Blood And Guts
Scoring top marks for topicality, Soldier Of Fortune II sees the world being threatened by the menace of a terrorist group armed with lethal biological agents. Naturally it's up to you, occupying the jack boots of all-American gun fetishist and mustachioed mercenary John Mullins, to put an end to this.
What ensues is a finely honed mixture of run-and-gun action and more stealth-oriented missions, with a variety of real world weaponry to play with and Raven's appropriately named GHOUL animation system to provide the gut-wrenching gore quotient. Arms, legs and heads can be shot clean off, leaving almost unrecognisable mangled remains, while blood stains, bullet holes and gaping wounds appear on injured enemies. The faint of heart will be glad to hear they can tone down the gore or switch it off entirely from the options menu.
Your armaments vary from a simple combat knife, useful for those close quarters silent kills, through assault rifles and shotguns and on up to incendiary grenades and a bazooka. In the last couple of missions you even have access to the latest state-of-the-art infantry weapon, the OICW, a prime example of American military technology in that it's so complex as to be almost completely unusable in most combat situations. Featuring all mod cons - machinegun, sniper scope, grenade launcher, range finder, friend-or-foe target identifier, fluffy dice - it costs a small fortune, requires the use of at least half a dozen buttons, and is consistently out-performed in action by an untrained Columbian rebel with a second hand AK-74 assault rifle.
Which brings us to the game's single biggest flaw - the AI. Put simply, every scruffy looking rebel soldier you come up against is in fact Superman wearing a really cunning disguise. He can see through walls (and will sometimes attempt to fire through them, with often hilarious results), poke arms and legs through solid objects, and consistently land a grenade at your feet from fifty feet away, over a hill, without being able to see you.
Smoke grenades and thick foliage are no obstacle for these digital über-mensch either, and in open terrain it's almost impossible to sneak up on them. The only way to evade their attentions is to go "prone" and crawl along the ground, at which point they will quite happily stand on your head without seeing you in thick grass. But as you can't fire your weapon whilst lying down (not even guns that are specifically designed to be fired from this position) it's not much of a solution, and the second you pop your head up you'll be spotted and shot with near perfect accuracy. Needless to say this makes trying to use the OICW's complex targeting systems and viewfinder (which only function when you stand perfectly still for some reason, and forget your zoom settings every time you move) utterly futile.
It also makes the game's handful of stealth-based missions particularly irritating, especially as guards can raise the alarm telepathically without having to go anywhere near a big red button. Once the siren has been set off there's no way to turn it off again, and at least one mission is failed instantly if the alarm gets activated. While this would be fair enough under most circumstances, it's pretty annoying when you have to restart a mission because a guard somehow saw you through a pile of cardboard boxes. On the bright side, the AI does do a good job of working together as a team to root you out from under cover, circling round to get a clean shot or running away to fetch reinforcements, and the sight of guards vaulting over a railing to reach you or kneeling behind cover as you open fire is common.
The shortcomings of the AI aren't enough to spoil the single player campaign completely, however hard Raven's programmers may have tried. It's hard not to enjoy yourself sometimes as you run through a jungle, ducking behind a ruined wall, peering around a tree trunk to let off a few rounds and catching an enemy guard full in the face, watching as he slumps to the ground realistically. Until you get blown to pieces by a grenade, anyway.
Sadly the level design is something of a mixed bag as well though, with settings ranging from the streets of Prague and Hong Kong to the crate-festooned interior of a cargo ship. Some areas are imaginative and beautifully rendered, while others are lacking in detail, shrouded in thick fog, or over-ambitious sprawling locations that bring your graphics card to its knees. Most levels are also incredibly linear, with a combination of locked doors, bullet-proof windows and shoddy scripting keeping you on the straight and narrow. Mullins does carry a tool which acts as a lockpick, but as you can only use it on a handful of doors and chests throughout the course of the game it's pretty pointless in practice.
Some levels remove any illusion of free will by clamping you to a fast moving vehicle and giving you a fixed machinegun to fire. These on-rails missions are frankly awful, marred by pathetic featureless level design and angular roads that look like something out of the proverbial "my first Quake map". Your escape from Prague on the back of a truck is especially poor, with the vehicle making wild unrealistic changes in direction as you sit helplessly attached to your machinegun. Lorries loaded with enemy soldiers periodically veer on to the road in front of or behind you, and then fly high into the air as they explode, your own truck passing through the flaming wreckage as if it wasn't there.
How The Other Half Live
Luckily there's more to Soldier Of Fortune II than the up-and-down single player campaign. For starters you have access to a random mission generator, and although this is only capable of creating fog-ridden outdoors maps, it does add longevity. There's a choice of four terrain types, and missions can involve planting explosives, killing a particular enemy, escaping to an extraction point or stealing documents.
Where the random map generator (and the game itself, for that matter) really shines is in multiplayer. Here you won't have to worry about enemies with pixel perfect aim and X-ray vision (until somebody creates an auto-aim bot, anyway), and capture the flag games are a joy to behold, with up to 32 players on each side battling back and forth over a vast map created spontaneously at the beginning of each match. Occasionally you end up with a map which is too open (leaving your base difficult to defend) or too constricted (with everybody funnelled through one or two central choke points), but usually the result is highly enjoyable anyway.
The free-for-all and team deathmatch modes tend to be fast and furious, especially on crowded servers, and although some people may enjoy this, I found the whole thing pretty chaotic. Infiltration is more interesting though, offering a Counter-Strike style round-based game in which one team must capture a briefcase full of documents and return it to their helicopter. The maps aren't all suited to large numbers of players, but there's enough variety here to keep you entertained, from the jungles of Columbia to a recreation of Raven's offices in snow-covered Wisconsin. On some maps it's hard to get the documents to the extraction point in one piece, which tends to reduce the game to a bout of "last man standing" (an option which is also included, as Elimination mode), but overall it's a lot of fun.
Soldier Of Fortune II is effectively two games in one box. The first is a fairly entertaining but deeply flawed single player campaign, the other a multiplayer shooter with a huge variety of maps (pre-designed and randomly generated) and at least two great gameplay modes (capture the flag and infiltration) to keep you occupied. If you're after some online mayhem, then it's well worth buying. If you want single player action, you'd be better off looking elsewhere.
Single Player Rating - 6/10 Multiplayer Rating - 9/10