Much of the prerelease hype surrounding Activision's Soldier of Fortune focused on the fact that developer Raven Software had hired an actual mercenary, John Mullins, as a consultant. His role was to help ensure that the first-person shooter delivered a simulation "as close as players can get to experiencing the dangers and thrills of authentic mercenary combat." Either that plan didn't work out, or actual combat is a lot more like Quake than anyone but Colonel David Grossman ever expected. Soldier of Fortune is filled with genre clichés: exploding barrels, health crates, implausible door-opening mechanisms, and thirty-on-one firefights in which Team Thirty is wildly outmatched. Thankfully, it's also damn fun.
Throughout its development, Soldier of Fortune has also been infamous for the level of realistic violence the developers promised would be included in the final product. In fact, two different versions have been released - a regular version that includes all the gore (although you can choose to turn it off) and a bloodless, Wal-Mart-friendly "tactical" version. So does the violence in Soldier of Fortune live up to the hype? It's pretty gruesome - thanks to a proprietary rendering system nicknamed GHOUL, you can target specific body parts. Shoot an enemy in the neck, and he'll grip his blood-spraying throat as he drops to his knees. Shoot him in the calf, and he'll hop around on one leg. Limbs and heads can be blown clean off with a shotgun blast. It's all sort of absurd and over-the-top. Even though there are a number of different target areas, enemy reactions to being hit in any specific area remain generally constant. Thanks to the repetitious death animations, the outrageous violence quickly fades into the background.
The enemy characters' artificial intelligence is forgettable as well. The bad guys tend either to charge straight at you or take potshots from a fixed position. You can often poke your head around a corner and calmly plug soldiers several times until they die without ever arousing their interest. Likewise, vaporizing the head of a guard will tend not to alarm other guards standing a few feet away.
Soldier of Fortune uses a modified version of the undying Quake II engine, and it looks good, if not cutting edge. In-game objects have the blocky appearance associated with id's engine, but Raven has done some excellent work creating a few memorable environments using the aging toolset. The levels range from great looking, such as the New York and Japan missions, to the same barren, inexplicably torch-lit castle and the crate-filled warehouse you've visited a thousand times before.
Yet even though the graphics are slightly dated, the dim-witted enemies are little more than strawberry-jam-filled turrets, and the plot is thin enough to be effectively absent, Soldier of Fortune is still enjoyable because it delivers some of the best pure shooting action since the original Doom. Pretensions of realism aside and with apologies to the no-doubt-very-experienced John Mullins, Soldier of Fortune is one-hundred-percent game with no simulation baggage to weigh it down. The single-player mode is a long series of often-amazingly intense firefights.
Two small innovations add to the game's intensity. The first is a sound meter that rises as you fire your weapons. When it reaches its limit, enemy soldiers are spawned. While it at first seems like a feature meant to promote a stealthy play style reminiscent of Thief, it actually encourages accuracy over furtiveness. No matter how low the sound meter, you can't sneak by enemies in Soldier of Fortune. To keep thenumber of soldiers who need to be dispatched to a minimum, you must make your shots deliberately rather than spray gunfire indiscriminately. The GHOUL system complements the sound meter. A well-aimed head or neck shot will take out guards with a single bullet and eliminate the need for loud, sustained fire that will inevitably draw more enemies.
The second innovation is so simple that it's a wonder it's not used more often. Although you can save anywhere, you are allotted only a certain number of saves per level. This effectively eliminates the "take a step and save" style of play that can ruin the pacing of a shooter, though it still lets you save your progress after difficult sections. You do have the option to enable unlimited saves if you prefer.
Several multiplayer modes are included, and match-ups are supported through WON.net. As with any game competing with Quake III, Half-Life, and Unreal Tournament, only time will tell if Soldier of Fortune develops a big enough fan base to maintain a significant and evolving presence online. All the weapons with the exception of the rocket launcher are instant-hit, and a "realistic"-mode option adds a fatigue meter and one-shot kills, which make for a different first-person shooter experience. But even though it's stable, multiplayer Soldier of Fortune doesn't offer much more than what is already available in other games or in free add-ons such as Half-Life: Counterstrike.
Soldier of Fortune's single-player game is its biggest draw, and it's a blast. You won't be inspired to play it all in one long sitting since it's pretty much the same surprise-free activity from beginning to end: shooting and more shooting. But taken in small doses, it goes a long way. It's a pure video game skills test in the best sense of the phrase; it's both fun and challenging.