Raven Software seems to have a pretty solid understanding of what 1st person shooter players want in their games. They began working in FPS games with Hexen 2 and Heretic 2, but I didn’t really take notice of them until Soldier of Fortune a couple of years back. They followed that with Voyager: Elite Force and Jedi Outcast earlier this year (And somehow, I was the guy who reviewed all of them. Here’s a bit of trivia: I think SOF is the first game I ever reviewed for GO). All those games featured solid action, super graphics, and some innovative touches to keep each game unique unto itself, and helped set it apart from the growing pack of FPS games on the market. Why, if game software companies in general weren’t shakier than a Parkinson’s patient on a caffeine high with returns worse than a dead homing pigeon sealed into a block of Lucite, I would consider investing in Raven – I think they have a future. Of course, I’m currently using my Looking Glass stock certificates to practice the ancient paper folding art of origami – swan, crane, pterodactyl. Be that as it may, I’m continuing my somewhat unofficial duties as the GO Network Raven Software review guy with a look at Soldier of Fortune 2: Double Helix.
I’m maybe a little less impressed by this title for several reasons. Foremost is the fact that, although my system satisfies the minimum daily requirements for vitamins plus iron, the game ran so ridiculously slowly as to be almost unplayable. With the graphics set to moderate levels in JO and RTCW, I only ran into low framerates when lots of things were in motion on the screen at once. Even with everything set to the bottom of the barrel for SOF2 I had low framerates almost throughout. Admittedly, the graphics that I managed to stutter through at a blazing 5fps looked pretty good. I suspect that on a faster machine they would look amazing. I’d like to see more realistic minimum system requirements on the box, and that goes not only for SOF2, but also for lots of other games that are coming out. I have to recommend that before buying SOF2, download the demo and see if your machine can handle it.
Beyond the generally low framerate, I ran into a high number of quirks in the graphics engine. The engine seems to have more than its share of bad guys clipping arms, legs, and weapons into nearby walls, and I was once killed by a guy who stuck an arm through a closed door and dropped a grenade on me. A ghostly enemy? Zoiks! Scooby Doo, where are you?!? And bodies regularly lie with arms, legs, or heads inside supposedly nearby solid objects like boxes, walls, and vehicles. While JO and other FPS titles have had some of these problems, they seem to be in greater abundance here.
In terms of gameplay, for those of you who maybe got used to the sneaking or the alternate approaches of, say, Deus Ex or No One Lives Forever, SOF2 is an absolutely linear killfest. The sneak-o-meter is still present as it was in SOF, but the few instances that call for sneaking are more like puzzles really, as the slightest false move leads to nearly instant death with baddies literally materializing around you. I loved both Thief games – I’m no stranger to sneaking. SOF2 sneaking felt more like Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine jumping puzzles – one misstep, and you’re back to the last save. Worse still because SOF2 allows a limited number of saves; you can’t save every five steps, and you end up doing vast sections of the game over and over to get them right. And on a sort of related topic, the in-game movies are rendered using the game engine. They’re long, they’re largely pointless, and there is no earthly means of skipping them. Who the heck rubber-stamped that idea over at Raven?
But beneath these couple of flaws, and maybe I’m being my usual highly critical and curmudgeonly self, SOF2 is a fine game. The enemy AI is sharp; retreating, providing covering fire, and lying prone behind any available cover. They pitch fragmentation, smoke, and flash grenades, though I admit that they don’t take the advantage of a good flash grenade that they should, usually hanging back until you’ve recovered much of your vision. The levels are well laid out, though linear in the extreme, and varied through city, snow, desert, jungle, etc. I wish now that I had played Medal of Honor, because I would like to compare these weapons to those. Regrettably I didn’t, and I can’t. I will say that, not in general being a weapons kind of guy, in SOF2 they look and sound very realistic to me.
The ghoul2 engine, the whole body point damage model, throws in a bunch of gratuitous violence almost to the point of cartoonishness. Brains, guts, blowing arms and legs off, spurting arteries, and puddles of blood forming around bodies – I can take it or leave it. They have somewhat reduced the number of limbs that pop off from SOF, wherein limbs practically fell off of people at the slightest provocation. What I think the ghoul2 engine does extremely well is that shooting a guy in the leg actually makes him behave as if I had shot him in the leg. With a little fancy, western-style trick shooting you can makes guys fall, crawl, beg, scream, and writhe. More wholesome fun than should be allowed by law. My only objection is that when you’ve got a guy on the ground moaning out his last, you can’t walk up to him and deliver a coup de grace shot to the back of the head; the game doesn’t seem to recognize that shot. I guess he’s already been registered as dead, and the death animation is just running through its paces. Call me sick if you wish, my co-workers do, but I’d like the opportunity to take that shot sometimes.
The whole multiplayer machine is at full steam with such variants as CTF, deathmatch, team deathmatch, and something called infiltration, in which one team tries to protect a briefcase, and another tries to steal it. You would think that infiltration would include a whole lot of sneaking around, but really is just another fragfest not greatly different from CTF. Regrettably, no bots are provided with the game. At 4AM on a Thursday morning I was up with insomnia and managed to find a game without difficulty, so its popularity is already quite widespread. For those without broadband available, or those just looking to do more single player stuff, the game actually comes with a random mission generator. While it doesn’t generate well-polished missions, the few I tried were not awful, either. The missions are generated using a twenty-digit alphanumeric seed code, which, with a little simple reckoning, leads me to over 1031 possible combinations. It doesn’t even seem to require all twenty digits, so the number is probably several orders of magnitude above that. I obviously haven’t tried even a small fraction of those levels, so I can’t speak to how actually different the level generated by seed code AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA is from AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAB. I suspect that for many seed codes, the resulting level differences are insignificant, but there are still a whole lot of levels to try. You can jot down your favorite seed codes to play them again or email them to friends, and you can discuss them in chat rooms and people will know what you’re talking about because they can all play the same mission. It’s a good idea, significantly enhances the replay factor, and doesn’t count on the fan mod base to make more levels, through I’m sure loads of that will happen too. To harp again on the minimum system requirements thing, it took my machine over seven minutes to generate a level.
Coming on the heels of JO as SOF2 finds itself, I have to say that I liked JO better. The graphics looked just as good while demanding much less of my computer, albeit that SOF2 has the realism cranked up about 4000 notches. The whole Star Wars plotline worked better for me; the SOF2 plotline is at best a rehash of terrorists and biological weapons threats that just barely justifies all the locales and the killing. There are a good variety of weapons in SOF2, but, let’s face it, nothing compares with the light saber. I guess what I’m feeling most of all is a sort of blasé sameness. With the exception of improved graphics and enemy AI, and the random mission generator, SOF2 in terms of gameplay isn’t stunningly different from SOF. JO was helped by the Star Wars frenzy; RTCW played on my sense of nostalgia. SOF2 doesn’t have either luxury. I’m recommending JO to my friends; they in turn are recommending MOHAA to me. So while SOF2 is a good game, it happens to be surrounded by great games, and I’m not sure that there is enough room on my hard drive for yet another FPS.