In March of 2000, Activision and Raven released upon the unsuspecting gaming world a tour de force of gaming goodness. Based upon a heavily-modified Quake2 engine and Raven's custom GHOUL engine, the original Soldier of Fortune took the consumer market by storm. Receiving both accolades and condemnations from the press, it was sure to secure a place in gaming history, regardless of its commercial success.
A little over two years later, Activision and Raven are back with the second installment of this now sacred franchise. Stepping up to the Quake 3 Arena engine and Raven's newer GHOUL2 engine, Soldier of Fortune 2: Double Helix is sure to be a bloodier and rougher ride by any definition.
Double Helix picks up where the first game left off, with you taking on the role of the "consultant" John Mullins, an operative for a covert counter-terrorism operation known only as "The Shop." In this episode, terrorists worldwide are developing biological weapons of mass destruction. Too abstract of a battle for the western world to legitimize becoming officially involved in, they outsource their counter-terror needs to this "shop."
As it is based on the Quake 3 Engine, Double Helix is relatively easy to configure and get underway with. However, keep in mind that this is a heavily modified Quake 3 engine. The settings you are used to in Q3A simply are not going to cut it here because of the enhancements Raven has made to the engine. This is a trend I have noticed across the board with games licensing the Q3A engine. We at SLCentral recently reviewed Dark Forces 3: Jedi Knight 2 and noticed a similar coincidence with its usage of the Q3A engine.
In game, Double Helix behaves like just about every other FPS you have come to reckon with. It is very easy to become familiar with how to navigate the world and, depending on your key configuration, interact with it as well. One of the first things I noticed about Double Helix was its focus on creating a genuinely believable story and putting the player into a scenario that could actually exist. Story is everywhere in this game. You, as John Mullins, must complete the missions for reasons far and above simply "eradicating the bad guys." There are consequences to what you and do and a reason for your existence in the world.
Graphically, Double Helix is stellar. The weapons are modeled well and behave as one would expect their real-life counterparts to behave. The only objection I have to the game items is the night vision goggles. When in NV mode, the green and yellow image is not as true to real NV goggles as I have become accustomed to with Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon games. A minor issue, for sure, but a notable one for those people accustomed to more accurately modeled goggles.
The environs that you explore in your adventures are all well thought out and rarely completely linear in nature. One issue I noted, however, was how the interior environments rarely seemed to be as "small" as their exterior representations portray them to be. For example, on the first mission you are to infiltrate a hotel discreetly. As you approach the hotel you get a general idea of its size. However, once you actually infiltrate said hotel, you discover that its interior is simply massive. Much, much more so than its exterior had lead you to believe. While this could theoretically lead to breaking your feeling of suspended disbelief, the pacing of the game leaves little time for that.
The AI engine is another component worthy of mention. These enemies are good: real good. They dodge rounds and shrapnel, use buddy teams to track you down, and are generally just really good soldiers. Lower order enemies make more mistakes and are more brazen than their season higher-order counterparts. In text it seems like something very minute, but in-game it is the difference between knowing you are playing a game and believing you're really there.
As it is based in the Q3A engine, Double Helix can't help but be pretty. But, is it more than just eye-candy? The short answer is a resounding "yes!" All of the special features native to the Q3A engine are used to enhance the overall gaming experience, not just re-pronounce their existence. In fact, the only issue I noticed was with shadows, and it was minor. When using "true form" shadows versus block shadows, the true form shadows originate in the center of character model and project outwards into mid-air. When using block shadows, the shadows begin and extend on the ground as they are supposed to. I have it on good word, though, that by the time this article goes to press this issue will be resolved.
From the realistic look of the character models to the layout of the maps, this game is just awesome. Spent shells fly out of your weapon and collect on the grounds. Rounds shot at walls cause indention and marking like a real round would. This is the good stuff folks.
All of the visual pizzazz in the world does little good, though, if the sounds in such a high-end game sound like an Atari is generating them. I am pleased to report that the audio matches the visuals blow-for-blow in their spectacular appeal. Double Helix not only supports EAX, Creative's definitive 3D audio standard, but supports their latest version of it, EAX2. Of course, you can always round down to DirectX audio if you don't have an EAX2 card, but the experience if much enhanced if you do.
Normally, I am not one for multiplayer first-person games. It takes a lot for me to really get into one. Half-Life is one of the few titles whose multiplayer has captivated me for more than a few moments. Due to its excellent mapping, weapon placement, and overall feel, Double Helix has earned a spot in my heart as a solid multiplayer experience.
Like any Q3A-based game, getting up and running with a multi-player session is just a few mouse clicks away. Tweaking and tuning to get the "best" multiplayer experience, however, may take a little more time. As I mentioned before, Double Helix is much more than just Q3A with a different face. Raven has made a lot of enhancements below the surface that will push your entire system to its limits. Take my advice when turning on options in the configuration menu. Your gameplay and your frag count will thank you later.
Even with its relatively recent release, the mod scene has already pumped out a plethora of custom multiplayer maps for this game. And, most are of surprisingly good quality. If you're a multiplayer fan, I can say from experience that you won't be disappointed here. There's plenty of maps to satiate you in the box and even more out on the web, so just cancel your plans for the weekend because you won't be going out any time soon.
It is hard not to say really positive things about Double Helix. Games this much fun come along only every once in a great while. I have to admit that at first I was a bit skeptical. I thought that Raven was just going to have lots of enemies with lots of ways to blow them up and see blood flying in all directions. There is so much more here than just that.
Whether you are a fan of FPS games, the Soldier of Fortune license, or just a bored gamer looking for a great game, there is something to love here for everyone. It is entirely possible to become lost in either the single-player or multi-player module, never touch the other and still walk away from this game completely satisfied.
Sometimes a license alone will make a game sell like hotcakes, such as Quake, Wolfenstein, and Unreal. Due to the overwhelming success of the first Soldier of Fortune game, Raven could've theoretically sat on their laurels with this title and still had it sell a million copies. But, they have elected not to do that and you, the gamer, get to reap the benefit. Even if you have never played the first game and even if you generally don't like FPS titles, I recommend that you get this game. Raven has outdone itself here and I doubt that we will see another title of this caliber from them or any other house until the release of Doom III or Quake 4.
Note: all screen shots used are from the SOF2: Double Helix press pack.
Fun Factor: 9.0
Lasting Appeal: 9.0
Overall Score: 9.0