey action movie, with occasional outlandish spots of violence, you’re on the right track.
Plot 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, using lost nuclear weapons as a license for Mullins to invade foreign soil and kill various natives of dubious political allegiance. 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. Luckily, a “custom” option lets you mix and match most of these 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, 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.
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. “Lean” keys let you pop out to shoot from cover. And while weapons are limited, each has two modes of fire with different results, plus 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, and certainly not enough to shift to lower-powered silenced guns. 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 even with all its options it’s tough to set the difficulty level to your liking, 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. Loads of difficulty options, but quite a disparity between settings for damage or A.I. reactions – mostly rely on it to turn off quicksaves. Variety comes in how you blast bad guys, and not so much in set pieces or particular action sequences.
“Excuse me, Mr. Hussein, but I need the General alive.” –John F. Mullins