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The Vietnam War may have been one of the more shameful periods in American history, but it’s made for some great films and music. The games industry is finally catching up, and if brown is the new black, then 'Nam is the new World War II. This year sees a flurry of titles released, from the gung-ho violence of Vietcong to the risible torpor of Platoon. Online, it's been a mixed bag, and turning atrocity into multiplayer entertainment is Battlefield Vietnam, which comes with the heritage of the Battlefield 1942 series, about to spawn its second add-on in the shape of the fanciful Secret Weapons Of World War II.
However, Battlefield Vietnam will be a standalone game, a fact that has already caused murmurs of message board dissent. Electronic Arts is keen to stress that the game represents a sizeable leap forward. Producer Reid Schneider told us: "One thing we really want to emphasise is it’s not just Battlefield 1942 with a Vietnam look to it. It’s an all-new game. It’s a new type of guerrilla warfare in terms of focusing it around Vietnam, and some of the ways we’re doing that is through trench warfare and booby traps. Another key part of the Vietnam experience was napalm, so that was something we felt we needed to integrate into the game. One of the other key elements of Vietnam was, of course, airlifting, which really changed the way battles were fought."
Bigger, Badder, Louder
Those battles were fought between the mighty US war machine and the have-a-go heroes of the North Vietnamese Army. Something of a mismatch, you might think, but Digital Illusions is doing its best to ensure there is some kind of balance. Deciding which side you choose to fight for will inevitably lead to a vastly different gameplay experience, with the Yanks buzzing around in hi-tech helicopters, and the Vietcong trying to escape on an old Vespa scooter. Clearly, the NVA will benefit from better use of the terrain, and we’ve seen one of the booby traps in operation, where a pile of logs is rolled on to some hapless US troops, crushing them like woodlice. By way of riposte, the Americans will be carrying some heavy armoury, and this is an area that has received a great deal of attention, with EA admitting the first-person shooter elements of Battlefield 1942 weren’t as strong as they could have been. To this end, the guns in Vietnam will be far more dynamic, offering subtleties such as bullets being fed into the chamber, and even reloads based on actual field data.
Also, the weight of weapons will have some bearing, with a heavy gun enough to marginally slow a player down. Ultimately though, as producer AJ Marini says: "What we wanted to do is make sure the player firing this weapon feels like they’re firing an actual gun, it’s not just a cool weapon in the game."
Hooray For Hollywood
Vietnam veterans and war historians aside, the vast majority of people’s concept of the conflict comes from the movies, and this is something the game is hoping to exploit. According to Schneider "One of the key focuses was trying to deliver what people understand as the Hollywood experience of Vietnam. So the game is designed to look, sound and feel in line with what people know, which covers everything from the way it looks to the the sounds of the guns. We’re using Hollywood for inspiration, but it’s not a blueprint or something we feel we have to do."
As for the moral issue of setting a game in Vietnam, Schneider is adamant: "I think you face the same issues with a game set in World War II. Obviously this war was a lot more controversial, but we’re focusing on the fun aspects of it. We definitely won’t put anything in there that could be even construed as remotely offensive."
So you won’t be able to wipe out villages full of children? "No, no, no, no, no," both producers cry in unison, with Marini continuing, "That’s not part of the Battlefield franchise. Somehow in Battlefield 1942, the whole idea of World War II was very heroic and almost comic book. This is definitely a grungier war, so elements we’ve built in enhance that feel and make it feel more like Vietnam, but nothing controversial like burning babies. Even the napalm doesn’t bum the bodies."
"There is a charring of people," grins Schneider. According to Marini: "Little elements like soldiers having messages on their helmets that may have some political J overtones. they' re there | ust for feel. It's unavoidable." But you can't sanitise it entirely? " "We don't want to. Some games are doing that," says Schneider, "but it's not a core value of this concept. It's not a route we want to go down." Neither did the Vietnamese.
Download Battlefield: Vietnam
War. Huh! What is it good for? Many would have it that it's good for absolutely nothing. Edwin Starr and a variety of other songsmiths, blaring their lungs over the Battlefield Vietnam loading screens are certainly in that camp. When you've just lost control of a US chopper, however, and are travelling downwards at terrifying speeds towards the rice paddy where you've just dropped off your fellow marines while you leap from your fractured, exploding helicopter and watch it pirouette into the Vietcong forces... Well, then at least you can admit that war is extremely good for computer games. Some might say it's exceptional.
Just to quell any doubts, Battlefield Vietnam is still the game you know and love from Battlefield 1942 at heart. A few nips and tucks to the modes, a plethora of new features and far more complexity to the lush environments, but the old Battlefield vibe still hangs heavy in the air. As soon as we booted up the preview code and gazed lovingly at the machines of death that surrounded us, we felt very much at home, thank you. Among the toys you're given to play with are the usual heady mix of jeeps, tanks and planes, now complemented by some ingenious new (for the '60s) vehicles that boost the potential for online chaos no end. Airlifting is the name of the game here: M60-laden Hueys ferry soldiers to and from battle hot-spots, Chinook choppers deliver tanks and jeeps to newly captured bases, while the North Vietnamese Army's (NVA) amphibious troop transports scuttle around the banks and rivers fending off Yankee oppressors.
Incidentally, those NVA aren't quite the hole-dwelling guerrillas Hollywood would have you imagine either. They've got MiGs, assault helicopters, towable M46 artillery cannons and a platoon of nonarmoured, gun-free scooters. Bizarre.
Back To Life
A fair amount of thought has clearly been given to the politics of spawn-points. As per usual, your presence in and around the capture points on the map will result in your flag being raised and spawning a-go-go. Only this time round, you'll see exactly how long it'll take to capture. The more team-mates you have around you, the faster the process will be. Vietnamese engineers will also have the ability to dig out bolt-holes that'll act as camouflaged spawning sites, while the US have boats that can be moved around the more watery levels for better spawn locations. You'll be able to choose between assault soldiers, engineers, heavy artillery and sniping scouts, each with their own range of weapons. On Charlie's side there's the ubiquitous AK47, flare guns, shotguns and SA-7 heat-seeking missiles. The US hardware, meanwhile, is a lot shinier and more technological than the grimy Chinese and Soviet weaponry of the NVA (what with the napalm, M60s and XM148 machine gun/grenade-launcher combos). While that would be good for documentaries and the like, fortunately our thorough play-testing showed everything to be well balanced and in good fighting order from a gaming point of view. There shouldn't be many whitewash-style, blitzkrieg victories in this simulated conflict - just as there wasn't one when the US stormed in for a quick and easy dust-down back in the '60s.
Band Of Bots
True to form, in the admittedly early code we were playing, the single-player bots were still pretty vacant and not far elevated above the circle-driving, ally-shooting divots of BF1942 - despite the fact they're more likely to listen to your radio commands. It's in multiplayer however, that BFV will always show its true worth. Moments like the first time I was fragged by a Bouncing Betty mine (whose modus operandi is to spring out of the ground to gut-level before exploding) were just so magical that I can barely wait to use the same dirty trick on unsuspecting BF Vietnam virgins as soon as the game goes live.
The vehicle physics and controls, meanwhile, are just as much fun (and fiendishly tricky) as they ever were. Helicopters are still bastards to fly, as the hours I wasted trying to hook tanks onto my Chinook will readily testify. But the practice and skill required for airborne manoeuvring has always been, in my opinion at least, one of Battlefield's greatest, addiction-harbouring assets.
There's no doubt that Battlefield Vietnam has huge potential, and that it has huge, looming rivals in the form of Soldner: Secret Wars and the delectable temptation that will be Joint Operations. If I were a betting man, however, I'd place my money on the Battlefield franchise. With such a ridiculously strong community and so many ingenious nuggets of gameplay, it's pretty safe to say that, Charlie's going to be everywhere. In the trees, on the rivers, falling out of the sky in badly piloted choppers...
Battlefield: Vietnam manages to capture the confused mayhem of jungle warfare while completely sidestepping all of the underlying issues that made the conflict a political mire. There are a whole slew of Viet-games coming out over the next 12 months or so, many of which split their time between entertainment and more meaningful messages, but Battlefield: Vietnam just delivers a relatively authentic combat simulator that is more sandbox army men than it is Full Metal Jacket or Platoon.
The game has no mission-based play at all, instead it offers up single and multiplayer combat set on a series of well-crafted maps. The single player games are filled with friendlies and enemies controlled by the computer. While it provides a good place to master the basics, this mode of play quickly loses its appeal once you've learned game play.
Multiplayer however is another story all together, supporting up to 64 players at the same time who take on the roles of U.S. forces and the Viet Cong.
What really makes this game such a blast to play is the developers' understanding the importance of vehicles and aircraft in the Vietnam War. You can control or just catch a ride on everything from Jeeps and tanks to helicopters and jets. Many of the vehicles also have weapon systems that can be controlled by the driver or other players in the vehicle.
The weapons selection is also uniquely Vietnam with guerrilla weapons like punji sticks and caltrops. You can even use enemy engineers to dig tunnel spawns in the center of U.S. military camps.
Music also plays a big role in setting the stage in this game. With Viet-era hits and the voices of U.S. and Vietnamese propaganda blaring over the loud speakers, it really helps to remind you where you are playing. The graphics aren't exactly cutting edge, but the use of well rendered foliage and very rugged and believable terrain, more than making up for the par character art.
All in all Battlefield: Vietnam is a fun and engrossing shoot-em-up that does nothing to tackle the deeper issues of Vietnam. There's nothing wrong with that and if you're spoiling for a modern warfare fight, this is the game for you.