Soldier of Fortune, The Game, The Magazine, The Man

DSC01610.JPG"Fuck no, I don't play games"

He's an ex-Green Beret, combat correspondent, founder of Soldier of Fortune magazine, and hard-ass, but Robert Brown is no gamer.

His grandson is, he tells me moments later, as we walk down a hall lined with Soldier of Fortune back issues in his Boulder office, but that doesn't seem to sit well with him.

"He plays too fucking much."

"How old is he?"

"Too old. He's addicted. I'm afraid if I try a game, I'll get addicted too."DSC01615.JPG

Dressed in cowboy boots, jeans and a plain, black, long-sleeved shirt, a gold-dipped tiger claw hanging from his neck, Brown walks the crowded rooms of his office with an Army swagger stick in his hand. He uses it to tap pictures of himself with Colombian rebels, Castro's army, Charlton Heston. He points out his many jump wings, the letters from mercenaries and soldiers, the animals skins.

Half-way through the tour he stops and peers at me.

"There was a guy... who wrote on his blog... about coming here... to shoot with me.. Cervantes?"

"That was me."

He smiles slightly, pokes me gently in the belly with his stick.

"I didn't have time to arrange the gun range, but come back sometime and we'll go shooting. Let's go outside and talk."

We settle down on a wobbly picnic table on the browning grass in front of the glass door of Soldier of Fortune magazine. Nearby, someone is painting a car blue. The strong sun makes the 60-degree weather feel like it's in the 80s. Brown lays his swagger stick across the table and leans in to talk.

Turns out that he hasn't had much to do with the upcoming game that borrows the name of his magazine. In fact, he hasn't had much to do with the Soldier of Fortune games since the first one hit in 2000.

Back then some folks from Raven Software came by to meet with him. They discussed his outlook on mercenaries, talked weapons, and were sent off to a gun range for some training. He put together a pamphlet about the magazine to include with copies of the first game. It didn't really do much for their subscriptions.

Gamers, it seemed, were more interested in the fantasy of mercenary life than the reality.

Brown tells me how he started as a writer, stringing for the Associated Press for "$5 here, $10 here, a free buffet there. That was very important."

Brown has no interest in playing the latest game: Soldier of Fortune: Payback, but when I tell him I've just come from playing it, he asks what I thought.

"It's fun, I didn't have a lot of time with it, but I enjoyed the game."

He seems satisfied.

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Payback is a Bitch Hours earlier I was sitting in a glass-enclosed office on the 27th floor of a downtown Denver high rise, a copy of Payback playing on an Xbox 360 debug in front of me. Payback was built on a proprietary engine initially on the PlayStation 3 and then ported over to the PC and 360.

The game is, in many ways, what I remember it was like with Soldier of Fortune II. Certainly no ground is broken here. Instead, it's a solid shooter with a robust and obsessively detailed weapons line-up and over-the-top gore.

The game, I'm told, was worked on by just about every development team at Activision, including Raven Software. What started as a "value game" grew into a mainstream title, the PR folks tell me. Playing it, it doesn't feel like a value title, but it's unclear how and why that changed. What is clear is that the game will be sold for full price when it hits on Nov. 13.

The single player game includes 15 levels and 40 weapons, all of which are customizable. Before every mission you go through and personalize your build-out, selecting what weapons to bring and customising each of them to your preferences. While none of the in-game weapons feature their real world names, they are all designed around their real world counterparts.

I played through chunks of three levels during my 30 minutes or so with the game. The first level took place in a rundown town, in what looked to be the Middle East. There were plenty of places to hide and be ambushed. Lots of rooftop snipers, and vehicles driving up to attack.

The second level I checked out took place in the jungle, and I found myself getting jumped by camouflaged bad guys. The lack of radar in the game is initially disconcerting, but it does teach you to be more careful about poking out your head before checking things out. I also quickly learned to find my assailants by looking for the muzzle flash.

While bits of the scenery could be blown apart, it certainly wasn't a fully destructible environment. In the jungle, for instance, I could shoot holes into the trees, but wasn't able to actually shoot any of them down, no matter how small.

The final map I checked out took place in a desert and had me slowly climbing up a rugged mountain side that was packed with holes and tunnels. Eventually I made my way into a large tunnel system, fighting through caves, before coming out on the other side to surprise an enemy encampment.

The map design seems to offer a nice variety of size and aesthetic, and all seem fairly well contrived for future multiplayer use.

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The gore was both surprising and a bit over the top. Instead of the GHOUL system made famous with the earlier games, Payback seems to use a system that is more concerned with blowing limbs off than damaging tissue.

A well placed shot in the arm will often result it in being blown completely off. One PR person noted that an enemy, or someone in multiplayer, can survive 10 seconds in the game after their limb has been torn from their body. Legs and heads can also be blown off.

While I found this seemed to happen an awful lot, it didn't happen all the time. There were shots I made that resulted in a gruesome animation that didn't involve any limb detachment. For instance, I sniped a guy in the neck. He grabbed his throat, blood spraying from the wound, stumbled around for a second or two and then toppled to the ground.

The gore is noticeable, but it isn't the entire game, of course.

Unfortunately, I didn't have enough time with the game to get a good sense of the AI. I was getting killed, and it seemed to be because they were a bunch of clever bastards. But it might have been that they just overwhelmed me. It's hard, in such a short time, to tell if you're being beaten by the odds or the intellect.

I also didn't get anytime with multiplayer and, for me, Soldier of Fortune is multiplayer. I never played through the entire single player missions in past games, instead I spent vast amounts of my sleeping time playing online with friends and strangers. What will make or break this game will be the online multiplayer. And from what I've seen of offline play, I think it stands a chance.

New York, New York There is an odd collection of weapons in the two-story offices of Soldier of Fortune Magazine. A broadsword, the word Excalibur written on its hilt, leans against a wall behind Brown's desk. There's a morning star hanging from the wall, a framed hunting knife on another. A couple of 45s sit in a bag on a chair. On the desk, sitting in a large carrying case is a Stoner 63, an assault rifle.

"An assault rifle... oh my gosh!" Brown says in feigned indignation when he notices me eyeballing it.

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I look up from the table, my eyes land on a wall filled with trophy heads. Including one that's shrunken... and human.

"It's not real."

Brown walks out of the office, through an empty room and into a hallway. There are two posters hanging on the wall, both for the ill-fated Soldier of Fortune television series. One of the posters has a picture of Dennis Rodman suited up to look like a covert operator.

Brown glares at the poster.

"They didn't really consult me about the television show, but it wasn't that bad. It was doing OK. But then some fucking genius decided to put Dennis Rodman into the show. "

He stops, as if the idea of Rodman as a mercenary is almost too much to bear.

"Dennis Rodman as a covert, are you kidding me? I'd almost... almost give my right cajone to find out who made that decision."

Brown isn't nearly as concerned with the plot of the game. Though he's astounded to learn how much the video game industry now earns a year.

One of the PR people who came to the offices with me tells Brown that Activision will be hosting a tournament for the game down the line.

"What's the prize?" he asks, genuinely interested.

"A trip to New York and $5,000."

"I'd take the $5,000, but fuck New York."

SoFP3SoFP4SoFP5SoFP2SoFP1

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