A cursory glance at Platoon would seem to suggest everything is right.
The jungle terrain is lush and detailed. The animation for the soldiers is fluid, almost taking a page out of Monte Cristo’s The Partners, a slick looking 3D clone of the popular game The Sims. All of this is packaged with some decent voiceovers, including talent from the title’s movie namesake and a stirring soundtrack, lifted from the Academy Award winning film itself.
You assume the role of Martin Lionsdale, a sergeant at the beginning of the Platoon campaign that will take you through the course of the
Vietnam War. War ravages not only the Vietnamese countryside but also in Lionsdale’s personal life. He becomes increasingly weary of the war. Detached from reality, he loses his wife through the course of it and comes to clichéd realizations like the ones purported by the recent Four Feathers in the 19th century and the more recent Black Hawk Down in the 20th century. When the dust has settled, all you have is the man next to you.
Unfortunately, that’s not how the game perceives itself. Platoon exhibits a schizoid disposition. On the one hand, it is a game of micromanagement. On the other, the number of troops and the inclusion of numerous fodder units would have you thinking this is one of those typical real-time strategy titles. It is not. There is no base building in Platoon and no magic barracks to automatically churn out men.
Every unit can be seen as essential. They are highly specialized to encourage you to preserve them. An engineer, for example, may be weak in combat but gives you the ability to detect mines and avert unnecessary casualties. A scout can sneak ahead to discover enemy ambushes, allowing you to formulate a plan of attack and position your own squads accordingly.
Each part of Platoon’s terrain has modifiers in it. While it is a top-down game, elements like tall grass, brush and trees help provide defensive/offensive modifiers as well as stealth when required.
Lionsdale is also a controllable character on the map so from the get go you might think this is a tactical squad-based strategy title. That your own troops don’t fire back until you click on the enemy brings up a notion in my head: the developers think you should be handholding your units every inch of the way.
You should heed that advice too, because every turn, every bush and every juncture is waylaid by enemies, mines and other obstacles that try hard and often successfully knock out crucial elements of your team, sometimes even including you. In fact, there are so many on the opposing side that you might be convinced the cannon fodder approach is the only way the United States could pacify Vietnam. Sadly, that option isn’t available to Lionsdale. Neither is the ability to quickly load and save your game during a mission. Like in the real war, you’ll only have one chance to go through Operation Shiny Bayonet or Operation
Advancing your team slowly, pixel by pixel, and methodically scanning for enemies is the only sure way to survive. Because Platoon’s missions are pre-scripted and all the enemies reassume the exact same positions, it becomes frustrating when you lose your scout, sniper or engineer accidentally simply because you weren’t there to tell him to fire his weapon. Besides irritation, it also reduces the replay value of the campaign. When you’ve gone through the difficult missions once (or more likely, a dozen times) you won’t want to go through them again. For the impatient amongst you, you might not want to go through it all anyway.
The multiplayer function in this title errs on the underdeveloped side.
The raison d’etre for the game is the Lionsdale campaign. No artificial players can be used to substitute for absent human ones; hence the lack of a skirmish mode. It can be extrapolated from this that the sheer difficulty of the main campaign is from the careful placing of the enemy on the map, rather than the ingenious tactics conducted on behalf of the computer. Some thought was put into the multiplayer mode though. You can assemble different teams to suit your playing style and mix up the troops from the campaign. As an added perk, you also get to try on the Vietnamese side.
Platoon obviously could have been a much better title if there were more depth to it. Running deadly gauntlets for a dozen or so missions is not my idea of depth. If war was this methodical and brutal, it’s no wonder people in Vietnam lost it. While it’s not our policy to review titles with patches applied ex post facto of the game’s release, the developers have added the ability for mid-mission saves as well as a mod system to help people generate some third party content for the game. Furthermore, a comprehensive walkthrough is continually posted to guide fans through the missions in the campaign.
Even then, Platoon is still a title that only looks like it’s getting along famously. The voiceovers, for example, may be good but they’re mired by instances where the accompanying text suffers from grammatical errors; errors that don’t synchronize with the perfectly spoken speech if you read/hear closely enough. It’s these little discrepancies that make Platoon a close but ultimately missed shot.
Typically, critics never respond well to simultaneous movie and game releases. These products appear rushed and incomplete, if not utterly vapid in scope to begin with. It follows that this approach never bodes well for the game developer: the better a film does, the more expectations a critic will have. Just think of what the expectations will be for the Matrix films we’ll be seeing in 2003.
As the two entertainment industries collide, that of Hollywood and our very own gaming “niche”, we’re seeing publishers snap up old movie licenses like Platoon and Rocky. It doesn’t appear as if Strategy First had any deadline they needed to meet for the almost two decade old Platoon. Yet the resulting product and the subsequent patches suggests otherwise. Hopefully one day we’ll see this game engine in action again with a game that consists of something more than running through messy gauntlets in Vietnam.