To give you some idea of where I was coming from, I came into Vietcong with some pretty good expectations. I wasn’t looking forward to it in a ‘mammoth expectations that the game can’t possibly achieve’ way, but thought that Illusion Softworks, the folks who brought me the much-enjoyed Mafia, could bring a little fresh air into the FPS pigeonhole. Yet another letdown in the Rorshach gaming world. There are things a game can do that instantly make it unlikable. It seems that Vietcong does most of them. For starters, by a quick show of hands, how many people know not to salute a superior officer in a war zone because it gives the snipers a target to shoot for? Just as I thought, everybody. I think the first time I heard this little bit of jungle warfare wisdom was in Apocalypse Now, and I was like, hey, that’s probably a neat little bit of war minutia. I was then reminded of that fact in Deerhunter, and Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, Enemy at the Gates, ad nauseum. It became that tiny piece of trivia that sounds archaic but in truth absolutely EVERYBODY knows, like the title of the very first video ever played on MTV – I don’t want to hear about it anymore (and before a million people drop me an email, “Video Killed the Radio Star”). So naturally Vietcong, in the opening minutes, drops that militarily doctrinal turd on me, as if it will somehow convince me this is a real hardass war drama. Secondly, while no one is ever going to accuse me of any sort of political correctness, I have to question the choice of the Vietnam war as a gaming plotline. It’s more than a little passe’ to be screaming “Die Commie bastards!” and “Goddamned tunnel rats!” which you and your squadmates do frequently and with great zeal. The pigeon English of your pointman is only somewhat more tolerable.
I’m in the role of Stephen Hawkins, Special Forces soldier based deep in the jungles of Vietnam. The flight in by helicopter to my unit over the picturesque valleys and streams is pleasant enough. When I land, I can wander around and talk to people at my camp, and I can go to my bunker and look at the pictures on the wall and read my diary. I personally didn’t find any of this particularly gripping, but perhaps if I had been a student of wars in general, or Vietnam in particular, I would have been more interested. The first mission takes me to visit a local village to spread a little goodwill – a day trip that is regrettably cut short by the rudest sniper ever to crash a party. Once you off him, you and your squadmates have further adventures in jungle patrol, village and base defense, and the rescue of a POW that takes a really, really long time.
The game is billed as a tactical shooter, but your control over the other members of your squad is sketchy at best, limited to stop, go, or follow me. This, combined with the fact that the other members of your squad can take absolutely devastating amounts of damage without dying, allowing you to sit back and let them do the killing for you, kind of limits the tactical quality of the game. So what we really have is a jungle-based FPS, and while the jungle offers some interesting options for cover and ambush, it gets same-y very quickly. It doesn’t help matters that the enemy has absolutely no concept of the flanking maneuver, and you can almost always cut off to the side, come up behind them, and mow them down without difficulty. They are also frequently doing other things when you come upon them (eating, reading, digging), and you can pump them full of a few rounds of good-ole’ American god-fearing lead before they can even get their guns up. And as long as I’m carping on the AI, units get snagged on rocks, logs, bushes, and just about everything else in their path with such frequency that I spent a lot of my time working to keep my squad together. They’re not alone, however – at least half a dozen times I became so entangled in the brush that I was unable to move, and was forced to load from my last saved position.
The game is better in multiplayer, where the questionable AI and squad invulnerability are absent, but I’m not sure I see people latching onto a jungle warfare-only game when the world is positively rife with FPS multiplayer games, some of which include a jungle level. I could be wrong about that – perhaps war buffs and whatnot will make it their pet game, but I still see it lacking a wide appeal.
The graphics engine does an OK job given how little it has to do. We’re talking about jungle warfare here, so what do we get to look at? Plants, trees, a few birds and butterflies, some small, dilapidated villages, swamp – loads and loads of browns and greens. There’s not a lot of variation here. The early tunnel crawling missions show the gray/brown walls of the tunnels and that’s about it. Later tunnel missions fascinatingly display only a black screen and a crosshair. I paid $299 for a video card to display black? You thankfully carry a flashlight (with batteries that never fail), and then you’re back to the gray/brown walls again. Clipping abounds, especially in the tunnel levels where a body will frequently come to rest halfway into a wall. And something is seriously wrong with your CO’s face. He looks like Michael Jackson just a few more botched plastic surgeries down the road (excuse me, allegedly botched alleged plastic surgeries – the last thing I need is MJ and his troop of legal monkeys jumping all over me). Whatever is going on, your squadmates look absolutely ghastly, like you’re a platoon of the living dead or something. The sounds are just OK, covering a number of weapons, background jungle noises. Music, which was integral to Mafia, is almost absent in Vietcong. There’s a radio in your bunker playing era-appropriate music, and some music during the cutscenes, and that’s about it for that. Down in the tunnels, all you hear is the drip of water and your own footsteps. Perhaps it is supposed to induce tension, but it induces something closer to monotony.
From the company that brought us Mafia, which I feel is perhaps one of the best games of last year in its genre, and one of the best-polished games that I had played in any genre, I’m sorely disappointed in Vietcong. It’s completely bland and repetitious. The latter tunnel level is disturbing in that you come upon a schoolroom and a hospital and such, built into the tunnel system. How unpleasant to think that the war drove people to essentially build their entire lives underground. I’ve read somewhere that war is great stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of gut-wrenching terror. Well, Vietcong got it half right.