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Soldier of Fortune II: The Perfect FPS

Of all the "realistic"-style first person shooters I have ever played, Soldier of Fortune II remains the most fun and relaxing. It has just the right blend of realism with ease of gameplay so that I can sit down and play when I'm mentally tired or just taking a coffee break but at the same time it still has enough realistic elements to maintain my suspension of disbelief and provide me with a light tactical challenge.
When I've got a lot of mental energy and I'd really like to focus I might prefer other "realistic" first person shooter games which are much more demanding of increasingly complex strategic and tactical acumen. Examples of such games would be Operation Flashpoint, or Ghost Recon, where meticulous strategic planning and solid tactical execution play an equal role to gameplay skill. I am passionate about simulationistic realism in my games but sometimes after a long day I'm just not mentally up to the level of meticulousness I'd need to do well, and I know that I'd just end up feeling frustrated with myself after playing.
Soldier of Fortune II does not really have strategy. That is to say, the player does not examine a terrain map before the mission and take advantage of different modes of approach. Rather, each level is designed to be walked through in a particular way from beginning to end. It is impossible to get lost. Enemies often spawn just out of sight during gameplay rather than being pre-placed and existing the entire time the level is active. and so there are no clever ways of, say, finding a hidden vantage point in the terrain and sniping out a whole squad outside of a scripted event, nor does the game support affects on the enemy AI such as suppression fire or flanking maneuvers. The closest thing the game offers to strategy are a couple of stealth levels with pre-positioned patrolling enemies who can set off an alarm if they see the player, as well as the general ability to use stealth to avoid being immediately attacked.
That is not to say that Soldier of Fortune II does not have tactics, however. It has very solid tactics, and that is what makes it fun and challenging to play. It is realistic enough in terms of portrayal of tactics that my suspension of disbelief is not compromised, and I feel satisfied on repeated replays. Raven ensured a quality tactical experience for the player by hiring John Mullins, a real-life decorated Vietnam veteran who served three tours, and who participated in the Phoenix program, as a "military consultant" for the game in order to make sure that the weapons and tactics behaved in a reasonably realistic manner. In Soldier of Fortune II the player can be killed very quickly by incoming fire, so that using cover, and returning fire by carefully leaning from behind cover, is one of the most important skills in the game. However, once the player begins fighting from behind a particular piece of cover, the enemy will often begin flushing that cover out with grenades which (realistically) are capable of killing the player in one hit. Therefore, firefights tend to be very challenging and dynamic, as the player must know when to use cover, and when to retreat or advance laterally to a different piece of cover. Besides for these tactical elements, each weapon in the game is well-implemented with realistic strengths and drawbacks. For example, the M590 combat shotgun can sever limbs and kill with a single hit at close range, but is ineffective at longer ranges and suffers from an arduous reload. The M60 machine gun, fired unsupported either standing or crouching, is tremendously powerful but also tremendously inaccurate. With a little bit of practice, it's very possible to open a door while standing aside and frag the room in a proper fashion before entry. There are many real-world weapons portrayed in Soldier of Fortune II and they all seem more or less reasonable in how they are portrayed. The gameplay in Soldier of Fortune II is so satisfying that when, in both college and grad school, I played through the game probably in excess of 50 times, I enjoyed each play-through immensely.
There's another reason I enjoyed such extraordinary replay value from Soldier of Fortune 2. The reason is that there is a fantastic mod for it, the Weapon Mod. Luckily, the website for the mod is still up, so that people who read this article can perhaps try it out: This mod basically adds many weapons, and makes the already existing weapons behave even more realistically. For example, in the original Soldier of Fortune II, a player almost never needed to use the "change fire mode" key, as short bursts in automatic mode were sufficient for nailing targets at any range. Using this mod, however, I frequently switch between semi-automatic and full auto modes when using rifles depending on the range of the target, as recoil is more pronounced with certain weapons. Realistically speaking semi-auto fire is usually the right choice with a rifle and under the parameters of this mod I find myself making the choice more often. There are many details and a lot of love that have gone into this mod. For example, the M60 now spits out links as well as casings when fired, and larger casings are ejected by rifles and machine guns than by pistols and submachineguns. I found that playing Soldier of Fortune II with this mod was a whole new rewarding experience and I have happily played through the game using this mod many times.
There's one more subject I'd like to cover in this retrospective of Soldier of Fortune II, and that is gore. Many commentators have described the gore in Soldier of Fortune II as "over the top". But, I think they are mistaken. It's not really over the top. I think, whether or not Raven planned it that way, it's realistic. I'm not a combat vet or a soldier, but I've read many war memoirs, mostly from Vietnam, but also from World War I. History is my passion, and I've read these war memoirs pretty carefully. In combat situations involving such powerful weapons as automatic rifles, grenades, and worse, there is quite a bit of mangling and gore. A simple pistol shot to the back of the head can splatter brains all over the firer, from what I've read, so imagine what a rifle in full auto mode at close range can do to a person. The supposedly "over the top" gore provided by Soldier of Fortune II's GHOUL system basically allows the specific area hit on a character to get blasted off and gored up, and the gore follows very logically from this basic premise. In Soldier of Fortune II if you were to fire a single round from a M4 carbine into an enemy's head, the game would kill the enemy, and just have the one exact spot in the head look gory. The only way to totally remove the head would be to fire a long burst into the enemy's head such that enough areas on the head were hit in order to make the game totally remove the head. Is that over the top? I think that's probably understated, if anything, since my impression was that being shot in the head with a rifle even a single time would tend to remove more of aforementioned head than just a little piece. Again, I'm not an expert, but just using a bit of reasoning and historical evidence I'd argue that the gore in Soldier of Fortune II is probably more or less realistic, rather than "over the top" as most commentators claim. As a side note, I believe that the "over the top gore" reputation is what caused Soldier of Fortune III (not developed by Raven) to become so crappy; the game designers focused on silly (rather than logical) gore and not on tactical realism, resulting in the puerile romp which is Soldier of Fortune III.
Many commentators and reviewers often said of Soldier of Fortune II that it was good for fans of the first person shooter genre, and typically gave it a rating of around 7 out of 10. I disagree with all my heart. Soldier of Fortune II is one of the most satisfying, soothing, and fun games I've ever played, and it has achieved a perfect balance between strenuous realism and relaxing, casual gameplay. I will continue playing Soldier of Fortune II for many years from now and will continually be entertained and satisfied because the truth is that Soldier of Fortune II is a genuine classic.
-- Wounded Ronin (5/06/2008)

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