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Vietcong Review

publisher: Gathering
developer: Pterodon
genre: Shooters

PII 450, 128MB RAM, 16MB Video Card, 500MB HD
ESRB rating: T

release date: Mar 26, 03
» All About Vietcong on ActionTrip

War is a grueling affair. We all know that. And some know it better than others. Those who don't know what war is like should never find out. But wars in video games are a different kind of experience altogether. War games are essentially the real thing - without the inconvenience of getting a chronic case of arthritis from crouching in the mud for three months in the pouring rain. When a development team goes about making any game, they realize that the game is supposed to be fun, and in order to make a fun war-simulation game, it must capture a sense of realism, but without all the nagging frustrations of real life operations. For instance, it's quite common in war to wait a lot. Instead of that enemy patrol appearing right on schedule (as it would in a video game) you would often have to wait for 2-3 hours, crouching in the mud ... in the pouring rain.

Most developers know that if you were playing a game that required you to wait around that long, you'd eventually say "ah, the hell with it" after about 30 minutes of sitting on your ass and doing nothing, so why is it that the Czech team of developers at Pterodon decided to experiment with this widely accepted premise?

Hailed as the most realistic military sim to date, Vietcong was supposed to "conquer your fears in the realistic environments of a lethal and vengeful war zone," and make you "stay alert or your next step could trigger one of over a dozen terrifying traps!" I realize that Vietnam was no picnic for the US troops. I realize also that the damned tunnel networks built by the Vietcong were about the nastiest places for a firefight in the world, but there's no point in making certain aspects of gameplay overly realistic, while some others are hampered by the inadequacies of a clunky 3D engine and the AI code. But we'll get to that later...

Vietcong is mission-based, and essentially, it is build around a very consistent game world that immerses the player in the sultry Vietnam jungles. You're not thrown headlong into the action the instant your chopper touches down. You'll get to know your base first and your comrades as well. The overall design of the game carries a very strong sentiment of American 'Nam movies and the developers have done an excellent job of easing the players into the game - making them feel like they're a part of the game world. Each of your squad members is an individual and not just another faceless trooper in a sense that you will relate to them in the later stages of the game, and feel as if you're truly a part of a team. Vietcong is a gritty and straightforward war game, and it isn't nearly as disjointed as the single-player campaigns in Delta Force: BHD or RS3: Raven Shield. The story is there, the characters are real, and the environments are lush and realistic. The maps are huge and feel very unrestricted, which adds a lot to the sense of player's in-game freedom. There are no GPS navigational systems or anything like that; you have your old-fashioned greasy map and compass to show you the way. In one of the first missions, I remember taking the wrong way and ending up in a village two miles away from the action. The beauty of it all was that there was actually a village there, and there was no invisible wall to stop me.

Besides doing an excellent job on making you feel a part of the game world, the team at Pterodon has managed to design some rather exciting missions as well. Well, some of them are anyway. The gameplay places heavy emphasis on team combat, as each of your team members belongs to a certain class (think Team Fortress, BF1942). You have the medic, engineer, radio man, point man, etc. Each of your team members is a specialist in their respective fields; they'll use common military tactics, and will be essential to clearing out certain areas in the game. The gameplay is at times very intense and dramatic - highly reminiscent of jungle warfare.

Adding even more realism and flare to the combat are the excellently balanced weapons. The unique properties of the rifles (M1 Garand and Carabine, Winchester 70, etc.) and the assault rifles (M-16 and Thomson M1), as well as their varying accuracy and recoil intensity will heavily influence the tactics you choose to employ during heavy fire fights. In designing the in-game arsenal the Czech team showed an amazing effort to piece together all the important information for both the US, and Russian guns used by the VC. The heavy machinegun, the Browning Caliber .50 for instance, they found in the British Royal Museum archives. Also, while they were on location in Vietnam, they had the opportunity to visit numerous army museums to further their research. The end result is one of the most balanced and most realistic arsenals I've ever tried in a video game.

Up to a point, the execution of Pterodon's design plan worked just fine. The player models are made to move realistically; they can crouch, go prone, and instead of simply vertically jumping over logs; like most computer models do; they will use their hands to swing their bodies over logs, like most people would do in real life (you achieve this by moving forward and holding down the 'jump' button a wee bit longer). Who knows, this could've been the best military shooter ever if the designers didn't eventually make some crucial mistakes, which damn-nearly ruined the whole experience for me.

For one, the team AI doesn't always work the way it's supposed to, and although the enemies are rather smart over distances, they are dumber than dirt when you rush them and get up close and personal. The team AI essentially works fine, but it also operates on some rather simple and fragile routines. For instance, your point man, Nhut, will always stop when it has a VC soldier in his sight; even though the soldier is very far away and is completely unaware of your presence. What this means is that your offensive, and consequently, chances of an ambush will be completely thwarted by your teammates who will just crouch there and be very alert of the enemy soldier - who is far away, and doesn't care about them. Now, this wouldn't be all bad, if the 'follow me' command; which is incorporated in the game; would work properly, but it doesn't. For some reason my teammates often didn't want to follow me even though there was clearly a need for us to move. All this is making the gameplay look scripted and it's in sharp contrast with the unrestricted feel of the maps, and the immersive nature of the game world. Not to mention that my poor comrades would often get stuck in enemy ditches and wouldn't know how to get out. They would simply hop in there like bunny rabbits until one of them hopped on the other one's head, consequently getting out, only to follow some imaginary route and end up in the very same ditch from which he finally hopped out.

In addition, the VC will flank, duck and look for cover, but they'll often let you come VERY close to them without ever noticing you, even when you rush them head on in broad daylight. On a few occasions, an enemy soldier was so busy firing at my teammates (who were far away), that he didn't pay any attention to the fact that I was in his field of view, running and pointing a really big gun at him. Now this is hardly what I'd call realistic combat.

On the other hand, while exhibiting all these AI flaws, Vietcong tries its best to bring to life some of the more frustrating experiences of the Vietnam conflict. For example, in one of the levels the player is left all alone to wander through VC tunnels, while there are booby traps and VC soldiers all over the place. If you're a claustrophobic person by any chance, I strongly recommend skipping this mission and letting someone else finish it for you. Yes, it was hell for the soldiers that were there, and I'm sure Pterodon designed this level with the best of intensions, but there is a fine line between enjoying the immersive and realistic atmosphere of a video game, and getting frustrated by some of the aspects of the Vietnam war that have no place in a video game.

The 3D engine is far from perfect. It offers very choppy frame rates (even on high-end machines) at the expense of some dated visuals. The models and textures look unappealing. The general art design is not that bad, it's just that the 3D code itself is highly unoptimized and dated. The game supposedly supports hardware TnL, but I didn't see any differences when it was turned on, nor is the game much different when you turn on the 32-bit textures (except for the fact that the average frame rate goes down considerably). Pterodon could've simply licensed the Quake 3 code and saved themselves some trouble, not to mention that the next-gen Unreal code would've been perfect for this game. The lush vegetation in the game looks spritey and plain, and to top it all off, you can't move through even the smallest of bushes. It's as if you ran into a concrete wall, and it seems you cannot kill enemy soldiers through them either. Besides just looking old, the game would unfortunately often crash to the desktop and even reset my PC, which hardly helps to enhance the gameplay experience.

The sounds and music, on the other hand, are very well done. The voice acting is not the most expressive I've ever heard, but it's passable. The musical soundtrack is superlative, as the game carries the tunes of one Jimi Hendrix.

To get back to what I was saying in the introduction. Pterodon certainly tried their best to make the most realistic military sim yet, and to a degree, they've succeeded in this. They've managed to make a consistent game world and suck the player into it. The fact remains, however, that including more mundane and frustrating elements of real world warfare is a double-edged blade, especially when some of the other technical elements of your game are not up to snuff - like the AI, or clunky engine. What is at times a fun and intense gameplay experience can easily turn into a rather frustrating, unfair and flawed one, and that is what often happens in Vietcong.


7.2   Good

Interesting concepts in realism, consistent game world, impressive realistic arsenal, most true-to-life war sim in quite some time, can't go wrong with Jimi;

Dated-looking and unoptimized 3D engine; inadequate AI, buggy software all around. Some weird design decisions.



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