Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix Review

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Publisher: Activision
Developer: Raven Software

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 450 MHz, 128 MB RAM, 16 MB video card, 1.3 GB HD space, 8x CD ROM

John Mullins and The Shop are back, complete with high technology and plain old bravado. The game is mostly set in the modern day but opens with a flashback series of missions in which Mullins extricates a defecting scientist from behind the Iron Curtain. Back in the present day, Mullins is called back to active assignment by news from that scientist that the program he began may have fallen into the wrong hands. It is up to Mullins, along with a little help from The Shop and the U.S. Marines, to investigate clues that point to the existence of a horrifying weapon and a well-outfitted, international network of terrorists bent on using it. By the way, you'll also need to thwart their plan, mostly by yourself. Bring a gun.

Rob de los Reyes

Let there be no confusion. Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix picks up where the original Soldier of Fortune left off – with blood pulsing from an artery severed by a shotgun blast. John Mullins is back, and so is the trademark gore, rendered even more vividly by improved technology. You're right to be skeptical, but the gore isn't entirely gratuitous from a gameplay point of view. Just mostly. Some people will play the game strictly on the basis of the bloodshed; others will shun it for the same reason. Some few may even buy the game, then play it with the blood turned off. Those otherwise inclined to skip Double Helix might take another look at that no-blood option instead. Beneath the patina of brutality and blood lies an entertaining spy story, a slick shooter and weeks of multiplayer fun.

Most of Double Helix is a shoot-and-duck affair. Pick the right weapon for the job, and blast anything that breathes. Hide, lean around the corner, then keep firing until no one is firing back. It is here that Double Helix is most comfortable. You, as John Mullins super-merc, are offered a splendid array of weaponry, including several types of grenades (both hand-thrown and weapon-fired), several varieties of assault rifles and machines guns, various pistols and submachine guns (either single- or dual-wielded), a couple of shotguns, a sniper rifle, a combat knife, and a number of fixed emplacements you'll encounter during some of the missions. Odds are good you'll use every weapon offered for at least a little while, if for no other reason than that each level tends to feature two or three bad guy weapons of choice that you'll need when you run out of ammo. But even if you weren't constrained by the need to pick up ammunition, the levels are cleverly designed to afford you the opportunity (if not the requirement) to cycle through your weapons for best tactical effect. In the short, narrow hallways, your shotgun saves you the trouble of aiming. Just shoot – you'll hit something. In long hallways and open terrain, you'll need to rely on your rifles and machine guns. Their greater range and accuracy are absolutely required for mission success. As mentioned, you also have the ability to dual-wield pistols and submachine guns. Maybe players more skilled than your reviewer could find some tactical justification for using them. Then again, there's no need to be a slave to tactical efficiency. At times you'll give in to the urge to go two-fisted... just because you can. The fixed-gun moments, including the one in the back of the truck pictured below, are raw fun. With an absurd amount of ammo, you're free in these moments (unlike every other moment in the game) simply to hold down the trigger and enjoy the fully-automatic fire. Raven's ability to trot out levels that force the tactical, but also make room for a touch of arcade style, reflect a level of polish and spirit of fun that remind you good designers are gamers, too.

Where Double Helix runs into trouble with regard to level design is in the area of stealth. Prior to release and at launch, the game's stealth aspects were highly touted. Too highly touted for what they turn out to be. Certain missions are overtly designated "stealth" missions. You'll be required to skulk about and kill enemies silently (perhaps with your knife or a silenced pistol), or simply avoid them altogether. The Thief series of games showed the world that stealth could be fun, but it may also have inadvertently showed that unless you design a game for stealth from the ground up, you're going to have problems. Here, you are given a noise meter at the bottom of your screen to indicate the amount of sound you're producing. Running is noisier than walking, and shooting is noisier than cutting someone's throat. Frequently, you'll also have a siren icon to indicate not only that you've been heard but also that some guard has set off the alarm. You'll learn to despise that little alarm, particularly when its activation equals mission failure. The noise meter and choice of stealthy weaponry certainly feel like the right toolset for stealth missions, but they seem almost superfluous in the face of punishing level design. The stealth missions feel less like clever spy stuff than they do like one of those Family Circus cartoon strips where the child runs around with a dotted-line path indicator. The stealthy path is wickedly narrow – turn the wrong way, stray from the path, or open a door too soon, and your mission is over. The brute force levels are occasionally prone to "gotcha" moments, but they aren't too troubling given your body armor and guns. The "gotcha" moments in the stealth missions (like opening a door straight into the gaze of an enemy), are simply debilitating. If for no other reason than the stealth missions, even practiced gamers may wish to consider the Easy difficulty level and its unlimited saves. Otherwise, you'll endlessly retrace your steps until you memorize the "gotchas."

Eventually, however, you get through the stealth missions and back into the missions that let Double Helix stretch its legs. The mission locales are exotic and varied. You start in the dark, rainy, gray streets of Prague, then move into a poshly appointed mansion simply begging to be ventilated by your weaponry. Subsequent missions take you to the verdant Columbian jungles, the blindingly white fields of Kamchatka, a giant cargo ship and a New York hospital, among other locations. It's a visual treat. The Colombian jungles are worth special mention, not only for the visual work but also for the sounds of the rustling vegetation, as well as a particularly engaging segment of musical soundtrack. The Colombian missions also feature a cut scene/interlude segment that ranks among the most memorable your reviewer has encountered. To avoid a spoiler while nevertheless giving credit where it's clearly due, just remember one word: plastics. The rest of the many cut scenes are also engaging, less for the graphical quality than for the cinematic design of the "camera" shots and scene direction. These elements, along with capable acting (including that of Mark Hamill, who, for whatever reason, did not do any voice work on Raven's Jedi Knight II), do a far better job creating the feel of an interactive movie than the more literal attempts made back in the days of extensive full-motion video.

Any mention of Double Helix's graphics must dwell for a moment on the blood and gore. No more defense of it can be made here (nor does Raven ask for one) than for any other form of blood and guts entertainment, be it television, book or movie, that is popular today. That said, it does give you a visual clue about the precision elements separating Double Helix from shooters with lower production values. Namely, your enemies are composed of numerous target points. Shoot one in the arm, and he may drop his weapon in order to clutch his injured limb. A shotgun blast to the lower leg has a chance of taking it clean off. The head is a critical spot. One precise head shot from just about any weapon turns into a one-hit kill. The gore and the enemy reactions provide clues about whether or not you need to empty more of your clip or are safe to move on. That said, there's certainly more gore than is necessary merely to effect that functionality. As a responsible adult, your reviewer blames the teen-agers. Or something.

Once you finish the single player game – or heck, maybe right out of the box – you'll want some quality time with the multiplayer game. Double Helix uses its own browser, with numerous options for organizing the server list, making the process of joining a game simple. Multiplayer mode offers the familiar deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and elimination (no respawning) games. In addition, you can choose an infiltration game in which one team tries to grab secret documents while the other team tries to stop them. New as of the just-released patch is a demolition game in which one team must plant and detonate bombs at two specific map locations over the opposition of the other team. In brief, all the games are familiar in type but almost seem new because of the smooth net play, efficient and interesting maps, and the simple pleasure of choosing your own weapons complement. Most of all, it's easy to play in short bursts, and you need not keep the game cd in the drive. In other words, when you want a break from getting pummeled in your favorite real-time strategy game, you don't have to do any disc-swapping in order to hop in for some quick Double Helix action. All of which means that even though there isn't much point in replaying the single-player game, the separate multiplayer shortcut icon is likely to linger on your desktop for some time to come.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on July 14, 2002 4:15 PM.

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