Monday, March 27, 2023

Replay Review - Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix [2002]

Id Software licenced the id Tech 3 engine to developers following their own release of Quake III in 1999. Between 2000 and 2003 about 10 games used the proprietary licence with Raven Software producing several quality releases including Star Trek: Elite Force, Star Wars - Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast (and it sequel Star Wars Jedi Knight: Academy), but the best one not involving two of the largest sci-fi franchises in the world was the sequel to the highly controversial, but instant classic Soldier of Fortune

After a prequel prologue, Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix takes place a little after the events in SoF. The basic plot here is that John Mullins is placed on the trail to prevent a dangerous biological weapon from being unleashed on the world. His violent globe-trotting adventures bring him to Prague, Colombia, Hong Kong, Kamchatka and Switzerland among other locations and are actually quite varied for a game of this era. Levels include a Train Station, Cargo Tanker, Multi-level Russian Weapons Facility, Jumbo Jet and a busy Airport.

SoFII was a very different game to it's predecessor. The tone changed from mindless murder simulation with questionable politics and wafer-thin plot to more of a quasi-realistic action spy-movie game with global conspiracy punctuated with automatic weapons. In Soldier of Fortune Mullins was sent in to shoot and kill everyone aided by his buddy Hawk. With Hawk's death in that game, SoFII has Mullins mostly on his own save for a sequence where you have a squad of U.S. Marines cutting up the jungle with you, making me feel right at home. The gameplay takes a semi-stealth approach which unlike Sam Fisher's Splinter Cell missions a year later, stealth here is very badly implemented and you always end in a prolonged firefight. But it's Solder of Fortune, what would you expect?

Sadly the defining gore which made the original banned or censored in many countries was toned down a little for the sequel. Don't get me wrong, you could still dismember enemies with shotguns, suspend bodies in mid air with sub-machine gun fire as you riddle them with bullets and cut people literally in half with heavy machine guns, however the agonizing death screams of dying enemies was lessened and the animation of lower intestine poking through a ruined abdomen was very rare now and I think something truly artistic was lost. Additionally the controversial mechanic of the original game punishing you for killing U.S. civilians but allowing the death of Iraqi civilians without consequence was also removed and shooting any civilians is considered an instant fail in SoFII.

Soldier of Fortune writer Kenn Hoekstra penned a far superior story this time around which had all the hallmarks of a Bond movie and to his credit it can still be enjoyed to this day as something pretty unique in the FPS space. Of course as with any story it's only sold through the acting performances of its impressive cast including the great Todd Susman (Beverly Hills Cop II) as John Mullins with Mark Hamill (Star Wars), Earl Boen (The Terminator) Dee Bradley Baker (Star Wars: The Bad Batch), Nick Jameson (24) and Rosalind Chao (Star Trek: The Next Generation).

Final Verdict: It was nice to revisit an old school shooter of a bygone era with some of the most interesting examples of level design and array of locales in one game. While the gore was toned down from the original slightly, the gunplay and violence was and arguably is still among the most visceral video game violence ever released, earning several prestigious "banned list" positions or heavy censoring at the time.

Technicals: 15hrs playtime though GOG Galaxy in 3440x1440 @ 91FPS (Engine cap) via OGL on RTX3070Ti in Windows 11. No HDR.

Mods: ReShade for shader post-processing. Ultra widescreen fix. Ultrawide HUD fix. Ultrawide FOV settings enabled.

Bugs: None.

Availability: Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix is only available from GOG. Normal Retail price €9.99. Review copy purchased for €4.49 in June 2019.

Soldier of Fortune franchise

  • Soldier of Fortune (2000)
  • Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix (2002)
  • Soldier of Fortune: Payback (2007)

Thursday, March 16, 2023

First Play Review: God Of War [2022]

Note: This game was originally released for the PlayStation 4 in 2018. It is not to be confused with the 2005 PlayStation game God of War. 

God of War wasn't the first title that peaked my interest when Sony PlayStation announced it's push into the PC game market in 2020 but it was something that I saw a lot of media about and felt it was worth investigating. Now as you may know, I really hate starting a series of books, TV shows, movies or games that have a serious 'history'. I need to start from the beginning of anything. However in this case I was advised by multiple sources that while the previous God of War games are referenced in the story, the new game presents it such a way that newcomers to the franchise are served the lore well. In fact some argue that not knowing the saga beforehand is actually an advantage as you learn Kratos' history alongside Atreus, Kratos' son. 

What I did know was that the God of War franchise in the PlayStation had three main games which detail the story of Kratos, a Spartan soldier tricked by Ares into killing his family. So Kratos killed him in revenge becoming the new 'god of war' in the process. He had another two games where he fought both The Titans (who betrayed him) and  The Olympians (with a special beef with Zeus) and eventually bogged off somewhere in in 2010. It was not until 2018's soft reboot that people learned that he went to Midguard of all places!

The new setting of Norse legend as opposed to Greek serves as a soft reboot of the series making it accessible to me as a new player. You're quickly introduced to Kratos and you discover you have three things going for you: you're voiced by Christopher Judge (Teal'c from StarGate SG-1), you have a stunning red beard and you have a "Leviathan Axe" that is part tool and and part weapon and returns like Marvel Thor's hammer! However a lot of this is instantly offset by the fact you also have an annoying whiny son and you have to tolerate him because his mother Faye just died and you're forced to give him attention now.

The game's intro prologue which sets your quest to bring Faye's ashes to the peak of a nearby mountain, served as a pleasant hand-holding exercise which was most welcome as this is the kind of game that wasn't originally designed for a mouse and keyboard. At the end of the tutorial prologue you are suddenly thrust into a major boss-battle with Baldur, Thor's half-brother, brilliantly portrayed by Jeremy Davies (for which he won a BAFTA to add to his Justified Emmy). It hammered home the point that your otherwise simple-sounding quest would be wrought with challenges and adventure.

God of War is played over the shoulder third person which is best for melee combat, and there sure is a lot of it. The Leviathan Axe is the main weapon for the vast majority of the game and in the hands of Kratos it is as powerful as Thor's Mjölnir hammer and can be thrown about just like it. This results in deeply satisfying combat with enemies that while are not overall as varied as I'd desire, are nonetheless fun to do battle with. Your skill with the axe increases as you gain XP and spend it on powers and moves, and you can even upgrade it with runes and materials you collect along the way. Gathering these materials to enhance your weapon and armour isn't a chore (unless you want to deliberately take on the higher level challenges outside the main game narrative) and you collect them as you follow the main and side quests.

God of War is not a game you can get lost in, your main path/goal is ever present but you are rewarded for exploring unknown areas of the the open-world map that becomes littered with icons as you unveil more tasks to complete. Most of these are optional but the more you complete, the easier combat becomes as you gain XP and equipment as well as flesh out the story and the world which is admittedly more interesting if you have even a passing interest in mythology. Some of the extra tasks are not unique in scope but are completed in different environments making it different enough to not be tedious. I was particularly happy with the puzzles which can only be completed after you've gained certain abilities. The rewards from such puzzles are appropriate to the level you have to be to have the feature to solve the puzzle - but so are the enemies you encounter as a result, if any!

As the game progressed I found that I began to get used to my "son" which ran parallel to Kratos' 'acceptance' of him. Atreus gains some moderate powers and abilities as Kratos actively levels up and the boy can be used as a passive companion in battle and can be ordered to use an active component by shooting arrows at targets designated by you for combat or puzzles as the situation demands. Atreus goes though his own character arc and emerges a much more tolerable and stronger character then in the beginning. In fact he gets far more character development than Kratos himself who barely progresses from grunting and shouting "Boy!" for the game's duration. It was however the relationship between father and son and their interaction with the ancillary characters of the story that made it matter much more than the purpose of the main quest.

Final Verdict: God of War is a masterclass into what a visually cinematic, well designed and polished adventure game is. It's progression systems are carefully calculated. It's environment, although fiercely linear for the main story, still takes place in a majority of an open world which begs to be explored. The performances from the games actors elevated the game's average story and making it more about the relationship between the characters than the achievement of a goal. It's only left for me to say that God of War soared above any expectations I had of playing it.

Technicals: 43.5 hours playtime through Steam. Full UW support granted 3440x1440/160FPS. Used Balanced DLSS 1996x836 to render 3440x1440/120FPS for greater stability. Custom settings favouring high end options with RTX3070Ti. DX11 renderer under Windows 11 and impressive HDR enabled though Windows implementation.

Bugs: Some instability occurred at 160FPS+ causing crashes. One bug workaround required full game reinstallation (with no loss of progress).

Availability: God of War is available from Steam for €49.99. Review copy purchased from Fanatical for  €39.42 in Feb 2022.


God of War series:

God of War [2005] PS2
God of War II [2007]
God of War III [2010]
- God of War: Origins Collection [2010] PS3
God of War: Ascension [2013] PS3
- God of War III Remastered [2015] PS4
God of War [2018] PS4
- God of War [2022] PC
God of War Ragnarök [2022]

Monday, March 06, 2023

Obituary: Troubled actor Tom Sizemore 1961-2023

From the time of this blog's inception as The Colonel's Eagle in 2005 until 2007, actor Tom Sizemore was a regular subject to be reported on, so much so that he even had his own link-label. It wasn't so much for his acting prowess but rather his colourful and nefarious antics that ended a stellar Hollywood career after some 40 major film roles between 1989 and 2003.

Sizemore's first credited movie role was in the Sylvester Stallone starring prison movie Lock Up. From '89 to '91 he expanded his portfolio in movies such as Born on the Fourth of July with Tom Cruise and Point Break with Keanu Reeves

I first distinctly recall Sizemore in 1992's Passenger 57 where he plays Wesley Snipes' wisecracking boss. He furthered his career considerably over he next three years by working with some of the greatest directors of the day such as Tony Scott in True Romance, Laurence Kasdan as Bat Masterson in Wayatt Earp, Oliver Stone in Natural Born Killers and Michael Mann in Heat.

After recovering from the 1997 flop The Relic which was also his first leading role, he portrayed one of his best and most memorable roles as SFC Mike Horvath in Saving Private Ryan which would also become his most financially successful project.

Sizemore had a string of flops at the turn of the century with the disastrous misstep Red Planet, narratively flawed Pearl Harbor, and bomb-disposal thriller Ticker for which the director has publicly apologised for.  He had one more hit in 2001 when he played real life U.S. Army Lt.Colonel Danny McKnight of the 75th Rangers as part of an award-nominated ensemble cast for one of the finest war movies ever made, Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down

The last movie I recall seeing him in was 2003's Dreamcatcher but it was by this point that Sizemore's Hollywood career had crashed and burned at the foot of his conviction for domestic violence against "Hollywood Madam" Heidi Fleiss and repeatedly failing drug tests while on probation. He continued his substance abuse and domestic violence tendencies throughout the following twenty years despite appearing in some 150 low-budget, direct-to-video or short film projects.

After his exile from Hollywood, Sizemore did make a number of Television appearances including CSI: Miami, Crash, Entourage, Hawaii Five-0, Law & Order: SVU, Lucifer, Shooter and Twin Peaks, Season 3. His TV roles ended in 2017 however, following allegations of sexual assault against an 11 year old girl on the set of a movie in 2003.

While my respect for the man waned and turned into morbid curiosity as the 2000's went on, there was a time when I would have wanted him to portray me on screen should there ever have been a movie of my life in the Corps. Few actors could spin from the intensity of my battle-hardened death-stare to my charismatic lady-killing smirk on a dime like Tom Sizemore. That dream was permanently laid to rest on March 3rd when he passed away following a brain aneurysm at 61. 

May he find the peace in death that he clearly hadn't in life.

Wednesday, March 01, 2023

Console exclusivity is slowly coming to an end

Console Exclusivity! The phrase evokes pride in your console of choice - if you get the exclusive but sometimes envy in those who devote themselves to a rival console. I mean PlayStation users would probably like to play Gears of War and Xbox players yearn for God of War? Right? I wouldn't really know, I'm a PC player and can play both like a boss!!

Console exclusivity is practised to varying degrees by Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo to maintain interest in their respective console offerings. Super Mario is only available on the Nintendo's consoles. Sony keep Gran Turismo firmly on PlayStation. No Halo game has has a red or blue box, it's always Xbox green. Console exclusivity usually means exclusivity to that particular console however; it doesn't always mean that the console itself is the only platform the game is for; there is of course the PC port.

Console games getting a PC port down the line isn't anything new. I first obtained a PC port of the PS1 title The Die Hard Trilogy as a present in 1997. It was awesomely shit and barely held my interest for a day. It was such nonsense in comparison to any real PC game I ever played that it put me off console ports for years. It wasn't until 2003 when former Xbox exclusive Splinter Cell was released that I changed my mind as it was awesome and unlike any game I played before.

I pretty much dismiss Nintendo as the "kiddie console" but it's a moot point as Nintendo have always completely ignored the PC. Microsoft has obviously continued to support the PC by supporting Windows versions of the majority of their Xbox games (ensuring that gamers stick to the Windows OS of course) so I have access to the vast majority of Xbox "exclusives". My only real source for any measure of console envy was really for PlayStation. I'd have liked to have played some Metal Gear Solid or SOCOM games back in the day and I remember being dismayed that Quantic Dream announced their future output exclusivity with PlayStation back at the beginning of the 2010's. Times have changed though and it seems now that the days of hard PlayStation exclusivity are coming to an end.

In 2019 Quantic Dream released PC ports of it's PlayStation game catalogue. A year later 2020 Hideo Kojima's Sony funded PS4 game Death Stranding's PC port was released. While both were welcome, and they were not the first games to be developed in conjunction with Sony to be released on PC but they were signalling a massive shift in Sony's focus. Also in 2020 the unprecedented happened: a PC release of a tentpole first-party Sony studio developed PS4 game Horizon: Zero Dawn was both announced and released! Additionally, Sony also announced in it's earnings report: "We will explore expanding our first-party titles to the PC platform, in order to promote further growth in our profitability." 

Since then Sony have aggressively marketed and ported several more of their first-party games to the PC including Marvel's Spider-Man Remastered, God of War, Days Gone and Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection among others. It seems that there will be an ongoing effort to support the PC with additional titles going forward. Sony themselves predict about half their new releases will be made available for the PC by 2025 with live service games specifically singled out as having near same-day releases with the goal of properly establishing their communities.  For now, Returnal has just released some days ago at time of writing, The Last of Us Part I will release on March 28th. Ghost of Tsushima is only rumoured for now but I'd expect and announcement about God of War: Ragnarok and The Last of Us Part II before year's end.

Are Nintendo even needed on the PC now? The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild would be welcome. It also has a sequel, Tears of the Kingdom in development to be released in May. Perhaps the time has come for Shuntaro Furukawa to take a look at Sony's PC success and rethink his company's posture?