My new 12-step program.
Shooting a guy's face off shouldn't be this fun. I mean, I'm a law-abiding citizen (during the week, between the hours of 8 to 3) and an honest taxpayer. I don't have a homicidal bone in my body (from the ankles down). So why is watching a NPC hold his face while liquid crimson flows from between his fingers so damn gratifying?
I'll tell yah why - it's guiltless and about has harmful as asphyxiating your favorite stress toy or maiming the dummy at your anger management class. So in a sense, Activision's new FPS Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix can be seen as much needed therapy for the mentally stable PC gamer ("mentally stable" being the operative term) who just wants to vent a little and/or have a good time.
Soldier of Fortune II is also great first-person shooter with nearly all the elements needed for a frantic, satisfying frag session. However, the bad likes to travel on the underbelly of the good, and there are a few hitches along the way. But thankfully, Soldier of Fortune II doesn't come with too many unwanted stowaways.
One of those negative freeloaders is a story that is very familiar and never does much for the gameplay. You reprise your role as ex military vet turned mercenary John Mullins. Like the original SOF, you acquire your jobs from a remote location known as The Shop, run by friends Sam Gladstone and Madeline Taylor. Together you're on an assignment to stop a bloodthirsty terrorist organization that threatens to unleash a deadly virus on the populace. I guess I should have told you to stop me if you've heard this one.
The gameplay is what you would expect - you shoot anyone who's pointing a gun at you and then you proceed through the one door that leads to the next area full of more guys with guns pointing at you. It's essentially the same as NOLF, Red Faction, Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza and many, many other linear FPS games before it.
But where Die Hard was beaten with the ugly stick, Soldier of Fortune II comes running on an even further polished and refined version of the Quake III engine, equipped with Raven's proprietary Ghoul II technology. Crisp, vibrant backgrounds, detailed textures, impressive outdoor areas and great use of particle effects lead to a pretty shooter. It's not cutting edge, but you can bet you haven't seen the QIII engine quite like this.
The aforementioned Ghoul II technology is what really steals the show. This is essentially the system responsible for the game's wonderful hit detection. Not only can you methodically (and sadistically) dismember your enemies in the most gruesome ways (16 dismemberment zones and 36 damage zones), but you're also treated to some of the best death and near-death animations around. Shoot a leg and he's down on one knee, shoot a hand and he drops the weapon. I told you what happens when you shoot a baddie in the face.
Obviously, this over-the-top violence is not for the wee ones or the weak of heart. But thankfully there's more to this game than just insane bloodshed, and the incredible hit detection is really just the tip of the bullet-riddled iceberg.
Speaking of bullets, you have 25 different ways to stick 'em into your enemies. You'll acquire knives, the M1911A1 semi-automatic, AK-47, the special military OICW fully automatic pistols which can be fired two-fisted Chow Yun Fat style, several different grenade types and many more. The reload animations are a bit weak, but overall the weapons handle well with each gun having its own feel and accuracy level. I love variety when it comes to putting the hurt on my virtual enemies.
But these guys aren't going down easy. They'll lean from around corners to pop off a few shots, duck behind boxes, lay down cover fire for each other, and even throw flash, smoke, incendiary or explosive grenades before rushing in. Their accuracy is decent but their numbers can be legion at times.
This is represented mostly in the later levels, which total 55 in all. You'll travel all around the globe from Hong Kong to Cambodia with many stops along the way. No one said you would make it home in time for dinner - you're in for the long haul.
Unfortunately, it's a haul made longer than necessary due to the few tedious stealth mission. These are boring levels that stand out as errant from the rest of the frenzied fragfest. You travel from one point to another unseen, dispatching assailants with knives and other silent methods. You can now hoist dead bodies over your shoulder to be carried out of sight.
The problem with these unwanted breaks in the surprisingly satisfying monotony is that if one person spots you, the whole camp automatically knows your exact position. There's no going to sound an alarm or even a loud yell. It's Professor X telepathy and Vulcan mind-melds all around. Lame! Plus, you only get a few saves per level, which can get frustrating.
All good things must come to an end, but Soldier of Fortune II's random mission generator increases its longevity. Just tweak the options, like mission type (escape, infiltration, demolition or assassination), the location, time of day, difficulty and time limit (if any) and you're off on a completely new stand-alone single player mission. It is truly a great addition.
The mission generator also works for online play and helps make Soldier of Fortune II's multiplayer component a decent game in and of itself. It sits as a second application on your hard drive with its own shortcut. The games that are offered are Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Infiltration.
Infiltration is easily the most interesting, pitting two teams against each other in a Capture the Flag style match. One team must protect a briefcase while the other team must infiltrate the area and extract the case out from under the protecting team's nose. The gameplay is solid and it's extremely easy to find a server with plenty of guys running around.
Too bad the multiplayer character animations are weak. They remind me of Unreal or one of its many modifications where the characters slide across the surface as opposed to actually making contact with it. It's no Counter-Strike, but then, what is?
At the end of the day, Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix more than holds its own in this crowded genre. It's not spectacular, but it knows what it does well and sticks with it. Good graphics, fun gameplay, crafty AI, a random mission generator and more bursting heads than you'd find on a teenager's face will keep this one on my hard drive until the bitter end.