Wolf: In the tradition started by me a while ago, I present another guest review - this time by Jez...
"Mr Mullins, it is your job to run through cities and countryside and what not, rescuing, finding and investigating. It will be tough, with copious amounts of killing and a variety of weapons to use. You will slaughter thousands and find stuff, but we will pay you and provide you with backup, OK?"
You start the game running through Prague, rescuing a scientist and generally being a super soldier hero type. This is all just background, which you discover the relevance of fairly sharpish. Cut to the present and our hero is a mercenary working for "the shop", a large, powerful and secret militant organisation, dedicated to the eradication of terrorism and tyranny throughout the world.
To aid you in your various missions is an ever-growing selection of weaponry. Silenced and dual pistols, shotguns, MITs, grenades and the like, a list which grows with the weapons you collect in-game. A variation in guns is a very useful thing too, as within each mission the sections vary in style, and so must your approach to each challenge. The whole idea of varying styles and approaches is a large and important one in Soldier of Fortune II. There are three different control styles, catering for the gung-ho, watched Pulp Fiction too much type of gamer, the sly and sneaky quiet approach, or the tactical military man style.
Added to this, little foot-notes encouraging a personal choice of weapons (you get to equip at the start of each mission), and a level structure where there really isn't just one way of doing things and you honestly start to feel like you're your own merc, with free license to do as you please as long as you get the job done.
And that's it, more or less. Soldier of Fortune II:Double Helix is the mutant cross-breed child of Max Payne and whichever first person shooter you choose to name, something like Counter Strike. There's no bullet time but the bad facial hair, comically overplayed voice acting and the investigating you do makes Double Helix feel like a hilariously well armed Private Eye story.
Visually, however, Soldier of Fortune II does rather let down. Based on what looks like the Quake 3 engine, the first word that came to mind was "dated". Throughout the game, textures and details are very nice, giving a genuine, almost tangible, look to things. An effect that is utterly ruined by the dodgy lighting, poor render engine and lots of corners. It really is a shame that more attention wasn't paid to the presentation of this game. With a decent engine behind it Double Helix could have been one of the most involving games released for a long time, but the visuals do detract from the overall atmosphere.
Sprinkled between the action are story developing cut scenes that help fill you in on what is actually going on. However, as if to follow a theme, these are also a little on the ropey side. For some reason the developers chose to pre-render and encode these scenes to some dodgy format, rather than use the X-Box power to just render these scenes on the fly. The result is a grainy, jerky, badly animated irritation. In fairness, this situation does seem to improve a little throughout the game but still doesn't get up to scratch.
It is a little upsetting that the rest of the game works so well, a good and individual package, but is masked by something as basic as very average visuals. The X-Box has been home to some visual masterpieces, just not this time. The sound isn't particularly special but really does do the job, with various atmospheric environmental noises and the odd bit of speech from enemies and allies. What is nice about Soldier of Fortune II is the use of speech by friendlies. Whereas Halo had the lovely A.I. companion feeding information, Double Helix puts you in a situation where you have to use your own initiative and discretion. A great section for this is when Mullins gets attached to an army unit. Having been told to be good and not jeopardise the mission, under pain of death, you must work within the unit to get through. Mullins can effectively do as he pleases, but stray grenades, particularly noisy behaviour or legging it too far from the unit will get him shot.
There is, unfortunately, an annoying problem with the audio. At various, and frequent, intervals it just cuts out. Briefly, but it does, presumably to load the next section. This is particularly irksome when something is being explained, or when listening for grenades being thrown at you, and if you can't hear them you likely won't see them either so that's a dead Mullins. One of the strong points for Soldier of Fortune II is the balance that has been struck in game styles.
For anyone that's played Counter Strike and liked it, you'll know what an asset a certain splash of realism can be, but also how much more pressure is placed on the player. Conversely, fans of Timesplitters will understand the easy fun of an arcade style kick-ass fest. What Soldier of Fortune II manages quite well is a moderate blend of both of these ideas. Weapon characteristics and damage are quite harsh and perhaps a little more "realistic", but the movement is fast and the action frenetic, if you want it to be.
The resulting mix is an encouraging and involving game that throws up just enough obstacles to give you pause for thought but not slow down the action too much. Y'know it's crazy but it just might work.... It does work as well. It's great running through the jungle, taking on small armies unawares and kicking off all over the shop. If you ever wanted to be Rambo, albeit with a bad 'tache, you now have the opportunity, kind of. Escape from an ambushed base camp, run through the jungle taking out machine gun nests, rendezvous with a friendly unit.... It's all too easy to get carried away by it all.
All in all, I think it should be said that Soldier of Fortune II:Double Helix is a good game. It does some interesting things and has some very clever level design, promoting versatility in the gameplay, and doesn't feel limiting at all. Bizarrely Soldier of Fortune II feels kind of fresh and I don't quite know why. It's a war based first person shooter, quite a lot like many others, with the aforementioned added benefits, but it works which is the most important thing. It goes without saying that if you want an FPS and don't have one, get Halo, but as an extra title to add to your collection there's a lot worse than this. The only problem for the developers of Soldier of Fortune II is that any title released on the X-Box of this genre right now is only going to be an instalment in the run up to the video gaming event we're all waiting for. Halo 2.