Soldier of Fortune is a first-person shooter in its most straightforward form, and it will remind you more of id Software's nonstop fragfest Doom than recent shooters such as Half-Life and Red Faction, which employ complex puzzle and story elements. Levels consist of one fun, frenetic firefight after another. Scores of enemy terrorists, skinheads, and soldiers stand between you and each mission goal, and for the most part, your only concern is how best to obliterate them without wasting precious ammunition. Soldier of Fortune's simplistic puzzle design, which relies heavily on having you locate door mechanisms, leaves more room for its intense action. Soldier of Fortune may not rack your brain, but be prepared to give your controller a punishing workout.
You assume the role of John Mullins, a mercenary hired by the United States government for a series of covert mission assignments. Four nuclear warheads have been stolen. It's your job, along with the aid of a demolitions expert bearing a fitting action-movie name, Hawk (effectively voiced by Planet of the Apes and The Green Mile star Michael Clarke Duncan), to track down and stop the terrorist organization responsible for the theft before the nukes can be put to horrible use. Raven Software, the developer of the original PC version, based the game's lead character on and even received consultation from the real John Mullins, a mercenary and decorated Vietnam War veteran.
The biggest complaint about Soldier of Fortune on the Dreamcast was its ridiculously long load times. Thankfully, the PlayStation 2 version doesn't take nearly as long to load. Although there are 10 missions in the game, there are nearly 30 separate levels, which means the load screen becomes a frequent and often unwelcome visitor. Understandably, the game's frenzied action screeches to an abrupt halt each time a load screen appears, but the delays are noticeably shorter than those in the Dreamcast game.
No review would be complete without mentioning Soldier of Fortune's most notorious feature: its frighteningly realistic gore. There's no doubt about it: Soldier of Fortune is gruesome and rightfully earns its "Mature" ESRB rating. Enemy models feature 26 different hit locations, referred to as gore zones, and many hit locations offer unique reactions. Shooting a leg causes the enemy to limp, blasting the upper body sends an enemy flying backward, and pummeling an enemy in the arm, leg, or head can knock the appendage right off. Throat shots, nether-region shots, head shots, and gibs are tallied at the end of each mission, which further emphasizes the over-the-top gore but reduces Soldier of Fortune from its promise of mission realism to just another action game.
The graphics are generally good, considering Soldier of Fortune is ported from a 1 1/2-year-old PC game that used an enhanced version of id Software's Quake II engine (as you might expect, Quake III: Revolution delivers a much sharper graphical punch on the PS2). Given the excellent gore-zone animation, the detailed character models fare the best, even if most of that detail comes in the form of pain textures that display numerous gaping wounds on injured enemies. On the other hand, wall textures suffer the most. The occasionally bland, repeating textures provide a blurry and confusing landscape. A diverse set of mission locations, including Tokyo, Iran, Germany, Siberia, and the United States, helps to liven up the visuals.
Soldier of Fortune offers more options than your typical first-person shooter. For instance, weapons and equipment are selected before each mission. Larger weapons occupy more space in your inventory, triggering a choice between carrying a few powerful weapons, such as the sniper rifle or rocket launcher, or a number of smaller weapons, such as pistols or a submachine gun. But if you'd rather not choose and instead play with unlimited inventory, simply adjust the custom difficulty level to suit your taste. You can even select the number of save games allowed or the number of enemies spawned each time ferocious weapon fire announces your presence. It's a welcome addition that caters both to the iron man seeking a near-impossible challenge and to the cautious player hoping to save the game around each new corner.
While the firefights are plentiful, the enemy AI does little to avoid your projectiles. You'll discover most enemies waiting patiently at their designated positions, and most will stand firm until your weapons take them out. Often danger arises from "surprise" moments, such as when an enemy bursts out of a passed or ignored doorway or emerges from a crouched position behind a stack of crates. Despite the lack of innovation, the sheer number of enemies and quantity of firepower create sweat-inducing standoffs and energetic gun battles.
A robust multiplayer component is perhaps Soldier of Fortune's most impressive feature on the PS2 (especially given the lack of multiplayer support in the Dreamcast version). A staggering 40 multiplayer maps are included and offer deathmatch, capture the flag, and several variations, such as assassin and conquer the base. Additionally, the number of multiplayer game options nearly rivals the number of maps. Computer-controlled bots can serve as surrogate, though substantially less skilled, human opponents, and each game can be tweaked and molded--for instance removing health pickups and armor or disabling falling damage--to suit personal tastes.
Soldier of Fortune does little to disguise the fact that it's just one bloody shoot-out after another. Story and puzzle elements are light, but body shots are tallied after each level. Action fans will have little room for complaints, however--Soldier of Fortune promises "action movie" gameplay and delivers. Each firefight is a challenge, and the detailed, though gruesome, enemy model animation enhances the realism.