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I've Just spent the best part of three days locked in a room playing the latest Vietcong code, so I'm going to cut you a deal. I'm not going to go off on one about the ethics of games cashing in on a terribly cruel and bloody conflict that the US had no right to be involved in in the first place. And I'm not going to spend two hours researching Vietnam movie quotes so I can litter them over the next four pages and show off how savvy and cultured I am.
Instead I'm going to tell you about what happened while I played and how the code is coming along. How's that for a novel concept?
The game starts off in a chopper (as endemic in Vietnam films as young-yokel-steps-on-a-mine scenes), with you dangling your legs off the side and your new base of operations appearing beneath you. It drives home right from the start that Vietcong has learned the lesson so many shooters have in recent times (about bloody time, considering Half-Life is more than four years old). That is that easing you into the action by letting you act like a normal human being for a while is much more immersive than watching a five-minute cut-scene full of explosions and people talking.
So, you can turn around and watch the pilot, almost feel the wind coming from the rotors, listen to the chatter of your fellow passengers, and even suck your breath in as you look down (if, like me, you're afraid of heights). Once you're on the ground, you can watch the Huey fly away, admiring the beauty of it, go off and explore the barracks, shoot some of the available weapons or get on with the game and talk to the CO.
Then, it's off to the first mission, where you get to drive a jeep -keyboard to direct vehicle, mouse to move your head around - and visit a local village of tribesmen, before having to throw yourself to the ground when a VC sniper starts taking pot-shots at you and your fellow officers. This quickly establishes something else: Vietcong bears the hallmark toughness that seems to come with all Czech-developed games (Hidden & Dangerous anyone?). It takes you a while to realise which direction the fire is coming from. Cue several deaths and reloads, plus a moment or two to get over the scream of agony that accompanies getting hit by a bullet while your heartbeat almost deafens you, and another moment to become aware that the beating is coming from the game and not your chest.
Once you spot the ducking figure in the distant hills, there are a few more deaths before you see where your teammates have taken cover. Because them's no chance of taking out the sniper by just charging blindly. Instead, you have to wait for a soldier to lay some suppressive fire, see the sniper take cover, and advance little by little behind fallen trunks and large rocks until you're close enough to take a shot at him. Then you can start breathing again.
Don't worry, I'm not about to give you a blow-by-blow account of the whole game, thereby robbing you of the pleasure of experiencing it first-hand. But that should give you a taster of the level of intensity and the type of game we're talking about here.
Not that taking out a lone enemy is what you'll be doing most of the time. That's just a way of easing you into things. The typical mission has you trawling through the dense jungle, guided by a South Vietnamese soldier (that's the non-communist side, for all you history drop-outs) who knows exactly where to go and can spot enemies and traps better than anyone. You have a medic to heal your wounds (although each time he can fix you up a bit less), a radioman so you can keep in constant contact with HQ, as well as a machine gunner and an engineer.
When Le Duy Nhut - that's your Vietnamese guide - spots an enemy it will appear as a red dot on your radar and you can get ready for all hell breaking loose. The air grows thick with bullets, there's shouting and swearing all around you and, unless you can pick out an enemy head among the tree bark and heavy foliage, you'll be dead or lying on the ground praying for it all to be over. That's what jungle warfare is all about.
The jungle setting is really what makes Vietcong different from other shooters, with Pterodon having developed the engine specifically for recreating big, dense and heavily populated environments. At this stage, it's still rough around the edges, but you can already see how the thick vegetation turns the traditional corridor-hunt that defines most FPSs on its head.
In fact, because of that and the teambased element, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was more of a tactical sim than the adrenaline-packed action game that it is. Although you are reminded at times of that other great Czech game, Operation Flashpoint (mostly because of the vehicles, team members and big forest spaces), Vietcong's engine is much better and delivers some intense, fast-paced shooting action.
The command interface is also straightforward, in a sort of simplified SWAT 3 way. You can't give very specific orders, but this is because Vietcong is first and foremost a shooter, not a tactical game in the vein of Ghost Recon. As such, your teammates have minds of their own, and act as soldiers in their situation would, without the need for constant prompting. This requires pretty good Al, and even at this early stage we can confirm that this is an area where Vietcong shines brightly. It's not so much that they take cover when shot at (you expect any Al character to do that now). It's more the way they take positions around you, providing covering fire when needed. You can call the medic when you're injured, but if he sees you he'll come over and heal you anyway.
The characters around you are made even more realistic by their personalities. Where other team games have silent NPCs who occasionally give or acknowledge orders, here everyone yaks their head off, bitching, boasting or just making small talk. This way each member of your team comes through as a distinct individual, and you really get the feeling that you're part of a group of people.
Or at least you should. I can't comment on the quality of the acting (which will of course be crucial to whether this works or not) because the version I played only had placeholder voices laid down by game testers, somewhat detracting from the experience. The script as it is at the moment needs some work too, and not just because of the amount of swearing. Some of it sounds good, but a lot of it is over-the-top-cliched nonsense paraphrased from Vietnam movies. Still, the air of authenticity certainly helps matters, and once again Pterodon's research shines through.
From the army jargon of the period to the geographical precision of each mission and Vietnamese dialogue, Vietcong truly lives up to its billing as a documentary game'.
The Small Things
Like a lot of great games, it's in the small details that Vietcong really impresses. Something as simple as how you hold your weapon can suddenly become a source of wonder. Let me explain. You can hold the weapon as normal and point with the on-screen crosshair, or you can hold it up to your face by pressing the Alt-fire button, forcing you to move slower, but also bringing the target slightly closer and increasing accuracy. But the best thing is that, if you're crouched behind a fallen tree out of enemy sight, using Alt-fire will lift you just enough to rest the weapon on the tree and let you shoot with minimal exposure. And if someone walks in front of you or you stand too close to an object, the weapon is automatically lifted out of the way. It might sound insignificant, but it's the kind of thing FPS veterans will get excited about.
There's other things too. like the way you can choose to lead the team yourself if you think the guide is moving too slowly, or how you can crawl under or hop over fallen logs (where most shooters only let you crouch or do a sort of silly long jump).
It's far from finished, but even in this raw unpolished state it's obvious Vietcong has tremendous potential, as much because it will provide something a bit different as because of its sheer quality. Rest assured, as soon as it's finished we'll let you know if it lives up to its promise.
Got Some Charlie?
The Multiplayer Mode Is Worth A Pop As Well
Vietcong comes with full multiplayer support and with the recent arrival of the demo (that you can find on this month's coverdiscs) there are plenty of servers to get down and dirty on. It plays a bit like Counter-Strike (two sides with objectives or classic CTF modes) you can also opt to play in 'Vietnam mode', in which you lose your HUD and crosshair - they didn't have 'em in 'Nam you know.
Perhaps the most interesting multiplayer mode though is the cooperative one, where you and some friends (or more likely, a bunch of complete strangers) can take on Al enemies in specially designed levels, which will tie in with the main storyline.
The only downside is that you can't use vehicles online, although plans are afoot to include them in add-ons, along with some more urban environments.
Living And Breathing
Take A Virtual Tour Of Vietnam
The detail in the landscape is palpable, from each individual blade of grass and tree to the kind of insects you see buzzing about. Not only did Pterodon go on a research trip to Vietnam, filming and photographing everything to get the look just right, they also employed scientists who specialise in the area's flora and fauna.
At the moment the jungle is mostly alive with sound (crickets, birds and monkeys all baying to create the perfect atmosphere), but the only wildlife I spotted were a few butterflies and the frog pictured here. Hopefully, Pterodon are putting more in as we speak, but not so many that a misguided redneck could turn it into a hunting game.
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP