There’s a combat situation that is imprinted in all our minds and yet has never been fully realised in a game. It involves you standing with a group of soldiers in the middle of a dense, mosquito-infested jungle, knee-deep in muddy water that steams slowly from the stifling heat, and pointing your weapon at every tiny flutter of leaves, every insignificant creak of wood, with a wild look in your eyes that steadily loses focus thanks to the trickle of sweat soaking through your bandana.
Of course you’ve seen the scene in any of those Nam war films you grew up watching, but they were there to tell us war is hell, not a WWII Dirty Dozen adventure. That's all about to change though, because a European company, free of the guilt that still haunts Americans, is here to show us that it's about time we enjoyed the Vietnam War. And from what I've seen of this beauty so far, we’re all going to have flashbacks for some time to come.
Welcome To The Jungle
It's important to realise right from the start that this - unlike so many Vietnam films - isn’t about the countless kids who went through hell and came back in body bags or straight jackets. You're part of a group of Special Forces on the Cambodian border in 1967 on a six month tour of duty, about to penetrate a jungle full of life as well as death, and you’ll need every single member of your team in order to survive.
One of the most important members is your point man, a Montanyard (a Vietnamese hill tribe) who acts as your trap-spotter and guide through the jungle. Try to set off without him and you'd soon be lost. Then you have a medic, who will heal you and other team members, the engineer, who handily carries an inexhaustible supply of ammo, the machine gunner and the radio carrier, whose backpack you'll be seeing a lot of.
Giving orders is very simple and context-sensitive, so you don’t have to mess about with menus and submenus just to get the boys to move out. And, although this is a shooter where you'll personally be in the line of fire all the time, it's also very much a team game where the death of any one of your squad means game over.
There’s no plot as such, more a string of events organised across incredibly varied missions. But the lack of proper storyline doesn’t mean it hasn’t got a cinematic feel. From the sound of rock ’n’ roll playing from descending choppers to the many Half-Life-like heart-in-mouth scripted moments, this is a truly spectacular experience.
Charlie Don’t Surf!
You start each mission being debriefed by a superior, inspecting maps and browsing documents. We're not sure what music will be licensed for use in-game, but we reckon ’60s tunes are essential to convey that Vietnam movie feeling.
The missions look fantastic with tons of variation and they include heading up-river on a boat to rescue a downed pilot, with fire coming from both flanks, and helping out a local villager about to have a baby. A bit different to the kind of 'help’ most of the US army apparently offered Vietnamese civilians. Most of the time though, you’ll be sent on recon missions and strategic attacks against the enemy.
When a game has been more than two years in development and is looking this good, you know it’s not going to be just another item on the seasonal production line. Pterodon has been able to use this time to test loads of features, keeping the ones that worked and discarding the ones that didn’t, as well as continuing to refine and improve every little aspect of the gameplay. This philosophy extends to the multiplayer game as they will be releasing a beta demo any day now in order to give the finished version the benefit of tried and tested public feedback. And yes, you can play on the VC side.
Love You Long Time
It's impossible to convey in this short space just how right Vietcong looks and feels, how impressive the graphics and the myriad details are, and the intensity of the firefights once they break out with surprising loudness through the gentle and ever-present cricket song. I still maintain Half-Life hasn’t been beaten - not even by Medal Of Honor- but if everything in VC falls into place, it’s going to firmly push Valve’s ageing classic to one side.
So far US veterans have reacted with indifference to the news of the game, and producer Luke Vernon isn’t expecting any controversy when it’s launched. "It’s not a political game, and it’s not taking sides, saying what’s right and wrong," he says. "It’s just a realistic game with one army fighting another." Well, actually, it’s more than that. It’s one of the hottest shooters we’ve seen. And as soon as you try out the multiplayer beta test, you’ll know why.
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
For a long time it would have been unthinkable to have a realistic, gory shooter set during the Vietnam war. Not because we have any kind of taboo surrounding it (at least not in Europe), but because every film we've ever seen on the subject is about the horror of war, the injustice of it, the hellishness of it. For both sides. There are no Guns of Navarone or U-571 equivalents for this conflict. War videogames, on the other hand, are about the fun of war. the gung-ho, hero-forming, children-playing-with-toy-guns side of it. And it was hard to reconcile that with the image of kids losing their legs and marines raping and murdering civilians.
Vietcong gets around this by showing the war as it was fought by professional special forces. And yet there’s no getting around the fact that it is told exclusively from the point of view of the US, which is to say that it's told from the point of view of the loser.
We re used to kicking Nazi ass in dozens of World War II games, safe in the knowledge that massacring the Swastika wearers is not only morally healthy, but that, no matter how many times you fail in a mission, your side is going to win. In Vietcong, nothing you do can change the outcome.
Kick Some Commie Butt
There’s no point saying that Pterodon (who received some help from Hidden & Dangerous and Mafia developer Illusion Softworks for this one) offers a neutral and impartial account because they’re Czech instead of American. If that were true you’d be able to play the war from the qther side tgo. Okay, you can ake the role of a soldier in multiplayer, but I that's Just a skin.
Ironically, by focusing on the special forces and putting to one side the drama of the conflict, with none of the scathing criticism of a Platoon or a Full Metal Jacket, Vietcong becomes more of a flag-waving exercise than any US-made game on the subject would dare to be. Of course, that's not the point. This is just another war. There are two sides. You're on one and your job is to kill and maim the other. Simple as that.
Or it would be if your character, Steve R Hawkins, didn't arrive on a chopper at his new base at the start of the game desperate to see some "real action". And if your teammates didn't spend the whole game shouting out things like "eat shit motherf"** gooks!". They're not doing it because they're incredibly terrified, but because they're enjoying every second of it. This kind of language is just a shortcut to make people feel they're taking part in a Vietnam movie, but though there are great shooter moments here, that’s one thing it never quite achieves.
Brown And Fake
For one thing, the jungles of Vietcong look nothing like the lush rainforests of those movies. The greens are far too pale and sickly, and the graphics in general are rather weak. I know all those films were actually shot in places like the Philippines, and that the developers spent time in Vietnam researching the real environments. But the end result is nevertheless little more than muddy browns and lifeless greens. You don’t get that sense of heat and humidity, of lush vegetation and thriving animal life (except for a few birds, frogs and butterflies).
The other problem is that however hard the game tries to create characters around you that talk and have their own personalities (stereotypical in the extreme though they are), it’s very hard to care about people who are immortal. Knowing your pals can take a barrage of bullets without lasting consequences isn’t the best way to suspend your disbelief. To say nothing of how unrealistic it is to see it happen.
I understand the logistics of having to keep them alive since you need them for each mission and, because you have virtually no control over them, it would have been tremendously annoying to lose a mission every time one of them got killed. But it also makes it hard to think of them as real people, or to get very engrossed in something so obviously fake.
Intense But Brainless
That’s not to say Vietcong doesn’t do some things right to pull you in. To begin with, it follows the recent trend of giving you a base you can explore between missions, where you can talk to people and, in this case, read your journal and even listen to some fantastic 60's rock on the radio.
The game’s biggest strength though, is the massive firefights you engage in, using fallen logs and thick bushes as cover, wondering where the hell all those enemy bullets are coming from, and watching both sides fill the air with shouts, lead and expletives. At times it feels like the beach landing level in Medal of Honor.
There is a slight problem with the difficulty level though, in that the normal setting is a tad too easy for seasoned shooter players, while the hard one raises the bar to the usual Czech 'die-every-five-seconds’ standard. As for the highest level - forget about it. It’s nigh on impossible. I should also mention that while you do have team mates in most missions, this is still very much an action-oriented first-person shooter. There’s not much in the way of tactics, if anything at all. The commands you can give are simply to hold back or attack, and at times it seems the other soldiers are there only as convenient dispensers. The medic heals you, the radio man sends and receives orders, the engineer gives you ammo, and so on.
Perhaps the most important team mate is Nhut, an anticommunist Vietnamese who knows the area well and serves as a guide to wherever you're supposed to be going. The problem with him is that he moves so damn slowly (always on the look-out for traps and enemies, you see) you soon lose patience and take the lead yourself, occasionally using him to point in the right direction if you start getting lost.
Yet another annoyance is having to radio in to HQ every few minutes. It might be realistic and necessary to get new objectives, but it interrupts the flow of the game badly. Missions can have slightly different outcomes, but this seems to make no difference whatsoever to what happens in the aftermath. In the first level, for example, you kill a sniper taking pops at you when you pay a local village a visit for medical aid. You’re told it’s too dangerous to follow the marksman's pals up into the mountains, leaving you to decide whether to head back and report their escape, or follow them, kill them and find some documents on their person. But whichever course you take, the outcome is identical, save for the report on your mission debriefing.
The weapons are pretty standard fare and are all satisfyingly reproduced (the grenades deserve particular mention for the ringing they leave in your ears when detonated too close). There are also moments where you get to drive a jeep and do the customary shooting-endless-ammo-from-the-side-of-a-chopper as you hover over paddy fields and mountains. Brainless, but a lot of fun.
The levels that stick in my mind for the wrong V reasons are those set in enemy tunnels, where you must venture alone, with a silenced pistol and some lightsticks. These are possibly the ugliest and dullest I've ever encountered. You spend most of the time in utter darkness, with only your crosshair to let you know if there's a wall in front of you or not (although if you turn the brightness right up and turn the light in your room off, you can just make out your surroundings). Original, perhaps. Tedious, definitely. When you do have light you’re confronted with the most boring, uniform brown colour scheme since the first Quake. And the fact that you can’t pick up the occasional lamps you find in side-holes really grates.
When you do come across a good level though, it tends to be very enjoyable. Like the one where you have to defend a radio relay on top of a hill with a bunch of team-mates, while the VC come up at you from all sides. They’re almost impossible to spot until you find the sniper rifle and start picking them off as they crawl behind logs and through ditches.
Stuck In The Middle
There's the occasional touch of humour in there. Like when you pick up some VC propaganda and your character exclaims: "Up your ass, commies!"
There are also some good ideas, such as the way you con crouch behind cover and come up just enough to let off a few rounds, or the way you can crawl under logs or hop over them - all of which will have more of an impact online than it does in single player.
In the end, Vietcong is caught between being a tactical team shooter and a straight FPS, without quite achieving either. And the ugliness of it all can be hard to cope with after so much repetitive scenery. But crank the difficulty level up, and at the end of the day there are more than enough intense moments in Vietcong to make it a worthwhile challenge for any shooter veteran.
It’s been the subject of mods and a couple of really poor budget releases, but so far Vietnam has been the war no game developer has dared to touch. And you can see why. Americans still have nightmares about it and keep releasing tortured film revisions as a form of mass therapy.
Promisingly, however, Vietcong s not being developed in the US, but in that bubbling font of development talent, the Czech Republic. Hopefully this will bring a modicum of impartiality in the way they present the conflict.
The game is a co-production between Illusion Softworks (Hidden & Dangerous. Mafia) and long-time creative partner Pterodon (Flying Heroes). Having seeped themselves in gangster chic for Mafia for the last couple of years (see review page 64), Illusion and co are now fully immersed in a bloody catalogue of Vietnam movies. We expect them to draw more on the likes of Apocalypse Now. Full Metal Jacket and Platoon rather than Coming Home or Born On The Fourth of July - although we wouldn't say no to a level where you cruise around in a wheelchair through violent demonstrations waving antiwar banners.
The action is more likely to be confined to the jungle though, where you'll play as an elite soldier at the head of a team of up to six people, with 20 expansive single-player missions and plenty of mouth-watenng multiplayer action. The Pterodon team has created a glonous 3D engine for the project, the Pteroengme, which is pumping out some of the most lush and detailed outdoor environments we've ever seen.
Illusion's choice of subject has caused a massive wave of interest, not least across the Atlantic, where developers have preferred to concentrate their efforts on the wars the US actually won.
Somehow we don't think the fact that you’ll be playing the losing side will have that much bearing on the gameplay though. Can you imagine mission objectives such as: "penetrate forest, get you buddies shot and step on a landmine"? Or: "napalm the village where all the enemy's weapons are stored before finding out that it's actually full of Vietnamese schoolchildren"?
We hope they manage to capture some of the disorientation and fear felt by those who took part, although comments from the Pterodon team suggest a rather more lighthearted approach. "We wanted to make an immersive action atmosphere in a tactical co-operative gameplay." says Filip Oscadal, Vietcong's lead sound designer. "War is NOT fun, but games are. Don't judge our product the same way you judge politics and warfare. In fact, VC should be funny and easy to play."
One thing we do know at this stage is that you'll be able to set up ambushes and order air stnkes, and it will be interesting to see how this is implemented into the gameplay. Overall, the emphasis is being placed on strategic thinking as well as full-blown action, which should at least ensure this is no brainless shooter. Vietcong is already at an advanced stage and will probably see the light of day some time before Christmas.
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.