Vietcong takes players into the lush rainforest battlegrounds of Vietnam and puts them in charge of an elite six-person US Special Forces squad. Players control the squad leader and are responsible for assessing each mission and issuing orders based on each squad member's capabilities. Available vehicles include the CH47 Chinook twin-engine helicopter, the supersonic F-5 Tiger fighter plane, the Russian off-road GAZ 69 (Gorki'y Automobil Zavod), and the famous UHD1 "Huey" helicopter. Over 20 historical weapons are available during the 20 missions -- players will infiltrate dangerous enemy tunnels and other hostile areas utilizing riverboats, jeeps, and trucks. Users can call in air strikes, request evacuation, receive detailed intelligence, and experience the sounds of ricocheting bullets and explosions. Multiplayer options allow head-to-head confrontations between squads of Vietcong and US Special Forces.
In an effort to develop a realistic environment, the developers of Vietcong spent several days in Vietnam near the Cambodian border photographing the dense jungle. Considerable time was also spent studying relevant documentaries, feature films, and other historical sources.
At their best, first-person shooters and role-playing games are really close cousins. Sure, Baldur's Gate and Quake III: Arena might not seem to have much in common. But what about games like Morrowind and Deus Ex, games that without too much of a stretch could reasonably be called either sophisticated shooters or RPGs? Both games put an emphasis on fighting, just as any shooter or RPG would. More importantly, both games let you explore fascinating 3D worlds through an immersive first-person perspective. They go out of their way to make you feel like you're living another life in a richly detailed world, one where a breathtaking vista, an intriguing character, or a dangerous encounter is always just around the corner.
Illusion Softworks (Mafia, Hidden & Dangerous) knows that the best shooters are about much more than a bunch of guns and killing. They're about gaming's greatest strength as a form of entertainment: immersion in an alternate world that you can explore and shape. Immersion is something that helps set Illusion Softworks' Vietcong apart from your average military shooter. While Vietcong certainly isn't in the same league as Deus Ex or Morrowind, at its best it gives you not merely exciting action, but a memorable experience of really being there. Sadly, despite its great promise, the game is so buggy and rough around the edges that only very patient and forgiving gamers will be able to enjoy it all.
In Vietcong, you can jump right into an extensive single-player campaign, but it's worth checking out the four tutorial missions first. If you're an experienced gamer, you might be tempted to skip these. After all, it's not as if you need someone to hold your hand and tell you how to use the WASD keys to move. But in these boot camp training exercises, you'll meet a truly ornery drill instructor who repeatedly lays into you with a hilarious litany of insults. We can't print the best ones here, but you'll be laughing out loud at his command of colorful cursing as he berates you for any and every little mistake you make.
Like the tutorials, the campaign itself puts a big emphasis on immersing you in the game world. You play as a young U.S. Special Forces sergeant assigned to a base in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, situated near the Cambodian border and the Ho Chi Minh Trail used by the North Vietnamese and Vietcong guerillas for re-supply. Working with local Montagnard mountain people opposed to the Vietcong, you lead a small group of specialists in a "private war" among towering mountains and sweltering jungles.
The game opens with you flying to your new base, Nui Pek, aboard a "Huey" helicopter. During the ride, you meet one of your squad mates, Hornster, a machine gunner with a slow drawl but a quick draw. When you set down at Nui Pek, you get to explore the well-detailed base, observing mechanics working on jeeps, local Vietnamese allies standing guard duty, and other scenes of daily military life. You also get to explore your tiny bunker, where you can read your character's diary, listen to 60's music on the radio, and read about the game's weapons between many missions.
Vietcong makes a real effort to include little touches like that to draw you into the Vietnam experience, and that's what really sets the game apart. Instead of just sending you on a series of disconnected missions to kill, kill, kill, you instead get to sit down for briefings from your base CO, Captain Rosenfield, before they begin. During the missions, you'll frequently contact him via radio to relay status updates or get further instructions. It's a realistic touch that reminds you you're part of a bigger war. It also reminds you of your Nui Pek base camp and makes you hope to survive the mission to see it again.
Your first mission illustrates how hard the developers try to draw you into the game world. After taking a look around Nui Pek and getting in some target practice, you hop in a jeep with Captain Rosenfield and your squad's medic to go help some local friendly villagers. Along the way, as you admire the towering mountains lining the road, you spot a burnt-out village to the side of the road. Rosenfield describes a recent battle that took place there, illustrating just how brutal the Vietcong can be. It's a nice touch that makes the game world seem more like a real place with a real history, not just some random collection of jungle scenery.
Once you arrive at the village, the captain introduces you to the local headman, who speaks in broken English that you have to strain to understand. While you're chatting, a shot rings out, and a villager falls dead just a few yards a way. Suddenly, you're under attack from a Vietcong sniper who could be hidden anywhere among the thick foliage and hills surrounding the village. As villagers scramble for cover, you need to quickly figure out where the shooter is and then take him out. It's a wonderfully chaotic and exciting initiation into combat.
In fact, the chaos of the battlefield is one thing Vietcong often captures really well. You and your men will silently make your way along a trail through a thick jungle, and suddenly a monkey or bird will cry out, breaking the silence and giving you a start. Your point man, a local man named Nhut, will continue, unperturbed by the noises he's grown up around. Just when you start to get a little too relaxed, Nhut will stop, crouch, and give the hand signal to hold up. Suddenly the crack of gunfire erupts from all around, with muzzle flashes appearing from behind small stands of bushes or mossy rocks. Your squad mates open fire, unleashing a hail of bullets into the thick foliage, hoping to hit the nearly invisible targets. Suddenly, you half-glimpse a figure in black darting from behind a tree. You take aim, squeeze the trigger, and watch the Vietcong soldier slump to the earth.
It's one thing to play a shooter where you can easily spot the enemies and know that a single, easy shot is all you need to kill one. But in Vietcong, things are different. You have to have an eagle eye (and rely on your point man) to spot trip wires attached to grenade booby traps or bamboo swing-arms that whip around and impale unsuspecting troops on spikes. As in the real war, the enemy troops are adept at blending into the surroundings and ambushing you, and as in the real war, you'll find yourself spraying countless bullets into the bushes in the hopes of hitting someone.
When you do actually spot the enemy, hitting him isn't easy. Vietcong puts a high emphasis on combat realism, particularly if you play on the hardest difficulty setting. To score a hit, you'll want to crouch or go prone to limit the sway of your weapon as you breathe. You'll also want to raise the weapon to your shoulder and use the weapon's own "iron sights" instead of a crosshair to hit your target. Even then, you really need to aim carefully, which is no easy task when you're under fire and your targets are rushing from cover to cover. The enemies sometimes do the sorts of foolish things that AI-controlled enemies are known for, but more often than not, they'll use cover and concealment very effectively. They'll ambush you from trenches and well-camouflaged bunkers, and they'll pop up from behind a fallen log or boulder to take a quick shot and then duck out of sight. Sometimes, they'll flank you, too.
With exciting combat and generally interesting missions, the single-player campaign can be a lot of fun. Vietcong doesn't stop there, though. It also offers a quick fight mode that lets you battle AI soldiers on maps you unlock as you progress through the campaign. The game also features seven multiplayer modes, which can be accessed through an integrated GameSpy-powered server browser. These modes feature some really interesting maps and weapons, and the unusual setting alone can make them fun. Multiplayer isn't without its problems, though. It can sometimes easily devolve into tiresome sniping contests. Camping can also be a problem since some modes, like deathmatch, require you to grab your weapons from caches lying around the landscape. Once you learn where these are, it's easy to hide near them and open fire every time players try to arm themselves after a respawn. A similar problem arises in capture-the-flag games, with players camping the spawn points.
To avoid these sorts of problems, you can play a cooperative mode that can be a lot of fun if you find skilled players. This mode puts a major emphasis on teamwork and realistic tactics since the wily AI-controlled enemy can provide a serious and welcome challenge. You and your team will need to use every scrap of cover, keep a sharp eye out, and back each other up. Unlike some of the adversarial modes, this mode tends to feel more like a realistic military action, too.
Vietcong does a lot of things well, but unfortunately, a lot of that is for naught. The game really needed more development and testing time. It's loaded with bugs, many of them major. Sometimes the game can crash to the desktop for no apparent reason or spontaneously reload a saved game during the middle of a firefight. Scripted events often won't trigger properly, which means you'll have to go back and cover the same ground to try to get them to work. This isn't merely confusing and annoying, but it can also ruin any sense of drama. A gripping night attack on your base will suddenly grind to a halt when the next event isn't triggered properly.
On top of that, characters will at times jog in place or bounce up and down comically when they get caught on each other or the scenery. It's even worse when you get stuck on the scenery yourself, sometimes requiring you to reload a saved game to start afresh. Making matters worse, the interface that you use to talk with other characters or manipulate small objects requires overly precise cursor pointing to get the job done. The grenade-throwing controls are equally clumsy.
Visually, the details of Vietcong are often merely mediocre. Some characters' faces look so bizarre and ugly that they're downright distracting, and the animations are merely passable. Weird clipping problems can let a soldier's gun go right through the guy in front of him or let you see through the bottom of a mountain when you go prone. On the other hand, the helicopters are well detailed, and a lot of the jungle foliage looks convincing enough. Significantly, Vietcong's visuals are often more than the sum of their parts, and the game does a good job of making it feel like you're winding your way through dense jungles. Some nice little touches help bring the scenery to life, like tree branches swaying in the wind and bushes bending when you brush against them.
While the overall look of Vietcong helps make up for lots of minor flaws, the weak audio has few saving graces. A couple of voiceovers sound very convincing, and some of the dialogue is well done, with characters speaking an alphabet soup of military acronyms seasoned with a healthy dash of expletives. Then again, a lot of the dialogue and many of the voiceovers are downright poor. With his "gee whiz" delivery, your character sounds more like an eager Boy Scout than a tough Special Forces sergeant, and he'll utter lots of silly lines. When talking to his CO over the radio, he'll say things like, "It seems like I'm somewhere in the middle of the jungle." You don't say? Along the same lines, your fellow soldiers continually shout out lame dialogue like, "Eat this!" and "Rock and roll!" during firefights. The weapons mostly sound dull and underpowered, but at least the music helps add atmosphere. The pervasive ambient sounds of birds, insects, and monkeys are well done.
It's a real shame that Illusion Softworks didn't spend longer developing Vietcong. This is a game that you want to love, but one that keeps pushing you away every time you try to embrace it. Despite all its strengths, it's just much too buggy and unpolished to recommend wholeheartedly.
People who downloaded Vietcong have also downloaded:
Vietcong 2, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Soldier of Fortune 2: Double Helix, Shellshock: Nam '67, Vietnam 2: Special Assignment, World War II: Sniper - Call to Victory, Line of Sight: Vietnam, Battlefield Vietnam
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