After the initial roar of late spring and early summer releases, we are treated once again to the relative silence of PC game releases. A good many premier titles, like this summer's movie box offices, have already bested each other. Things have been busy as well on the value gaming front with ValuSoft sneaking in this title, Vietnam 2: Special
Assignment (V2) following up on their recently released CIA Operative, of which I had the opportunity to also examine.
The backdrop to V2 cannot be considered stellar storytelling but it indeed, at least gives you an excuse for shooting up Viet Cong soldiers. You assume the role of Sgt. Kevin Wilde and you are sent to go deep into enemy territory to track a lost friendly soldier by the name of Flak Johnson, who was also part of special ops. Apparently, Flak had undertaken a perilous mission to assassinate a general. Though he may have bested his foe, his foe certainly got the better of him and through a clichéd psychological change; he has decided to amass his own army to stop the Viet Cong. People familiar with Coppola's Apocalypse Now may be excited by about this time. Indeed, the cut scene rendering seems to be first rate, so single cell software, the developers, get at least that much credit.
Beyond that though, V2 does nothing to really change anything. As far as value gaming goes, this title has a total of twelve missions, which makes it lengthy. For comparison sake, it is much lengthier than ValuSoft's other title, CIA Operative. In CIA Operative, I commented on the fact that they took every clichéd level design trick from other games. V2 does no different but if the developers of CIA Operative were aware that repeating borrowed tricks would promote monotony, the developers of V2, certainly do not realize that. V2 has you trudging through the obligatory Viet Cong tunnels. Nearly every level features a portion of an underground tunnel and turns the game into a typical shooter harkening back to the days when all FPS maps were just a series of linked underground tunnels. The other trick used from old FPS games, is the simulation of expansive forests. Often times, jungles are artificially created between towering cliffs. To maintain the atmosphere of a steamy jungle, an abundant amount of fog is used; enough to rival even the notoriously infamous Turok.
While these may be a bid for realism, they actually serve a much more functional purpose. Other value-oriented titles may be underutilizing the engines they adopt but the developers here almost bite off more than they can chew. The first level is a good testament for this as its expansive architecture brought my machine to a crawl at times. Yet the fog and underground tunnels surely guaranteed smooth frame rates. Graphically, this game is confined to darkness. Lighting effect is quite good if not unvaried, as every torch seems to be the same in V2. The animations for the characters and guns are good but not spectacular. Perhaps it is due to my use of the venerable Voodoo5 card but I saw more than my share of clipping errors. At one time, a Viet Cong soldier was trapped in front of me while I mowed down his teammates through his straw hat; the perfect camouflage.
V2 is punctured intermittently with voiceovers from the protagonist which serve to point out the obvious like, "This place is heavily guarded" after I took out half a dozen enemies. There are bountiful amounts of sound effects to add to the jungle atmosphere but no music beyond the menus can be found. The effects for the various guns are decent but in no manner does it match the level of more realistic games.
The basic story behind V2 allows for some inclusion of friendly AI. Perhaps the best levels are those where you stumble upon Flak's mercenary army and the Viet Cong battling it out. One such map is in a ruined city and the gameplay there lives up to ValuSoft's billing of "intense firefights". It is rather ironic though, that the Viet Cong soldiers here have no regard for each other's lives. Fairly often, I was able to convince rocket soldiers to launch into friendly troops standing in their way. Moreover, the friendly AI seems to be heavily scripted to the point where they possess no autonomy at all. For example, after clearing out a street in the burnt out city, I met up with a friendly AI unit whose only goal in life was to circle around a hollowed out building while both of us were under a hail of bullets. The primary strength the Viet Cong possess in this game are numbers. In one particular foggy jungle mission, there stood a Viet Cong soldier every ten feet throughout most of the level.
The lack of a multiplayer mode detracts from the overall value of this game. I have been contacted in past reviews of value-oriented titles about multiplayer. They, the developers, essay that multiplayer requires them to balance weapons and introduces all sorts of technical issues that would otherwise exceed whatever little development budget they have. However, my assumption is: most single player FPS games do not have a lasting effect unless there is some form of multiplayer to build a community around. The best example of a well executed value title would be Serious Sam. It does what it does so well, that people begin to doubt that this game could be priced to compete with the likes of something like Deer Hunter. Its plethora of multiplayer options, including a nearly unprecedented split screen mode, absolutely guarantees that people will continue playing it over and over again. Even after completing the title in single player mode, repeated sessions of co-operative mode do not seem tiresome. Serious Sam, though technically superior to the everyday value title, has even less story to work with and its indirect homage to Duke 3D would appear to lead critics to pan it even more. V2's story, as similar as it is to Apocalypse Now, is actually more complex than Serious Sam. Yet, Serious Sam is considered one of the hidden gems so far this year. What makes all the difference, in my humble opinion, is the inclusion of a solid multiplayer component and sophisticated tools to expand on what is initially offered. Both of these seem to go a long way in extending a game's longevity.
Finally, Serious Sam is able to take time-honored design tricks and hone it to near perfection. Other value developers, especially those who do WWII or Vietnam FPS titles, seem to be satisfied with just borrowing existing level designs. Their lack of refinement makes a game seem more mediocre than it really is. Technically, you would think a game set in WWII or Vietnam would sell more since people easily identify with it. WWII Online certainly sold a lot and my guess is that many people bought it solely because of its theme or context. Realism or realistic backdrops are, naively, expected to sell themselves. But in games that are known to be technically behind times, gameplay or 'fun factor' is the ultimate key. If ValuSoft continues its publishing pace for value FPS titles though, perhaps by the holiday season, they will prove the adage that the third time's the charm for this Vietnam franchise.