We've still got a few more months to go before the next generation of FPS games really kick off in earnest. Unreal II, Doom III, and other games using next-generation technology on spanking-new video cards are poised to blow us all away (and our wallets along with us).

Soldier of Fortune II (SoF2) is from Raven Software, who use the Quake III engine and use it well. This game isn't going to stun anyone with it's graphical prowess, as the engine is over two years old, but it's still serviceable, even if it's nearing its limit.

Stealing the show is the old stalwart of the SoF series, GHOUL. GHOUL is basically an animation system that allows what they call "realistic" amputation and gore. That's right, little Johnny can shoot those naughty terrorists in the knee and watch them go down screaming and clutching a bloody stump. Columbine reactionaries, start your class-action lawsuits.

However, realistic is a relative term. As good as GHOUL is (the box advertises "36 dismemberment zones!" the way blenders advertise mix settings), the Quake III engine can only take it so far. Plus, while somewhat toned down from the first game, limbs still have a curious tendency to go flying after only two or three bullets. The violence is rather cartoonish in the amount of blood and decapitiation it relies on, and while it might be enough to carry the game for psychopaths who never get tired of spattering blood on the wall over and over again trying to form a pentagram, the rest of us will soon ignore it.

Fortunately, the game features some very, very nice weapons. They're almost all based off actual weapons, and they feel real. The sound effects are top-notch, and the orchestral, patriotic music is above and beyond the crap industrial-techno we've come to expect from our FPSs. Epic MegaGames, take notes!

The realism is heightened by the gameplay itself. Damage is very quick, and GHOUL allows for realistic modeling. Since you're wearing body armor, chest shots are extremely ineffective in this game. However, a shot to the head with ANY weapon is instantly fatal, and shooting off limbs is almost as quick.

The multiplayer is also extremely fun. Weapons are for the most part extremely balanced, and in addition to the standard DM, CTF, and elimination, SoF2 features "infiltration," a mode that plays like a combination of CTF and Unreal's Assault. One team holds a briefcase somewhere in the level, and must defend it from a set amount of time from the other team, who must grab it and return to their helicopter before time runs out. This mode emphasizes teamwork, and all of the maps are masterfully designed, emphasizing everything from point-blank running and gunning to tense sniper battles. Infiltration easily steals the show.

However, the single-player campaign is, I'm sorry, a great disappointment. Incredibly linear, and suffering from a hackneyed terrorist bioweaponry plot. And when I say linear, I mean linear. Several levels (such as Colombia) go so far as to keep you on a path in a small valley between two sets of mountains, where you have no choice but to creep along and try to dispatch the terrorists before they do you.

Raven also falls into the current fad/trap of throwing in several "stealth" missions, where you are forced to sneak around with a knife and dispatch enemies silently. It feels like an afterthought, and, like most stealth afterthoughts, ends up becoming a tedium of restarts and frustration. If I wanted stealth and realism, I'd play Thief. Here it just doesn't come off right.

Scripting is rather lame as well. Several sections have you working with allies, and the game doesn't let you go too far ahead. So you're stuck going at a slow pace, waiting for scripted events to occur, and taking damage from far-ahead snipers because the door can't open until your "backup" arrives. Ugh.

There's no real motivation to ever fire up the single-player game at all.

SoF2 is the most fun I've ever had playing multiplayer since Unreal Tournament. Infiltration alone almost warrants the price. But since there's a free MP test available for download, the primitive single-player and gets-old-quick blood'n'guts make this a questionable buy. But if you've got several friends to play with, or you're really tired of UT, go ahead and buy this for the multiplayer.

As a postscript, Raven has so far provided excellent support for this game. Instead of releasing them as an expansion pack, improvements such as four new weapons, six new maps, and a new gametype (demolition) have come free with the standard patches. Raven has also integrated PunkBuster technology to hamper cheaters, making the multiplayer even more attractive.

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