Although it was last year's third best selling PC first person shooter, Solider of Fortune II was one of those games that was quickly forgotten about amid complaints over terrible AI, uninspired level design and a general lack of variety.
Set in late 2002, players are tasked with guiding real life gun for hire John Mullins around a series of dangerous missions to solve problems for top secret government agency 'The Shop' that 'just won't go away'. Or in other words kill a lot of people in as bloody a fashion as you see fit. As with its predecessor, the key selling point is the 'ultra realistic damage modelling' which will keep you amused for all of two minutes as you blow off arms legs and heads. In reality Raven's Ghoul II Technology is more of a marketing device than an advancement in gaming as we know it.
Oh look, a PC game on the Xbox - who'd have thought it?
The fact that Activision has decided to release the game on Xbox should come as no great surprise to followers of the machine; near enough every vaguely decent FPS has made the transition to the Big Black Box with varying degrees of success. The question is; did the self-proclaimed 'second biggest third party publisher in the world' hire a decent codeshop to do the game 'justice'?
Yes and no. You could say that's it's a faithful port in many respects; all 55 levels and the random mission generator are present, and it even comes complete with Xbox Live support for up to 12 players at once. So far so good, but all of the original complaints - and more - are present in this otherwise completely loveless port.
Firstly the visual quality has suffered dramatically, despite the game using the ageing Quake III engine - tech that the Xbox ought to be able to handle with ease. The most obvious degradation is in the frame rate, which often stutters on the scenery alone while you're attempting a quick turn, while in crowded areas with AI buddies it's bordering on single figure; a problem compounded by curiously sluggish controls which are set to a ludicrously low sensitivity level by default.
Looks that kill
The visual appeal was never exactly leading edge in the original, but with the likes of Half Life 2, Halo 2 and Doom III not far off they look positively ancient - especially given the reduction in resolution and generally stiff characters, lacklustre animation and bland, unimaginative environments. Some levels are markedly better than others, however. The Columbia jungle levels work particularly well with some convincing foliage, but others, such as the Prague levels, are bland in the extreme, and some astonishingly poor design will result in the player repeatedly backtracking by mistake thanks to constant scenery repetition.
Randomly generated levels, meanwhile, really show up the limitations of the engine, with often wide open levels displaying the fogging and draw distance issues to full effect, while the loading times are especially bad on these sections.
Activision boasts that the game has been 'optimized' for the Xbox, with light maps, multi-texturing, stencil buffered shadows, real-time lighting, and mip-mapping, but really, who are they trying to fool? If the marketing blurb said 'unoptimized for Xbox' we'd at least given them kudos for being honest. As it is, it's clearly a lazy cash-in exercise that just serves to piss off Xbox owners and make PC owners laugh up their sleeves.
I'm with stupid
Talking of unintentional humour, the lamentable AI of the PC version makes a full and unapologetic return, with consistently embarrassing enemy responses. AI foe commit the cardinal sin of either being psychic uber death sentries that can lob grenades on a sixpence without even being able to see you, or being complete dimwits that blow themselves up trying. On a regular basis your enemy (or AI buddies for that matter) will merrily unload their never-ending ammo into a wall (with the muzzle flash apparently visible through it, bizarrely) or just stand there asleep while you cap their buddy.
The buddy AI is pretty hilarious too. When you finally hook up with a team in the Columbian jungle, they’re basically indestructible, and if you're feeling lazy you can duck out of the action. Honestly, we could write a thesis on the catalogue of howlers that Raven never bothered to fix, and Gratuitous is only too happy to replicate these for Xbox owners. It's shoddy and unacceptable, and we have no idea how crap like this ever gets past QA.
Admittedly you could level many of these flaws at some of the most entertaining games ever made, but the chances of enjoying Solider of Fortune II are limited when you're faced with some of the most poorly optimized FPS controls we've yet come across on a console. From the word go you feel like you're stuck in treacle, so slow is the turning and aiming speed. Although moving the sensitivity up to almost maximum does helps matters a little, it's the first time we've ever had to manually adjust this basic setting in a console title.
Oh for a keyboard and mouse
After all this faffing, you'll hardly be in the mood to tolerate an auto aiming facility that's as broken as we've ever seen. Whereas the recent Xbox port of Return To Castle Wolfenstein works well to compensate for the limitations of control pad aiming, SoF II is erratic to say the least, with some headshots apparently not good enough (even through a sniper scope at 20x magnification for heaven's sake), while a total miss is often enough to take your enemy down. Bizarre.
The sound is yet another area to receive sloppy treatment, with some horrendous glitches from the very first level conspiring to remind you of the lack of effort made. Although the general standard of the sound effects and voice acting isn't bad by any means, it's all ruined when speech samples repeatedly garble, or pause midway, while the occasional incidental music is utterly forgettable, and if there's surround sound support, we couldn’t detect it. Also, the sound detection box from the PC version that show you how much noise you're making has been strangely removed, although to be fair it hardly matters.
Even such basics as the between mission cut scenes have been poorly sampled from the original, and anyone with a decent TV will easily be able to notice vile digital artefacts and pixelisation. We wouldn't mind, but seriously - how hard can it be? And while we're on the subject, why on earth wasn't a gamma adjuster included? At times the game is so dark it's hard to even distinguish what's going on, and that's with our brightness and contrast set to the max.
How tolerant are you?
If you're a forgiving type, and don't mind appallingly lazy conversions of a generic FPS with poor controls, broken AI and uninspired level design, then there are, believe it or not, quite a few things going for it. First of all, it's one of the longest FPSs ever made with an eye popping 55 levels and a random mission generator to keep you going after that. In addition, the large number of authentic weaponry will no doubt go down well with a few of you. Once you've made hefty 'allowances' for the game's basic ineptitude, determined FPS fiends will no doubt get a certain amount of satisfaction from the game.
Probably the key reason for purchasing for many of you will be the presence of Xbox Live/System Link support. Six different multiplayer game types are supported; Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Elimination, Demolition, and Infiltration. Although that probably sounds quite comprehensive, the latter two are merely subtle variations on CTF, involving the planting/defusing of bombs, or the stealing/protecting of a briefcase.
There are 20 maps included, which offer a decent amount of variation, while the random mission generator offers you the chance to create entirely new maps once you're bored of the standard ones. Whether you'll bother largely depends on your ability to tolerate lag and whether you can hunt down a decent connection. It's arguably no worse than Unreal Champ or Wolfenstein in this respect and offers up another chance to prove your FPS mettle, but it doesn’t cut the mustard next to either - mainly due to the horrendous controls.
Save your money!
Your decision to buy or ignore SoF II lies squarely with how much of an FPS junkie you are. Relentless FPS overlords might find their pulses raised briefly by the thought of endless, generic shooting and violence, but the rest of you would be well advised to direct your time and money elsewhere.