Friday, January 24, 2020

Retro Review: Soldier of Fortune [2000]

Note this review includes experiences only made available with the SoFplus Mod

It's the 20th Anniversary of easily one of my all-time favourite First Person Shooters - Soldier of Fortune, so I thought as I had purchased it from GOG during a recent sale after thy had finally secured the publishing rights in 2018, it was time to take it out for a spin.

Soldier of Fortune is a truly dumb game, it's plot is insane and would have been laughed off the pages of a comic book in the 1980's, let alone accepted in one of the first videogames which rang in the new century. The story such as it is makes you feel like you're in a classic '80's action movie, probably starring Chuck Norris. It's filled with cheese and tropes from TV, movies, comic books and other video games but the gameplay is sublime and it's what has brought me back now again after what I reckon is about 10 years since I last played.

Soldier of Fortune is considered a classic example of the FPS genre and a fantastic example when looking at a game of that era. It shares a lot of aesthetics with 3D shooters of the time like Deus Ex, SiN and Half-Life - clearly developers were still coming to terms with the possibilities the new 3D engines were affording them, and each developer was keen to add their own mark on the genre in order to stand out. One way for Soldier of Fortune developer Raven Software, was to make the whole game a gun-porn lover's wet-dream. It was one of the first games (with the like of Counterstrike and Rainbow Six) to take the majority of it's arsenal from real-world weapons as opposed to the previous efforts of the genre like Doom, Quake and Duke Nukem 3D which feature mostly sci-fi or otherwise fantastical weapons. The second, and by far the more important hook was adding the GHOUL damage engine to the Quake 2 FPS engine to create something unique - one of the bloodiest shooters ever released!


You see, most First Person Shooters did not (and most still don't) depict intense graphic violence. When someone was shot there was perhaps a texture change where "blood" appeared on their clothing. If one was lucky, a pool of blood appeared under a fallen body. Even when games began to incorporate rudimentary rag-doll physics - a "body" on the floor my 'jerk' if you deliberately emptied the clip of your assault rifle into your slain opponent; it most certainly didn't react like it would in reality, i.e. explode against the wall with blood, flesh, bone and internal organs freed from the confines of the body as you spat white hot leaden death at it. This tame approach taken by most developers ensured that FPS games were at least released everywhere as very few of them are banned, but Raven and Activision eschewed this for Soldier of Fortune.

Soldier of Fortune had GHOUL. From Wikipedia: "The GHOUL engine enables depiction of extreme graphic violence, in which character models are based on body parts that can each independently sustain damage (gore zones). There are 26 zones in total. A shot to the head with a powerful gun will often make the target's head explode, leaving nothing but the bloody stump of the neck remaining; a close-range shot to the stomach with a shotgun will leave an enemy's bowels in a bloody mess, and a shot to the nether regions will cause the victim to clutch his groin in agony for a few seconds before keeling over dead. It is possible to shoot off an enemy's limbs (head, arms, legs) leaving nothing left but a bloody torso." What this does not tell you about though is the death screams. Even though Earl Boen, Todd Sussman and Michael Clarke Duncan are heard, the game's voice acting is so-so, but enemy death screams are magnificent, it really does sound like you've just blown a guy's limb off, or set him on fire as he writhes around on the floor screaming. 


Soldier of Fortune naturally sprouted much controversy and was banned in many territories. Notably it was labelled an "adult motion picture" and was rated as a pornographic film in British Columbia, while in Germany, it was placed on the Index List of the Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons. This was all despite an option in the menu where one could turn off the violence/gore effects as one can in many games. There was also a version produced which entirely and permanently locked out the violence/gore called Soldier of Fortune: Tactical Low-Violence Version, but I know of no pussy who was subjected to it.

The game primarily uses the Quake II engine and so shares lineage with Heretic II, SiN and Daikatana. Playing today I'll agree it's aged significantly but if one applies the SoFplus mod, you get to tweak graphics features including playing in widescreen resolutions, but beware that you may get some slight hall-of-mirrors effects on screen edges as the game was ever only designed for 4:3 aspect ratio. The game ran with no significant issues on Windows 10 1909.

While entries in the Hexen and Heretic franchises helped establish Raven Software, it's with Soldier of Fortune that they truly made their mark and allowed them to develop more notable games later such as a sequel Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix as well as significant FPS entries - Star Trek: Elite Force, Star Wars - Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast and Quake 4. They have a significant role to play today in the Call of Duty franchise and I'm glad I took a nostalgic 9.5 hour journey back through one of my favourite games to remember where they came from. 

Soldier of Fortune Platinum is currently only available on GOG for €9.09 but watch out for frequent sales.

The SoFplus mod is available here:

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

First Chief of Space Operations sworn in

Vice President Mike Pence swore in General John “Jay” Raymond today as the first Chief of Space Operations, the title of the officer in charge of the newly created sixth branch of the U.S. armed forces - The United States Space Force.

When I began this multi-part series in 2017 and even following it up last year with the inevitable realisation that this was probably actually going to happen, I still didn't think I'd be writing this today. But once the chief is assigned, the ball is rolling and over the next few weeks and months Raymond will work with the Department of Defence in establishing immediately, a force of space specialists drawn from what was the Air Force Space Command, the administrative, training and procurement entity of the USAF for space. Gen. Raymond will also command the United States Space Command, the joint-service combatant command that conducts space operations.

According to it's mission statement, The U.S. Space Force is to "organize, train, and equip space forces in order to protect U.S. and allied interests in space and to provide space capabilities to the joint force. Its responsibilities include developing military space professionals, acquiring military space systems, maturing the military doctrine for space power, and organizing space forces to present to the Combatant Commands".

A force of 16,000 personnel will be stood up over the next 18 months but Gen. Raymond suggested that adopting a new uniform, logo and of course, a song will take much time in the months, if not years ahead.

Although that said, I thought they had the song sorted:

US Space Force Fact Sheet - 
Twitter account of Mike Pence -  @Mike_Pence
Video: Starship Troopers 3 - Youtube

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Review - Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order [2019]


Not being a pessimist granted me some level of anticipation for this year's main Star Wars game - Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. First - it was to be a single-player game! This caught the attention of everyone due to the fact that Electronic Arts had done little with the Star Wars licence other than the Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO and multiplayer shooter Star Wars: Battlefront, and even damaged the franchise with Battlefront II's now infamous loot-box debacle which caught the attention of governments around the globe. Secondly, it would be a totally new game  - not following on from before or even prominently featuring known characters. It would be set much earlier in the "Dark Times" (post Revenge of the Sith) than Star Wars: Rebels. So the ingredients were there for some great storytelling of a Jedi on the run during the time of the Jedi Purges.

As much as I would have in the past for almost every LucasArts title, I was not about to drop a pre-order on this during the summer before a November release. While Respawn developers did create one of my favourite shooters Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007, and unlike Bioware did not yet suffer damage from EA meddling, EA had too much 'Dark-Side' energy built up not to warrant a period of observation after release - as well as a price drop - to determine if it was going to be worth it. Thankfully, it seemed like the results were favourable and Jedi: Fallen Order was going to be a success. EA confirmed that it was the fastest-selling digital launch for any Star Wars game within its first two weeks on sale and achieved a respectable score of 81 on Metacritic.

With a 15% sale before Xmas, I acquired the game and began an incredible 30 hour journey as a young Jedi Cal Kestis (Gotham's Cameron Monaghan) who encounters and teams up with Cere Junda (Wolfenstein and Call of Duty's Debra Wilson) her pilot Greez (Matlock's Daniel Roebuck) and Cal's trusty droid companion BD-1 (WALL·E's Ben Burtt). Together they embark on a noble quest to rebuild the Jedi order. As modern Star Wars games respect canon however, I knew it was highly unlikely to happen, but it's not about the ending, its about the journey and with a story created by Stig Asmussen (God of War III) Matt Michnovetz (Star Wars: Rebels) and the legendary RPG writer Chris Avellone himself, I was not disappointed.


The game slowly but surely instructs you, first in movement before introducing combat and force powers. The idea behind this is of course your control scheme is completely alien. Thankfully rather than leveraging the amnesia trope, here Cal has been hiding out on the planet Bracca scrapping old starships for raw materials, lying low and off the radar not using his powers - until the day he has to! Every so often sees Cal learning a new power like push or pull or ability like double jump and wall running, reconnecting with the force and further embracing his heritage. Thus as the player you are drip fed the new ability after a time you should be comfortable with all you have already learned.

The gameplay here seems to be a hodgepodge of other well known games. I've seen Tomb Raider, Uncharted, Assassin's Creed, Dark Souls and Sekiro mentioned for everything from the puzzles and parkour movement to the combat and resting areas with references to Metroidvania due to the need to often return to an already visited area after you've unlocked something or gained a new force ability or upgraded BD-1's abilities. In light of this, Jedi: Fallen Order won't seem very innovative with regards to games themselves, perhaps even derivative of the aforementioned and I'm under no delusion that this game would still be great if it wasn't Star Wars. I think the draw here however is the story, the sounds, sights and atmosphere. You are interacting with a world (worlds) in the aftermath of a great war. While The Empire is certainly in control, technological remnants of the Clone Wars are visible as are the remains of fallen Clone Troopers littering the landscape, grounding you in Star Wars lore.

Progress is steady and methodical. For every kill or new exploration discovery you gain a Databank (journal) entry for flavour and XP which eventually fills a bar netting you a skill point which you can spend on new survival, force or combat techniques to improve Cal's abilities as you progress. But don't wait too long before spending because if you're defeated in combat, you will lose the unspent points to your assailant and only by striking them again will you regain them, or instead you will need to retreat and gain XP elsewhere.

Honestly, the game is hard in my book. I eventually turned the difficulty down to easy mode because, hey - I'm old and I started getting a pain in my hand from the intensity of the lightsaber combat. There's no stealth approach, no mind-tricks or Obi-Wan style popping distractions like in many other Jedi-related games, the solution to every enemy encounter here is force push them off a ledge, parry baster bolts back to them or most often - slice them up with the lightsaber. Once you get used to it, it becomes second nature to jump feet first into EVERY situation and the pace of the game really only supports this mentality anyway so off you jump with reckless abandon.

Speaking of jumping, there's more jumping in this than Mario, and like him you'll fall a lot. Jedi Fallen Order's levels are very vertical in their design evoking the LucasArts levels of yesteryear. Falling damage isn't too punishing, which is good because you fall a lot. If there's a solid space that the player character can occupy, below you then it's likely you can just jump/fall down to it. However after a certain distance - or if there is just a void below you then you 'die' - but it's not the same as being defeated. If you fall you'll just immediately re-spawn a safe distance from same ledge you fell off. You will often mis-time a jump, or fail to catch a ledge or a rope or even go too far over the ledge while sliding down a ramp at speed - yes you will fall a lot.

I really enjoyed the puzzles in the game, and there are quite a few. Some require a single motion or moving something, while others require reflexes, mastery of the game controls and the realisation that physics rather than just colour or number exercises, are an acceptable way to approach puzzles in modern games. Some puzzles are a doozy and I'll admit that once I had to look up a solution to a puzzle and it was simply a matter of using not one, but two force powers on a platform - it had not occurred to me that the same geometry would have been differently affected by different powers (in my defence it was 3:30 AM and I took that as a signal to sleep).


Exploration is rewarded when you come across Force Echoes which allow Cal to experience a moment of the past using The Force gaining experience. Also you find treasure, which is only cosmetic and is found in storage containers. It will be one of a lightsaber custom part, a poncho design or a paint job for the ship or for BD-1. Some exploration reveals harder to find secret areas which reveal powerful Force Echoes which permanently increase your maximum Force energy pool or perhaps even more valuable - health canisters which increase the amount of total health boosts you can carry (Note: I got nine, but not the achievement which said I found them all!).

Graphically the game looks fantastic. I'm almost ashamed to say that this is my first Unreal Engine 4 game even though it's been in use since 2014. With all the enhancements Respawn had plugged into it, 4K frame-rate was a little below 40 so played at 1440p to maintain a solid 60FPS with full detail and it was worth it. Of particular note was the particle effects with rain and snow being very well modelled and combined with the realistic particle physics, it presented very realistic movement patterns. Reflective metal surfaces and flickering lights too seemed superior to those of the Frostbite engine which I had much more experience with. Also I was amazed at the quality of facial modelling and especially the lip syncing during NPC conversations. It seemed as good as any 3D animated TV or motion picture presentation today.

It would be remiss of me for not noting the multitude of enemy-types that you constantly kill during your quests. There are of course the indigenous denizens of each planet you visit, spider or crab like crawlies, slugs and rat like creatures are common as is the ability of many of the enemy types to range you or explode when they die - which 99% of the time is with a lightsaber melee attack so you have to be close - because of this you will get good at jumping and evading. The more common enemy however is The Empire and you'll be dispatching dozens of not hundreds of Stormtroopers, Scout Troopers and Purge Troopers (in their black armour) as well as Security Droids and Probe Droids with their distinctive electronic warbling that will have you looking about frantically to see where the bastards are!!

Speaking of sound, I've always felt like it must be an easy job to be the sound guy on a Star Wars project because the sounds of Star Wars themselves are so distinctive, you rarely need anything new. Many of Ben Burtt's original sound designs are here (or recreated here) but there is still a phenomenal array of sounds for the new locations, environments and enemies that Respawn did a fantastic job of adding. The voice talent as one expects with the involvement of Lucasfilm is top notch. In addition to the aforementioned actors we hear Tony Amendola (Stargate SG-1), Scott Laurance (Star Wars: Resistance) with Liam McIntyre (Spartacus) as Malicos and Forrest Whittiker as his Rogue One character Saw Gurerra. The music score is also noteworthy; Steven Barton (Call of Duty 4, Titanfall) and Gordy Haab (Halo Wars 2, Star Wars: Battlefront) blended their original music performed by the London Symphony Orchestra with established themes from John Williams to craft a powerful and evocative Star Wars score that is sure to make an impact on all who hear it.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order makes up for lost time in the continuation of video-game storytelling in the Star Wars universe which has been lacking for far too long. Whether 'Star Wars Jedi' continues as a franchise or if new single-player games can be green-lit and produced as well as this was then we can perhaps consider these "Dark Times" to be over. 

Side Note: I recommend playing in "Story Mode", especially first time out, as this makes it a more manageable cinematic experience. The enemies are weakened and less aggressive, the damage you take is less (falling damage is eliminated), and the parrying timing is more favourable to you. You can and will still be killed if you don't use all your abilities but unless you're solid at combat in Sekiro or Dark Souls you will likely break your mouse/controller in frustration at higher difficulty levels.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is available for the PC on Origin or Steam (Origin activated) for €59.99. Seasonal discounts have been observed on those platforms and on key vendors Green Man Gaming, Humble Bundle and Fanatical, resulting in prices from €49.99 to €52.99 approx.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Retro Review - DOOM II: Hell on Earth [1994]

This time last year, I gave a retro review of the original DOOM! So again I decided to end the year's gaming by returning to the DOOM universe for the sequel DOOM II: Hell on Earth in honour of that game's 25th Anniversary.

Unlike it's directly supplied predecessor DOOM II got a commercial boxed release and was understandably a best seller. It is however a textbook definition "more of the same" as it quite literally just the same game albeit with some new enemy types and more open space to the levels. This couldn't be done today, it's expected that sequels today have some significant degree of gameplay improvements, graphics upgrades and in the cases of a franchise - a continuation of the narrative. DOOM II however has the same bare-bones narrative (not that it really needs any) but has absolutely no graphics or gameplay upgrades.

Only three things define DOOM II as being different from DOOM. The first is the super-shotgun, the single new weapon added to your arsenal and it's both welcome and useful. The second is some genuinely interesting new enemies: A Chain-gun Dude who uses a chain-gun and drops it when you kill him, a Cacodemon upgrade called a Pain Elemental (above) who shoots Lost Souls from it's mouth and explodes in Lost Souls when killed, the Mancubus who shoots fireballs, the rocket-firing skeleton Revenant and of course the Archvile who can burn you and raise other demons you've killed from the dead! The third defining characteristic of DOOM II is that id were able to take advantage of upgrades in computer hardware within the year and make the physical size of each level much larger with higher geometry, wider areas and more enemies.

DOOM II: Hell on Earth feels bigger and more difficult then it's predecessor and it does take a bit longer - about 7 hours to complete it's 30 levels. While it's levels pose more of a challenge in many respects, I don't think they are as interesting as what were originally designed and DOOM's use of Satanic references to the Bible and Dante's Inferno are not as prominent for most of the sequel. The ending is disappointingly lacklustre with the final boss - the visage of Baphomet - just being a static but heavily guarded, invulnerable monster whom can only be killed with a few precise rocket shots to the brain (below). This boss dynamic is in contrast to the more satisfactory and dynamic Spider-Demon end boss of DOOM but sadly id would revisit this boring mechanic with Shub-Niggurath in their following game Quake 18 months later. That said, the journey to this point, the other 99% of DOOM II is well worth a revisit.

Despite its total lack of innovation over it's predecessor, DOOM II: Hell on Earth was a commercial success for id and even provided stiff completion for the technically superior evolutions to the genre that were released not long after - 3DRealms' Duke Nukem 3D and LucasArts' Dark Forces.

DOOM II is available from Steam for about €5, and often discounted to about €1.50. DOOM II comes bundled with Final Doom on GOG for about €9 but frequently discounted for about €2.60.
Alternatively the DOOM 3: BFG Edition bundles DOOM 3, DOOM II and Ultimate DOOM for €19.99 on GOG and Steam, but again, frequently discounted for about €6 (as of time of writing).

Thursday, January 02, 2020

In memoriam, 2019

We take a moment to remember those we lost in 2019:

Carmen Argenziano, 75, American actor (Stargate SG-1 as 'Jacob Carter').
René Auberjonois, 79, American actor (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as 'Odo', Benson).
Maj Gen Eldon Bargewell, U.S. Army Ret. 71, American army general, commander of Delta Force.
Keith Birdsong, 59, American illustrator (Star Trek),
Gordon Bressack, 68, American television writer (Pinky and the Brain, Animaniacs).
Gay Byrne, 85, Irish broadcaster (The Late Late Show, The Gay Byrne Show).
Seymour Cassel, 84, American actor (Star Trek: The Next Generation as 'Lt. Cmdr. Hester Dealt').
Jacques Chirac, 86, french politician, President and Co-Prince of Andorra (1995–2007).
LTC Richard E. Cole, USAF Ret. 103, American air force officer, (Doolittle Raid).
Larry DiTillio, 71, American television writer (He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Babylon 5).

Billy Drago
Billy Drago, (above) 73, American actor (The Untouchables, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.).
Aron Eisenberg, 50, American actor (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as 'Nog').
LtGen Jack B. Farris, U.S. Army Ret. 84, American military officer, (Operation Urgent Fury).
Peter Allan Fields, 84, American television writer (Star Trek, The Six Million Dollar Man).
D. C. Fontana, 80, American television writer (Star Trek).
Robert Forster, 78, American actor (Jackie Brown, Olympus Has Fallen, London has Fallen)
Marie Fredriksson, 61, Swedish singer-songwriter (Roxette).
Brendan Grace, 68, Irish comedian ('Bottler', Father Ted as 'Fr. Fintan Stack').
Grumpy Cat, 7, Internet meme cat
John Harold Haynes OBE, 81, English Publisher (The Haynes Owner's Workshop Manuals)
Rutger Hauer, 75, Dutch actor (Blade Runner, Split Second, Flesh and Blood).

David Hedison
David Hedison, (left) 92, American actor (Live and Let Die, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea).
Neil Innes, 75, English comedian (Monty Python) and musician.
Nikolai Kardashev, 87, Russian astrophysicist (SETI), developer of the Kardashev scale.
Gen Paul X. Kelley USMC Ret., 91, American general, Commandant of the Marine Corps (1983–1987).
Jeremy Kemp, 84, British actor (Star Trek: The Next Generation as 'Robert Picard').
Ken Kercheval, 83, American actor (Dallas as 'Cliff Barnes').
Pat Laffan, 79, Irish actor (Father Ted, The Snapper).
Major General Alexei Leonov, 85, Russian cosmonaut (Voskhod 2), first person to walk in space.
Tom Lyle, 66, American comics artist (Star Wars, Spider-Man - creator of Ben Reilly's costume).

Barbara March as 'Lursa'
Barbara March, (above) 65, Canadian actress (various Star Trek appearances as 'Lursa').
Peter Mayhew, 74, English-American actor (Star Wars as 'Chewbacca').
Vonda N. McIntyre, 70, American science fiction author (Star Wars and Star Trek novels).
Syd Mead, 86, American concept artist (Blade Runner, Aliens, Tron).
Dick Miller, 90, American actor (Gremlins, many Star Trek appearances).
Lawrence G. Paull, 81, American film production designer (Blade Runner, Back to the Future).
Scott Rubenstein, 71, American television writer and story editor (Star Trek: The Next Generation).
W. Morgan Sheppard, 86, British actor (Star Trek: The Next Generation as 'Dr. Ira Graves').

Judge Dredd illustrated by Ron Smith
Ron Smith, 94, British comic artist (Judge Dredd (right), Rogue Trooper, Transformers).
Peter Tork, 77, American musician and actor (The Monkees).
Rip Torn, 88, American actor (Men in Black, Dodgeball), Emmy winner.
Francis Tresham, 83, British game designer (invented the concept of a Technology Tree).
Jan-Michael Vincent, 73, American actor (Airwolf).
Robert Walker Jr., 79, American actor ( Star Trek as 'Charles Evans' in "Charlie X").
Herman Wouk, 103, American author (The Winds of War, War and Remembrance).
Max Wright, 75, American actor (ALF).
Special Mentions: Danny Aiello, 86, American actor. David Bellamy, 86, English naturalist. Elijah Cummings, 68, American politician. Windsor Davies, 88, Welsh actor. Doris Day, 97, American actress. Albert Finney, 82, English actor. Peter Fonda, 79, American actor and screenwriter. Clive James, 80, Australian author. Micheal Legrand, 86, Oscar Winning french Composer. Arthur Murphy, 90, Irish broadcaster. Luke Perry, 52, American actor. William Simons, 78, Welsh actor. John Singleton, 51, American film director and television producer. Caroll Spinney, 85, American puppeteer. Freddie Starr, 76, English comedian. Clive Swift, 82, English actor. Niall Tóibín, 89, Irish comedian.

May they rest in peace.