Now that World War II seems to have been almost exhausted for first person shooter content, developers have turned an eager eye towards other historical conflicts. While it's been a touchy subject for many, Vietnam seems to have become the latest war under the gaming microscope, with at least 8 separate titles about the jungles of Southeast Asia released this year alone. For the most part, these games have resided on the PC, although consoles have just recently jumped on the bandwagon. The latest one from Vivendi Universal actually seems to have learned from its predecessor's mistakes, focusing more on story and the environment to draw players into the action. Grab a gun and a helmet, because we're going into battle with Men of Valor.
Set in Vietnam from the period of 1965-1968, Men of Valor is told through the eyes of Dean Shepard, a young African-American Marine stationed at Danang. Delivered via letters that are sent back home, Dean details many of his missions and sorties in the brush and ruined cities of ‘Nam, which includes the major battles of Khe Sahn and the Tet Offensive. As one of the members of a platoon regularly sent into the field, you’ll also have to deal with the dangers that American soldiers faced during that war – plenty of booby traps, ambushes and snipers who’re intent on sending you home in a body bag. Unlike most games, there really isn’t a winner or a loser; instead, you’re really trying to just get Shepard home in one piece.
Similarly, unlike other first person shooters, you’re not a one man army going up against the NVA. You’ll have a number of additional squadmates in your platoon helping you accomplish your mission objectives. Many of these men are specialists in certain weapons or skills, and it’s not uncommon to find yourself interacting with, providing suppressing fire for or attacking positions with them. This includes a radio operator, light and heavy machine gun operators, and at least a lieutenant or two who bark out orders for the platoon to follow. Often, these orders and mission objectives change as situations become easier (or more frequently, worse as conditions deteriorate).
Veterans of first person shooters set in wartime might be rather used to a somewhat linear progression through levels, with an extremely minor amount of deviation. If you've played anyone of the Medal of Honor titles, particularly that of Allied Assault, you'll be relatively well versed in the level mechanics of Men of Valor. Developer 2015 did manage to break up the monotony of these relatively straightforward missions by including a number of slightly unconventional levels. For instance, there's one mission where you're scrambling through enemy tunnel networks, avoiding spike traps and crawling soldiers while trying to grab intelligence documents. There's also a boat mission that's eerily reminiscent of part of Apocalypse Now, as well as a short helicopter sequence where you'll have to provide cover for allies while clearing a path for your pilot through anti-aircraft guns and soldiers.
Fortunately, if you've got a friend, you can go through the entire game in a co-op mode, providing support for each other and executing tactics on the VC that are scattered through the jungles and villages of Nam. At the very least, it's decent practice for the Multiplayer portion of the game, which is pretty decent. There's both a deathmatch and team deathmatch feature for players that need to simply take out players. There's a capture the flag variant called Recover the Documents where you go after important intelligence briefings, and Search and Destroy, where you go after specific items or objects while protecting your own. There are also Multiplayer Missions where you can take on sorties based on historical conflicts, which is an interesting twist on multiplayer play.
One of the things that can be said about Men of Valor is that it's easily one of the best looking war games on the shelves today. Jungle foliage looks incredibly dense and foreboding; in fact, it's actually easy at times to mistake camouflaged opponents for brush, a fatal mistake that many GIs made in the field. What adds additional depth to the plant life is a number of varied grass textures that seem varied and respond to movement, so you actually feel like you're moving through it. The same can be said of the water textures, which look realistic and move naturally with displacement. Character models for both squadmates and enemies are nicely detailed in every respect, from facial animation to the weapons they carry. All of which is shown of in a title that supports 480p for high definition widescreen displays, which makes more of the cutscenes seem dramatic. In fact, there are a few, such as the napalming of the crestline at the end of the first mission that will take your breath away. Combined with plenty of explosions, dirt and smoke particle effects, and decent rag dolling by enemies, Men of Valor almost feels like a movie at times. The few graphical hitches, such as not being able to interrupt cutscenes for any reason or odd animation hiccups shows by characters as they run or respond to things, are relatively distracting and occur frequently, but it can still be said that this game really portrays a decent scenario of war.
Similarly, the sound included in the game is incredible. Featuring a soundtrack of '60s music, including James Brown and The Mamas and the Papas, the music captures the time period nicely. While the sound effects are great, and thanks to the Dolby Digital 5.1 support explosions, gunfire and other sounds will have you ducking for cover, I'd like to take some time to focus on the voice acting, which is top notch. While the dialogue is blatantly not for kids due to the profanity and racial slurs, the undeniable thing is that it captures the spirit of the soldiers greatly. From the farm boy known affectionately as Hoss to the no-nonsense leadership of Zook, the actors manage to draw you in and actually care about the squadmates you serve with. Case in point, when one of your platoon dies, it's touching. It strays into the realm of overacting slightly, but when it happens, you actually are sad and disappointed to see this guy go, especially because he's said many of the things you wish Shepard would.
In fact, that's possibly one of the weaker moments of the game, the fact that Shepard doesn't really seem like he goes through enough of a character arc from the beginning of the game to the end. Most, if not every account that's been given about serving in 'Nam from servicemen and women have talked about how simply going over there radically changed them in some way, for better or worse. Dean seems to not only have gone in with much more sense than other soldiers, he seems to come out of it relatively fine with most of his opinions and thoughts unchanged. Part of this is due to the letter device, which feels like it just doesn't go far enough to describe what Dean's going through. The other part is potentially due to the historical footage and facts scattered through load screens and the beginning of missions, which feels taken from the History Channel and somewhat disconnected from the soldiers going through the battles.
If ever there was a moment to come close to breaking away from the monotonous, linear directions that most shooters suffer from, Men of Valor would've been it. The Vietnam War was one of the most unconventional conflicts ever waged on the planet, and it would've been refreshing to see full jungle warfare, with objectives potentially achieved by a number of different paths. Unfortunately, you're still shuffled along a path that you can't deviate from. This is complicated further by sometimes incompetent or inconsistent AI on both sides: Some enemies stand still and allow you to literally run up to them, while others will continually charge out of apparent spawn points even if crossfiring positions have been taken up. Your platoon members are no better, rarely killing enemy soldiers on their own even if they're in point blank range. There are a number of times when you'll see them open up only to not hit anything. Even worse, they'll take up positions that you were trying to get, exposing you to incoming fire or obscuring your line of fire. This calls for a slug right in the back for some of them, and indeed you'll probably tag them a couple of times inadvertently.
While some people may question the idea to have a title set in Vietnam because of the turbulent emotions it evokes, Men of Valor manages to come across as a solid war game that happens to be from that era. A decent story, coupled with impressive graphics and extremely solid voice acting combine to deliver the best Vietnam game yet. War gamers and first person shooter fans might want to take a look at enlisting this title for their collection.