The first Soldier of Fortune was known for a few things: its gory depiction of dismemberment, contracting of a real-life former mercenary as a consultant, the use of his persona as the protagonist of its fictional story mode, and the fictional depiction of some real-world locales that would have seemed like taboo during its days.
Games based on contemporary conflicts after the first game have eroded away the values of these otherwise refreshing (if a bit uncomfortable) game designs (sans the aspect of gore). As a result, the sequel, Double Helix, does not look like it can offer much, if anything, that is refreshingly new. Nonetheless, it did address some issues of suspension of belief in the first game and also utilized the idTech 3 engine (a.k.a. Quake III engine) to continue the series' tradition of spectacularly nasty deaths.
Much like the first game, the player reprises the role of mercenary John Mullins (whose real-world counterpart is said consultant), on the hunt again for weapons of mass destruction (this time, these are biological ones). This plot design would have seemed simple enough for a premise, but the story also throws in elements of IT warfare in an attempt to thicken the plot, though the result only appears to muddle the story further as the effectiveness of using digital viruses to cover the tracks of biological viruses can be debatable.
These are not the only plot twists in the game, but it should suffice to say here that these are only excuses to have John Mullins trotting around the globe and terminating the lives of terrorists and other shady individuals with extreme prejudice. He will never interact with these plot themes in any meaningful manner outside of cutscenes; if there are any weapons of mass destruction or IT technology to be neutralized, that would be his colleagues' and contacts' jobs - his is only to clear the way to these objectives.
The cutscenes are very low-key compared to the rest of the game. These usually consist of John Mullins communicating with his compatriots and further instructions being given, or take place from the viewpoint of the villains, often with them communicating with each other with the occasional portrayal of typical ruthlessness like the execution of an underperforming subordinate. In other words, the cutscenes would not be impressive enough for a shooter game veteran to consider remarkable. That the story mode is mostly about clearing out rooms to reach the next ones also mean that they can be skipped without losing much direction in what the player should be doing.
Furthermore, John Mullins is not exactly a memorable protagonist. He is as level-headed and cool-tempered as a jaded and very experienced professional soldier can be, but this also makes him difficult to care about, to say the most polite things about his character design. The other characters are even more forgettable, considering what little presence they have in the game beyond radio conversations and placements in cutscenes.
With the inconsequential story out of the way, the rest of the game's designs can then be explored.
Double Helix is at heart a shooter, being apparently developed by Raven Software, which is a veteran at making such games. Double Helix has the usual trappings of a competent shooter, namely tight controls. The player character moves as a player character in a shooter would: walking, running (with run mode toggled on) and jumping. Of course, the player character's mobility is more akin to the believable variants seen in games such as those in the multiplayer variant of Return to Castle Wolfenstein that Raven Software made, and certainly not like the vastly faster and more nimble player characters seen in games like Quake III: Arena.
The player character can crouch and go prone, in order to reduce his profile (and thus the hitbox area exposed to the enemy) and gain some more accuracy. However, most maps in the game provide so much cover and corners that lying prone is not very useful. That there are severe reductions to mobility when lying prone further discourages the practice of lying flat. Crouching is a better option when reducing profile, if there are only waist-high pieces of cover to be had.
Furthermore, in the story mode, there are a lot of platforms that are located above John Mullins when he enters an area with multiple levels, so going prone is the least smart thing that the player can do.
Leaning is a control option that is much more useful, however. As mentioned already, there are plenty of corners in the official maps for this game. Leaning out of cover means that only the player character's gun-arms and head are exposed, which is good (unless the enemy forces have very skilled sharpshooters). Leaning out of cover also helps the player see incoming grenades that are meant to flush his player character out of cover, as well as any enemy combatants that are attempting to advance.
The player will find that with the exception of going prone, the controls are up to the task of providing the player with the means for enjoying the game.
A shooter wouldn't be one without guns, and Double Helix doesn't disappoint - as long as the player is not expecting the same set of weapons that the first game has. Most of them are gone, replaced with digital versions of real-world weapons with their actual names (the previous game had issues with giving the virtual guns names that are the same as their real-world counterpart).
The Combat Knife is one of the default weapons that the player character has. Much like the default melee weapons of so many other shooters at the time, it is a terrible weapon if used normally (e.g. slash at point-blank targets). However, the player will notice that there is an ammo counter for this weapon; the player character can have more than one Combat Knife, expending additional knives by throwing them using the secondary fire of this weapon, which deals a lot more damage.
Speaking of secondary fire, all weapons have secondary options of "firing", though these are not as exciting as they would sound. For example, the Colt M1911A1 pistol, which is the other default weapon (and which serves as the default option for sidearm-type weapons), has a pistol-whip attack as a secondary attack option, but this is only effective on unsuspecting enemies. Similarly, the M590 Combat Shotgun has a secondary attack that involves hitting enemies up-close with its stock, but considering the Combat Shotgun's power at close-range, this isn't really a worthwhile option.
(There is a reason for the inclusion of these wimpy secondary attack options, though this is for the sake of a game mechanic that is incomplete and barely worthy utilizing, which will be elaborated on later.)
In addition to a sidearm and the Combat Knife, the player character can carry up to two two-handed weapons, such as the aforementioned shotgun and assault rifles, among other weapons based on real-world ones. The selection of weapons is more diverse than that in the first game, though most of them would seem familiar to veterans of modern military shooters and are reliable if rather unremarkable.
There are a few notable weapons, however, largely because these are experimental weaponry. The most significant of these is the OICW, which is almost a catch-all weapon due to its effectiveness at any range and its special vision mode that highlights any enemy that is within view and not behind cover. If there is any problem with this weapon, it is its iffy grenade-launching option, which has a manual toggle, with corresponding lengthy animations too. This is not to the benefit of its ease of use.
It has to be mentioned here that the more outrageous of the weapons that were found in the original, such as the Microwave Gun, are no longer in this game, which is perhaps for the better considering the design philosophies that this modern military shooter has to adhere to.
The player character can also equip grenades, and these include the usual frag, stun (i.e. flash-bang) and smoke grenades. Smoke grenades are unfortunately quite useless against AI-controlled enemies, as they are still very much able to have a good idea of where the player character is despite having their vision obscured.
Player characters can also don accessories, which include equipment that do not go into the usual weapon slots. These include an assortment of goggles, such as night-vision goggles and thermal goggles.
(It has to be noted here that there is a bug associated with the thermal goggles; they can pick up heat even through walls that should be opaque to infrared radiation. However, this wall-hack bug is compensated by the rather blurry outlines that the thermal goggles make around models that are in the player's view - which diminishes its utility, however.)
The equipment that the player character can have is mainly determined before the start of a session, especially in the single-player story mode. The player can retrieve equipment (and supplies) from slain enemies and enemy depots/stashes, but certain equipment like silencers are only available through the equipping screens, as these are not present in-game as models that are separate from the ones for guns.
In the story mode, every level comes with a recommendation on the gear that the player should equip on John Mullins. These are generally very good recommendations, as the player would discover. Unfortunately, they also inadvertently constitute spoilers as to what kinds of dangers there would be in the level.
Being a modern military shooter, Double Helix attempts to instill a sense of belief in the player as much as possible. Chief of these attempts is the game design that headshots are invariably lethal - any round from any weapon to the head polygon of any target kills him instantly, including any player character. This can create balance issues, especially in multiplayer, where players with an uncanny knack for hitting head polygons may dominate at the expense of those who do not have such near-instinctive skill. This can be mitigated somewhat by adjusting the difficulty options for matches, which will be described later.
Certain aspects of the game, especially in the story mode, do not help much in fostering belief in what is happening on-screen, however. The most apparent of these is the behaviour for civilians. Unless they are scripted to do so, civilians will not cower behind cover when gunfights break out close to them. In fact, they tend to walk around calmly and aimlessly during gunfights, even getting in the way when there are narrow corridors that John has to fight through. This shatters belief and the immersion factor of the game. Furthermore, having too many civilians die due to any reason will result in a game-over, and their astonishing stupidity does not help prevent it.
Perhaps in an attempt to simulate realistic gunplay, Raven Software has introduced additional programming to this major aspect of the game in form of more options for difficulty settings. Aim-assisting and shot-scattering scripts (all lumped under the "Weapon Inaccuracy" category) are affected by settings made before the start of a session; in the case of the story mode, this is done through the difficulty slider. However, it has to be noted here that the shot-scattering scripts are not as well-done as those in other modern military simulators such as the Rainbow Six games. The scattering appears to be very dependent on luck and do not appear to follow Gaussian curves of probabilities.
In the story mode, the difficulty setting also determines the limitation on the number of saved games that can be made per level. This encourages the player to be more careful in playing the game, but it also makes him/her vulnerable to corruption of saved games.
The player can opt to customize the settings that determine the difficulty of playing the game, but chances are, he/she is likely to disable the options that make shooting a lot more difficult. This inadvertently results in gameplay feeling very bland, even though this feature perhaps provides most of the replay value of the story mode. The core experience will remain the same regardless of the settings chosen anyway.
The core experience remaining the same is especially true for the single-player story mode, as the levels are designed for linear progression. There are only a few segments where the player can have John taking an alternate route to flank enemies from. Otherwise, the level designs are of the typical tropes found in straight-forward shooters: the player has to clear rooms of enemies before a locked door would become unlocked (and conveniently allowing freshly spawned enemies to enter the level), or he/she has to locate switches or keys to unlock these if there are no scripts that can be triggered by bloodletting.
Shooting enemies in the first game can be a satisfying experience, as it results in injury and death animations that can be sadistically amusing. Double Helix apparently follows this design theme, offering the upgraded version of the model dismemberment and gore-generating system of the first game, GHOUL 2.0. It now offers up to a few dozen locations on a character model for transition/alteration into gory messes or bloody stumps; some of these are for head polygons, which meant that the heads of targets can be taken apart in several graphical permutations.
GHOUL 2.0 also introduces more polygons into models, which allows for more details, resulting in models that are better-looking and more believable than the models in the first game. The model for John Mullins, in particular, has benefited from a tremendous improvement in polygon count that especially makes his moustache stand out from the rest of his head.
The animations of humanoid models are mainly motion-captured now, so death animations tend to be entertaining, if the player is keen on examining the effort that has gone into designing the death throes of dying characters. Death animations, especially those caused by bullet-related harm, will seem to eventually repeat, however, and injury animations are scarce. (Some enemies will appear to limp if lightly shot in the limbs, but most of the weapons in the game are powerful enough to dismember and thus kill with just a few shots.)
The player can choose to alter these death animations further by shooting the dying up some more, dismembering them further and triggering more graphical effects like arterial sprays and resets in animations.
It has to be mentioned here too that Raven Software went out of the way to include model-clipping conveniences for characters that are in their death animations. The player character can move through them even if they appear to be blocking his path, so enemies that are dying in narrow corridors won't be much of a nuisance if the player is intent on running and gunning through a level as quickly as possible. This design decision is in contrast with that for the behavior of civilians, as has been described earlier, which is an odd discrepancy.
Whatever that has been mentioned so far involves the gunplay in Double Helix. Double Helix is supposed to have a non-violent game mechanic that involves stealthy solutions, but it is unfortunately quite broken.
The story mode starts with a tutorial that supposedly teaches the player how to have John Mullins hide from enemies and such other stealthy maneuvers, but the observant player will soon realize that the AI scripts that handle the detection of the player character in the tutorial levels work differently from those used by enemies in later levels, which can see past pieces of cover that are not a wall that reaches from the floor to the ceiling (unless these pieces of cover have special programming to hide the player character). This renders the stealth tutorials moot.
Furthermore, the game designs to accommodate the stealth aspect just do not work as intended all the time. The aforementioned pistol-whipping or hits with the stock of the shotgun will only result in knock-outs if they connect with the head polygons of an unsuspecting target, and even so this connection doesn't occur every time even if the hit looks like it has. Moreover, the game does not inform the player that enemies who had been knocked out would regain consciousness rather quickly. The player will eventually learn that they have to be killed while they are down-and-out; there is no non-lethal way to incapacitate them permanently. In other words, the game ultimately still requires the player to resort to killing any enemy, regardless of the play-style favored.
The player can choose to carry bodies, though this is only useful for taking away enemies that had been knocked out from heavily patrolled areas before killing them. It has to be noted here that while enemies will not wake up while being carried, the carrying time also counts towards the time before they wake up, meaning that they can awake as soon as they are put down and they are guaranteed to scream if they are promptly killed. This would not be a problem if the game had considered whether enemies are in reasonable earshot or not, but as soon as any enemy utters a death-scream, the others would know and the alarm will be raised (there will be more details on this briefly).
Furthermore, the models for corpses eventually disappear when the game runs scripts to reduce memory usage, essentially making hiding corpses pointless busy-work if there are just a few enemies around that can be slain in quick succession.
The AI scripts that govern the awareness of enemies are also poorly thought out. Every level will start with enemies having no idea of John's presence, even if this level is part of a larger complex that John had infiltrated into in the most explosive manner in the first place.
The only part of these AI scripts that seem to somewhat work is that enemies will not know that John Mullins is around if he is completely out of their field of vision (which has an arc of 180 degrees with respect to direction of movement and which the game fails to inform the player about). (Leaning into the field of vision of an enemy from behind a wall does not count though.) Everything else requires a suspension of belief.
For example, regardless of the surface that John is moving on and how thick the walls between him and his enemies are, they will still be able to hear and detect his presence if he runs a short distance within their sound detection range. This means that if a player wishes to complete a level in a stealthy manner, he/she has to have John walk all the way throughout a level for fear of alarming an unseen enemy ahead that is behind some walls, which can make for painstakingly slow progress.
In addition, enemies share a collective awareness. If one isolated enemy has just known about John's presence, every other enemy will immediately know as well, even if he seems to have yet to alert his colleagues.
Enemies that had been alarmed will be on full alert permanently. This would make believable sense, if not for design oversights and flaws that practically prevents John Mullins from ever being able to hide from roving enemies. The chief of this is that all enemies on full alert are able to have a rough idea of where John Mullins is, regardless of whether he has entered their line-of-sight at all throughout a level. As a result, they also ignore dead bodies (that have yet to be removed by the memory management scripts). Hence, the hiding of corpses is a pointless activity once the alarm has been raised.
Enemies that are either complacent or on full alert can see over and through tall grass and low cover, making these terrain features useless for anything else but aesthetics. This also extends to models for corpses, so if the player didn't hide them completely behind a floor-to-ceiling wall, it will be discovered by patrolling enemies.
Despite the stealth mechanics being inconsequential and broken/incomplete, this did not stop Raven Software from including a segment in a level set in Prague where stealth is absolutely required. In this segment, the player will discover that stepping out of pieces of cover, which appear to have been pre-programmed to render John Mullins' presence hidden to enemies, simply causes them to detect him rather quickly as long as they are looking at his general direction, regardless of the distance.
There is an indicator above the player character's health meter that indicate the awareness of enemies, but due to the unrewarding and incomplete designs of the stealth aspect of this game, it will be on most of the time.
Considering all of the issues with the stealth mechanic mentioned above, it should be apparent already that the player shouldn't be bothering with it.
Double Helix's story will have John Mullins traveling to many parts of the world, fighting through levels with many themes and presentation.
The maps that are set in urban areas are very bland to look at, especially if they are compared with those for shooters that Raven Software had made earlier. Textures are often very simple, environments have plenty of sharp edges, vertical surfaces are often very flat and they often only have decals and textures to represent what they are supposed to be other than being flat walls.
The ones that are set in the wilderness, such as a jungle or a certain snowy region of the world, are a lot more interesting to look at, though Double Helix cannot boast about having graphical designs that surpass anything that Raven Software has previously done with the Quake III engine. Furthermore, the levels with more irregular geometry - namely these that are set in the wilderness - have locations where models for player characters can get stuck in. Clusters of rocks, for example, are particularly prone to these collision flaws.
The lighting, especially for levels that are set in man-made buildings, provides satisfactory contrast between things that the player should be looking at and shouldn't, though it is little more remarkable than this. The lighting for levels that are set in the wilderness, again, makes these look a lot more pleasing to the eyes. For example, there is a level set in a forested region that has the sun making a pleasing contrast between the forest floor and canopy.
There are some cool graphical techniques that haven't been seen in many other games, such as glass windows becoming more opaque with cracks and shattering into shards of glass when they are shot up, but glass surfaces like these are not in every level. Furthermore, due to strict collision physics, breaking a glass surface doesn't mean that the player character can fit through it, as any tiny shards of glass that remain on the surface will block passage. (The game does include scripting that allows the player character to dash through an already damaged glass surface in dramatic fashion, though.)
It has been mentioned earlier that the guns in Double Helix are unremarkable, though this statement was made with respect to their gameplay designs. Aesthetics-wise, they are modeled with plenty of polygons and their gunfire sounds beefy and gratifying (especially if accompanied by visuals of said gunfire tearing enemies apart).
As the story mode takes place across the world and the plot concerns an international terrorist group, NPCs and enemies speak in several different languages. However, these are limited to brief, short statements like exclamations of alarm and yells that warn about incoming grenades. Anything lengthy is usually spoken in English, often with stereotypical accents (which are also used to utter the short lines with).
Nonetheless, they are still clear and crisp enough to impart information that the player should know, though there is little that the player really needs to know. In fact, if there is any enjoyment to be had from the voice-acting in this game, it is the utterances that enemies make when they die, and there are a lot of pitiful or grimacing examples of these.
The musical designs mostly consist of orchestral pieces that are not exactly epic, but are stirring enough to fulfill their intended goal of instilling suspense and grim determination in the player. However, it should be mentioned here that by default, the sound effects in this game, especially gunplay, will drown out the music, though this should be of no loss as it is not memorable.
It is therefore odd that, despite the just-satisfactory aural designs of the game, Raven Software required the installation of specific sound drivers, namely OpenAL from Creative Labs, for these to work properly. This is not conducive to the enjoyment of the game.
Once the player has gotten enough from the more than a dozen hours of shooting to be had from the story mode, he/she may then look to its multiplayer component.
Multiplayer mode has five game-types, which include the usual deathmatch, team deathmatch amd capture the flag variants. Infiltration and Demolition are not the only ones that are not cookie-cutter, though Demolition would be familiar to players who have had played modern military shooters that had the players sticking explosives onto objectives that need to be blown up. Infiltration is actually a variant of capture-the-flag, but with no respawns within a round and entirely different official levels that promote cat-and-mouse gameplay.
To somewhat provide more value to the game, Raven Software has included a random mission/map generator for extending both the single-player and multiplayer experiences. However, in maps generated for single-player purposes, the enemy AI may not be up to the task to prevent the player from achieving objectives due to their lack of familiarity with these maps. For example, a VIP target that is armed may run out of hiding to attack the player character, essentially giving the latter the chance to complete the mission early.
In conclusion, Double Helix has very few selling points for a game of its time. With its typical story and incomplete stealth mechanics, Double Helix is only good for its gunplay and gore, much like its predecessor. However, just like its predecessor, it does these quite well - if the player is keen on playing a game where shooting up a target can have spectacularly gory results.