Soldier of Fortune Feature Preview

Raven Software's graphically violent first-person shooter is headed from the PC to the PS2. We had the opportunity to sit down with Pipe Dream Interactive's director of game development and see how the team is dealing with porting the game to the PS2.

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Raven Software's graphically violent first-person shooter is headed from the PC to the PS2. Based on the stories of real-life mercenary John Mullins, Soldier of Fortune is a bloody romp across a the world that is populated by plenty of hectic firefights and tied together by a Hollywood-inspired plotline. We had the opportunity to sit down with Pipe Dream Interactive's director of game development, David Elemkies, to see how Majesco's internal development studio is dealing with porting the PC shooter to the PS2.

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The concept of Soldier of Fortune is based on the experiences of real-life mercenary John Mullins. The game's main character, who happens to share a name with Mullins, is an ex-military soldier who occasionally lends his combat experience and above-the-law attitude to the US government in antiterrorist scenarios. Mullins is the lone operative skilled enough to penetrate the game's 26 levels and prevent a terrorist organization from detonating a nuclear warhead. And while the basic premise of the game may seem recycled, the game's developers have spent plenty of time ensuring that the actual missions will be as realistic as possible. "The game is based on the real-life story of a mercenary. The real-life settings of recent conflicts throughout the world really help the player identify with the lead character's struggle for peace," said Elemkies.

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Soldier of Fortune takes you through 26 missions spread from a New York subway station to the barren mountains of Siberia. As Mullins, your job is to find four nuclear warheads stolen by a powerful terrorist organization. The warheads have been scattered to the far reaches of the globe. Mullins has plenty of contacts and gut instincts to help him find the warheads, but most of the game follows the plotline of a watered-down spy movie--you'll often be rushing to find a bomb, only to see it quickly rushed out of your reach at the last moment. Still, the storyline is only secondary to the frenzied action that is found within the game.

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Mullins will have to deal with plenty of terrorists as he makes his way solo through the trenches of the enemy. The game has plenty of fast-moving scenarios, and it tests the reflexes of even the most hardened first-person-shooter fanatic. The bad guys have jeeps, trucks, helicopters, and plenty of motivated soldiers who will come at you with everything they've got. Thankfully, you've got plenty of weapons to help balance the books. Elemkies was quick to comment on the game's weapons: "[Soldier of Fortune's] heavy arsenal of weapons features weapons ranging from the more traditional submachine guns, sniper rifles, and shotguns to weapons of more mass destruction, like the slugthrower and microwave gun, which are actual weapons used in combat today. All of the weapons perform with the greatest degree of realism, just as if you were shooting them in real life." All totaled, the game will have 12 weapons, which will include one knife, two 9mm pistols, two shotguns, three fully automatic machine guns, a sniper rifle, a flamethrower, a rocket launcher, and the aforementioned slugthrower and microwave gun. And while the weapon engine is static in the single-player game, the engine can be tweaked in the multiplayer game. Elemkies explained, "The weapon engine performs differently depending on the mode of play that is chosen. In deathmatch mode, the weapon engine is completely customizable. When set to realistic [mode], players can kill an opponent with one hit, whereas placing the setting to action [mode] will allow players to survive a little longer while on the move. When playing in single-player mode, weapons perform differently depending on the difficulty level that has been set."

Additionally, Pipe Dream is hard at work, enhancing the game's AI. One of the biggest complaints of the PC version was the sometimes-lacking AI--enemies would often rush directly at you, and the terrorists who hadn't noticed you wouldn't react to your sniping them. Elemkies explained that the team has already tweaked the AI significantly: "The characters are incredibly detailed, and each performs differently in combat. For example, a character outfitted in heavy armor can withstand more shots than one outfitted in light armor, who will run for cover. The game also sports great artificial intelligence, which will ambush players rather frequently." But enhancing the AI isn't the only thing Pipe Dream is working on. Soldier of Fortune has several innovative features that help set it apart from other first-person shooters. In addition to the game designers' using the real-life Mullins as a consultant, they incorporated three specific elements that drastically affect how Soldier of Fortune plays. The first is a sound meter that will spawn new terrorists when you're being too loud. This feature forces you to dispatch enemies with well-aimed bursts, and it penalizes players who spray rooms with machine gun fire. Additionally, the game limits the amount of times you can save in the middle of the mission, keeping you from falling into the overly cautious style of play that can break the pacing of a first-person shooter. But the most noticeable feature is the game's over-the-top gore, which is supplied in most part by the GHOUL system.

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The GHOUL system is a completely custom graphical routine that works alongside the game's engine. It lets you target 26 different locations on each character model's body and inflict realistic gore damage to that area. The system will not only make certain areas realistically bloody, but it will also trigger realistic animations depending on the area hit. Shoot a terrorist in the kneecap with the shotgun, and he will probably lose his leg entirely and will crumble to the ground in pain. This gory system rewards sadistic players who want the bloody edge not seen in other first-person shooters. It drew heat from the press, as well as from politicians who felt that the game was too violent. Elemkies assured us that Pipe Dream isn't toning down the game for the console audience. "Our focus is on gameplay and the incorporation of features that console gamers will be looking for. We have not made any conscious decisions to tone the violence down or to play around with the game's themes. We want to preserve all of the key gameplay elements that were put into the PC version and that made it such a big hit. However, we have incorporated a feature that will allow players the option to turn off the gore elements."

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The GHOUL system runs alongside the game's modified Quake II engine. Though the game's developers were able to upgrade the now-dated engine and add several features that helped make Soldier of Fortune a graphically competitive game on the PC when it was first released last year, it's doubtful that the Quake II engine will be able to compete with other PS2 first-person shooters, like Quake III Revolution or Red Faction. Still, Elemkies is confident that the game will get the most out of the PS2. "The PS2 allows SOF to display a spectacular 32 bits of color without any drop in frame rate, which is something that cannot be done on the PC. The features in SOF represent the most up-to-date technology available for the PS2."

Though PC games usually suffer when ported to consoles, Pipe Dream is confident that everything from the PC version of Soldier of Fortune will make it to the PS2. Elemkies was quick to voice this confidence: "We plan to incorporate every element from the PC version into the PS2 game, and so far, our early results have been very promising. We have not had to cut anything out and were able to keep the entire maps." But Pipe Dream isn't satisfied with simply making a PC to PS2 port--the company is also working to incorporate new elements in the game. Elemkies added, "Raven Software did a tremendous job with the original PC version of Soldier of Fortune, and we plan to stay true to the game's level design and storyline. We're looking forward to picking up where they left off and building on it to deliver a new experience for the PS2. We're still in the earlier stages of development, so we cannot really specify what new features will make it into the game at this point in time. However, we have every intention of pushing the envelope of the PS2's capabilities to create a game that will blow console gamers away."

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One of the biggest additions is the multiplayer play, an essential element for console first-person shooters. Pipe Dream is addressing the multiplayer element of the game with a can-do attitude. "I can say that the deathmatching feature is a very high priority for us," said Elemkies. At this point, the game has only a multiplayer deathmatch mode with 10 variations for split-screen play. But Elemkies is hoping to add new modes and is waiting on one vital piece of technology to surface. "Incorporating online gameplay is also a top priority for us," he said. "We are [hoping] to include that feature when Sony makes online support available."

With the various enhancements that Pipe Dream is bundling with the successful and sadistic gameplay of the PC version, the PS2 version of Soldier of Fortune will most likely be a contender when it hits shelves this September.

GameSpot Interview with David Elemkies, director of game development for Pipe Dream Interactive

GameSpot: Are you using the PC engine for the PS2 version of the game? Are you still using a modified version of the Quake II engine? How does the GHOUL technology work on the PS2 version of the game?

Elemkies: We are using both the Quake II engine and the GHOUL engine, which is now up and running perfectly on the PS2. The characters are looking great--animated and running through levels, with visible wounds and an occasional limb flying around.

GS: What sorts of changes are you making to the graphics engine to stay on par with current PS2 standards? What is involved in updating the graphics of a now-dated PC game to live up to games such as Quake III and Red Faction on the PS2?

Elemkies: The PS2 allows SOF to display a spectacular 32 bits of color without any drop in frame rate, which is something that cannot be done on the PC. The features in SOF represent the most up-to-date technology available for the PS2. Incorporating online gameplay is also a top priority for us, and we hope to include that feature when Sony makes online support available.

GS: Is there anything new or different in the PS2 version of the game? Will it follow the same basic storyline and level design as those of the PC version? Are you adding or changing any weapons or items in the PS2 version?

Elemkies: Raven Software did a tremendous job with the original PC version of Soldier of Fortune, and we plan to stay true to the game's level design and storyline. We're looking forward to picking up where they left off and building on it to deliver a new experience for the PS2. We're still in the earlier stages of development, so we cannot really specify what new features will make it into the game at this point in time. However, we have every intention of pushing the envelope of the PS2's capabilities to create a game that will blow console gamers away, like two- and four-player deathmatching and logical control schemes. I can say that the deathmatching feature is a very high priority for us.

GS: How complete of a port will the game be? Will everything from the PC version be included? If not, what was cut, and what were the reasons behind those cuts?

Elemkies: We plan to incorporate every element from the PC version into the PS2 game, and so far, our early results have been very promising. We have not had to cut anything out and were able to keep the entire maps. We are certainly aiming to pack as much new content into the game as we possibly can. Our track record with titles like Rogue Spear for the Dreamcast will show that we always come up with new stuff to appeal to console gamers.

GS: What was the inspiration for Soldier of Fortune? What sort of training or influences did the design team draw upon? What sorts of combat experiences are the missions in the game based on?

Elemkies: The game is based on the real-life story of a mercenary. The realistic and hard-hitting storyline is, in my opinion, one of the best elements of the game. The real-life settings of recent conflicts throughout the world really help the player identify with the lead character's struggle for peace.

GS: Do you think that the violent aspects of the game have been overdramatized by the press and by politicians? Can you explain your feelings on this?

Elemkies: We make games for video game fans of all ages. While our Nicktoons Racing and Q*Bert games appeal to a younger audience, games like Rogue Spear and Soldier of Fortune are intended for adults. Soldier of Fortune has a mature rating and is not intended for young children. The game targets the adult gaming enthusiast, who enjoys playing first-person, combat-style games.

GS: Have you toned down the mature themes and gory violence of the game for the PS2 release? Will the game's subject matter remain untouched for the PS2 version? What sorts of decisions has the team made with these issues, and what was the motivation for making these changes?

Elemkies: Our focus is on gameplay and the incorporation of features that console gamers will be looking for. We have not made any conscious decisions to tone the violence down or to play around with the game's themes. We want to preserve all of the key gameplay elements that were put into the PC version and that made it such a big hit. However, we have incorporated a feature that will allow players the option to turn off the gore elements.

GS: What sets Soldier of Fortune apart from other first-person shooters? How does the game work? Is it story based? Can you talk about the story and the character interactions?

Elemkies: The big difference with Soldier of Fortune is the sheer size of the game. The environments are huge and incredibly detailed. Additionally, the engine is very unique and offers great features, like more than two-dozen "gore zones" on each character's body. The characters are also incredibly detailed, and each performs differently in combat. For example, a character outfitted in heavy armor can withstand more shots than one outfitted in light armor, who will run for cover. The game also sports great artificial intelligence, which will ambush players rather frequently.

GS: What sorts of weapons will the game have? Are they based on real-life weapons? And how does the weapon engine work? Is it purely action, like the one in Quake III, or does it retain a more tactical feel, like the ones in SWAT 3 or Counter-Strike?

Elemkies: The game's heavy arsenal of weapons features weapons ranging from the more traditional submachine guns, sniper rifles, and shotguns to weapons of more mass destruction, like the slugthrower and microwave gun, which are actual weapons used in combat today. All of the weapons perform with the greatest degree of realism, just as if you were shooting them in real life. The weapon engine performs differently, depending on the mode of play that is chosen. In deathmatch mode, the weapon engine is completely customizable. When set to realistic, players can kill an opponent with one hit, whereas placing the setting to action will allow players to survive a little longer while on the move. When playing in single-player mode, weapons perform differently depending on the difficulty level that has been set.

GS: What sort of multiplayer modes will the game have?

Elemkies: Right now, players choose from either deathmatch or storyline mode. Deathmatch mode features about 10 different submodes of split-screen multiplayer action. We have plans to add additional gameplay modes when online support is made available for the PS2.

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