A few months back, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Bethesda re-released the id Software classic Quake on modern systems and the PC. Ported to the versatile KEX Engine by Nightdive Studios, it added the base game, the two official Mission Packs, the MachineGames developed Dimension of the Past made for the 20th anniversary in 2016, and a newly made expansion, Dimension of the Machine, also by MachineGames.
Going back through Quake was a nice nostalgia trip, and while I had already played through the game countless times in the past – most recently in June to test out the fan-made Copper rebalance mod – It felt good going through the tech bases and castles with nailguns and the Thunderbolt once again.
The official port has licensed mod support, similar to the Unity-powered Doom remasters on these same platforms from a year or two back, with Midway’s port of Quake to the Nintendo 64 being the first supported mod. Though it does also support some older Quake mods if they were just simple levels and not involving complex scripting from recent source ports, which means stuff like the oft-praised Arcane Dimensions don’t work in the remaster yet.
It made me think of many old custom levels from the early days of modding, and one that I thought of was during that wild west period, when map makers would offer to make stuff based on licensed properties as free promotion. One of which was based on a TV show that most of you probably don’t remember.
Soldier of Fortune, Inc. for Quake is not what you think it is. It has nothing to do with the later 2000 game by Raven Software. Rather, this three-level pack existed as a promotion for a television show, back in those days when people could just make custom levels and have them officially sponsored by those companies, akin to stuff like Chronic for Quake III Arena made to promote The Marshall Mathers LP.
But what is Soldier of Fortune, Inc.? SOF was a TV series created by Dan Gordon, an ex-Israel Defense Force soldier turned screenwriter, produced by Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer Productions and Rysher Entertainment. Named after the magazine of the same name, SOF was an action series involving a rag-tag group of soldiers trying to stop various people doing the bad things. In essence, it was a modern-day Mission: Impossible. It often aired in late-evening time slots alongside shows like Baywatch, which meant it was made to be one of those shows that tried to capture some of the Baywatch audience by also being an action-packed romp.
The show did get renamed for the second season, losing the Soldier of Fortune branding. Now called SOF: Special Ops Force, the show had a few notable cast changes, including basketball player Dennis Rodman playing a supporting character and Peter Graves doing an introductory narration, further leaning into the Mission: Impossible trappings. The show ended in 1999 after that second season, being mostly forgotten by the general populace.
I was reminded of this show’s existence thanks to a podcast. It Was a Thing on TV – a TV obscurities podcast hosted by a few of my game show colleagues – had recently done an episode on Thunder in Paradise, another short-lived action show starring Hulk Hogan and Chris Lemmon stopping evil villains on beachfronts. Much like Soldier of Fortune, Inc., Thunder in Paradise was trying to capture the Baywatch crowd, but wasn’t successful at it either, only having one sole 22-episode season.
Thunder in Paradise would get a video game adaptation for the Philips CD-i and DOS that was during the peak of full motion video, using an episode from the TV series but with more footage shot for the game. It made me think of similar action shows from the ’90s that got video game adaptations, and suddenly I started thinking about how a similar action show somehow got a custom level pack for Quake, back when that was a thing that could happen. Nowadays those same entertainment companies just cut a check to Activision to put John Rambo in Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War for $25, complete with low-quality sound bites from the movies.
Released on October 1997, the Soldier of Fortune, Inc. level for Quake was made by someone fairly notable in the mod scene: Neil Manke, a level designer whose work I’ve talked about before. Manke had done a bunch of custom levels for games, and had a knack for working with cross-promotion with other brands alongside co-designer Einar Saukas. This Soldier of Fortune level set would eventually lead to Manke doing promotional levels for PC Gamer magazine, featuring their mascot Coconut Monkey or inserting covers of the magazine itself in his levels, like in USS Darkstar for Half-Life. He even made a multiplayer team mod as a tie-in to the Underworld film. In a sense, this is likely one of Neil’s earliest ventures into making cross-promotional mods for games – if not his first.
Surprisingly the level set does have a plot: You play as Matthew Shepherd, the principal star of Soldier of Fortune, Inc. played by Brad Johnson. In the mod, Shepherd suffers from PTSD-induced nightmares after a routine mission in South Africa went awry back in 1988. After finding the keycard in the briefing room and choosing the level difficulty, Shepherd falls asleep and starts having a nightmare of reliving the South Africa incident. Eventually Shepherd’s on a helicopter with his compatriots as they get slaughtered. He picks up a backpack with a shotgun, and gets to blasting.
If you’re familiar with Quake’s mechanics, then Soldier of Fortune, Inc.should be fairly straightforward. Find dudes, shoot, try not to get shot too much, and scavenge for secrets whenever you can. Outside of some minor scripting with traps and a few complex puzzles, it’s a fairly standard Quake level at its core.
Throughout the level, Shepherd will not only fight the standard grunts, dogs and ogres from Quake, he’ll start to fight fiends who are reskinned to look like mutated ape monsters, and shamblers who look like Bigfoot’s cousin. The skins are merely cosmetic here, they act identical to the standard Quake bestiary; so if you have some familiarity with fighting these foes in regular Quake, then you should have no problems going through this level.
As Shepherd roams through this South African jungle, he finds out the enemies have been doing weird tribal rituals, and eventually goes down into a military base to stop them. Now, I saw one episode of Soldier of Fortune, Inc. for research on this article, and I’m pretty sure the show is relatively grounded in reality. Granted, a Hollywood depiction of reality, but I’m pretty sure there were no tribal rituals and soldiers doing strange voodoo experiments on the TV show. I wouldn’t know for myself as there’s not much of this show out there, but the mod’s plot only tangentially relates to the TV show, which might be a bit jarring if you were a fan of the show and loved playing Quake as well.
Initially, the mod only came with one level where Shepherd roams South Africa, but a few weeks later the following part was released, which added two more levels: The aforementioned Bio Lab where Shepherd fights the experiments and the staff, and a reverse version of the first map, where Shepherd returns from the Bio Lab and fights off stragglers before flying away in the chopper. The mod then boots back to the hub level at the beginning. It’s a fairly short experience, probably no more than about a half hour total for those three levels.
One cool thing this mod does is take a page from the Quake expansion Scourge of Armagon where the player can have friendly NPCs help out. In addition to the friendlies at the start of the level, the second map features a POW named Dale, and alternate versions of those monsters that Shepherd had been fighting up to that point that can be befriended to take out other enemies in the map. It was a treat to see this kind of fighting in Scourge and it’s no exception here. Just make sure you’re not in their line of fire.
Even with those supporting characters, the mod is not easy. I played through this mod on Nightmare, and it was rather punishing in spots, a bit more than the standard Quake levels. If you’re a sane individual, play on Normal, which is the ideal way to play these kind of levels, really. Be prepared to quicksave often though, as it does throw a fair share of death traps and enemy ambushes in these two levels.
Soldier of Fortune, Inc. is a pretty simple level set in retrospect. It does have some pretty complex scripting for a 1997 level, and is at least somewhat creative, if a bit out there. It doesn’t stack up to more contemporary Quake offerings like Arcane Dimensions, but in 1997, people were still figuring out how to make levels in these newfangled 3D engines, so I’m willing to cut them some slack. If you’ve played Quake, you should have no problems really hopping in and shooting as if it’s any other custom level.
Surprisingly, Manke wasn’t done with the Soldier of Fortune, Inc. promotion. A few months after the second part, Manke released two sequels, Soldier of Fortune Mission 2 and SOF Mission 3: Operation Desert Bloom, this time for Quake II. Once again playing as Matt Shepherd, the first mission involve him acquiring two data CDs in a snowy mountain ridge. Mission 3, made after the show already rebranded to Special Ops Force, involves Shepherd infiltrating a desert base to assassinate “Momar Daffy,” a cartoonish parody of noted dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
For the Quake II iterations of the level, Shepherd’s fighting the Strogg, which kinda takes one out of the somewhat realistic world that was established in the first one, though there are a few enemy reskins in the third Mission. In addition, there’s some rather corny voice acting in Mission 3, and both mods have absolutely ridiculous backstories in the text files that are definitely worth a read.
Much like the Quake level before it, they’re ridiculously harder than the original, with some enemies hard to see in the dark caves, to having to throw a grenade down a submarine shaft (?!) to get a Data CD, to avoiding an enemy sentry while your buddy Dale drops artillery strikes.
They’re fairly average Quake II levels, which isn’t much as the Quake II level scene didn’t seem to blow up as much as Quake did, most people were more into the mods. I honestly didn’t know these Quake II levels had existed until writing about the Quake levels for the article, in the original draft I wrote of this, I only thought there was one more mission, not two.
It’s honestly a shame SOF: Special Ops Force didn’t last longer, maybe we could’ve gotten a Mission 4 on the Half-Life engine.
Speaking of Half-Life, after these mods were released, Manke and Saukas would get a bunch of offers to make more of these kind of levels throughout part of the late 1990s and early 2000s, now under their new team name: Black Widow Studios. One of those mods, They Hunger, is something I wrote about on the site in the past. A sequel to They Hunger, Lost Souls, was announced not long after Half-Life 2 came out, but had been quietly canceled, with Manke mostly going silent in recent years. I assume at this point he’s happily retired, though his mod creations still live on through the legacy of those mod communities.
If you want to play the Quake II followups, they’re on the dripping-with-’90s web design site Gamers Edge. Mission 2 is available here, Mission 3: Operation Desert Bloom, is available here. These require Quake II, natch.
I recommend source ports to play these levels these days – for me, I used vkQuake for Quake, and Yamagi Quake II for Quake II. I wouldn’t recommend playing these on the original executables, especially if you’re on Windows 10 or 11, you’ll get a less-than-ideal experience.
And yes, Soldier of Fortune, Inc. does work in the recent Nightdive remaster on PC. Put the levels in the Quake\Rerelease folder in a separate folder – I called mine “soldier” – boot up the game, and type “game soldier” in the console. I recommend turning off the high-quality models for a more accurate experience. It was a bit tougher in spots in the remaster – a section involving having to touch a mask through a fast-flowing current in Part 1 was a lot harder to pull off in the remaster compared to the original, which might be an issue with how acceleration is handled in the KEX engine. But it’s still beatable, even on the remaster’s altered Nightmare difficulty.
Yes, Yes, I know I’ve been writing a lot about crossovers throughout this past year. But to be honest, I couldn’t think too much of anything “spooky” for October, and I figured this is close enough. Though, this has gotten me on a Quake and Quake II kick, and maybe I need to look more in that direction for a future post. We’ll see.
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