The real Gore campaign.
With violence in electronic gaming coming under the ever increasing scrutiny of the clueless public and casual links between psychotic behavior and bloody entertainment being touted by all of the special interests, it's very nice to see that developers in our industry still have a little backbone. Violence has always been a cornerstone of entertainment, existing to both horrify and delight. It's a tense balance, but a part of ourselves truly enjoys seeing other people ripped to shreds and mangled by grenades, guns, and knives... as long as it's not real.
In a macabre way, violence in entertainment has always been the acceptable, sane way to get immoral fixes. If it's too real, like in the cult Faces of Death films, then we get horrified, as we should. Yet in some instances we prefer our fake violence to be as real as possible. Saving Private Ryan was a success for a reason.
Gaming, however, has always kept its violence in the cartoon mold. Until now.
Punching it's way out of Raven Software's doors with all the subtlety of a snuff film comes Soldier of Fortune. It's the bloodiest, goriest, most ultra-violent game ever made. It's also fun. Surprise.
Using the custom GHOUL animation system and a tweaked version of the venerable Quake 2 technology, Raven has made a first-person shooter in which limbs can be severed, torsos can be disemboweled, femurs can be shattered, and heads can be punctured, halved, or blown clean off. Combined with some all around exemplary design, the effect is an extremely kinetic and straightforward action game that no child should play, but that every adult can enjoy like a sick kid.
Soldier of Fortune casts you in the role of John Mullins, an ex-military mercenary for hire. Mullins contracts mostly for a cloak & dagger anti-terrorism outfit called "The Shop." It seems that some South African White Supremacists have stolen four nukes, blueprints for some Japanese super-weapon, and eviscerated a few skulls. It's your job, naturally, to traverse the globe in order to recover the nukes, mangle the tangos, and eventually save the world, or at least New York City (possibly the most besieged city ever, notwithstanding Tokyo in the wake of Godzilla. That's the nice thing about GR's home, Berkeley - it never gets obliterated, not even in Independence Day).
Hammy voice acting and slow-moving explosions aside, Soldier of Fortune creates an almost disturbingly real gaming world. Most of the weapons are actual current models and feel completely real in both appearance and sound. The effects (as mentioned) look very real, and the settings are all authentically represented. Architecture and texture work is quite believable for each of the settings and although the main character's voice acting is barely passable, the development team took great pains to find people who could actually speak the foreign language appropriate to each setting. Although this is by no means a realistic shooter like Rainbow Six or SWAT 3, the verisimilitude of the settings creates a game world that has no trouble drawing you in.
Frankly, there is a lot to like. Aside from looking great, each level always finds ways to keep the gore-soaked combat interesting. Defensive formations and installations are puzzles to be solved, with sniper rifle and matching gun. Options like number of saves per level and carrying capacity can be tweaked in the difficulty settings, allowing you to make the game feel like anything from Die Hard to Rambo. Individual missions are split up over a few continuous levels and you can tweak your inventory beforehand to help work the contract mercenary angle. It also helps that your objectives have nothing to do with keycards or exit switches. This may not be Half-Life, but it is interesting nonetheless, and Half-Life never made you smile when you killed something.
Which is the main problem with Soldier of Fortune. Simply put, playing this game, and reveling in the darker pleasures it offers, says something a little disturbing about the player. While GR does not, in any way, consider gaming to be a cause for psychosis or violent behavior, Soldier of Fortune makes you wonder why we consider some things fun, and who exactly should be having what kind of fun. What about me, for instance, made me keep pressing the trigger and firing into the Iraqi soldier standing in front of me, expending forty rounds just so I could keep his lifeless body shaking with the impacts before I changed clips and watched him fall to the ground into a rapidly expanding pool of blood?
This is a game for people who understand violence. Not only the difference between real violence and cartoon violence, but what violence means and what about virtual killing they should be enjoying. The fact that you hit the target (which is the usual thrill) is harmless enough, but the fact that you exposed his intestines to the elements might not be.
Children should never play this game. Even with the gore disabled (which is very easy to do - you can even install it with gore locked out and there is a Wal-Mart "Tactical" version of the game without gore), this is far too intense and brutal a game for anyone who shouldn't even be seeing serious 'R' rated movies yet.
But, moral quandaries aside, this is an exceptional game. While it really is just a lot of shooting in a variety of environments with a variety of unique set-ups, it's fun. This is Saving Private Ryan's D-Day scene without feeling sorry for anyone. All around good graphics and sound, excellent architecture and art direction, and omnipresent believability combine to create a totally satisfying, if somewhat brief single player experience.
Multi-player is also done great justice with a variety of gameplay modes and realistic settings that add up to a fast paced action romp on par with the best out there.
Strictly speaking, you've probably seen all the gameplay mechanics in Soldier of Fortune before. Still, this an extremely solid first-person shooter in the classic mold, which is refreshing after a season of deathmatch titles. If you're up for it, dive in, get bloody, and enjoy yourself. The real world of a soldier of fortune can't possibly be this much fun.