R.I.P., Edwin Starr.
I've always believed that bad things ultimately happen for good reasons...well, usually. I don't know many who believe the Vietnam War was a good thing. Yet if First Sergeant Alton Sanders had not served his 3-year tour of duty in the jungles of 'Nam, dodging bullets, losing men and feasting on the occasional Vietnamese tiger out of desperation and depleted rations, then I wouldn't be here today to review war games.
Yep - my Pa fought hard in Vietnam. Had it not been for that hellish fracas, Pa would not have met Ma upon on his discharge. Subsequently, I may never have been born. Mmmmmm...gives me a warm feeling inside.
Anyway, back to the jungles. Illusion Softworks' new FPS Vietcong is a fairly typical shooter rich with jungle warfare and frantic, white-knuckling firefights, which we all love. Unfortunately, some hardcore technical issues and a dated graphics engine makes me sadder than a green soldier cowering in a ditch wetting his pants while the platoon does the dirty work. This jungle romp is fun, but could have been a heck of a lot better.
The game begins quickly as you, Sergeant First Class Steve Hawkins, are reassigned to Nui Pek, a Special Forces camp where you're to replace an officer who was killed in action. After some brief target practice, you're off on your first mission, which is to go see a farmer about some much-needed rice. Almost as soon as you step foot off the jeep, a VC sniper has downed one of the farm hands and left you and your small squad ducking for cover. Look for those muzzle flares and flank the trigger-happy bastard...which is a bit easier said than done.
Past that, there isn't much of a story. You take on mission after mission (20 in all) and each is pretty standard FPS-fare. Nearly all look roughly the same as well, save for the few underground tunnel missions, which aren't very fun. You search for "Charlie," shoot and run like hell, and then repeat when the smoke has cleared. You can pick up dropped weapons and receive a little TLC from the Platoon Medic, providing he's still alive and in close proximity.
The jungle theme is done well and really helps immerse you in the game world as well as add a good bit of anxiety and tension. For the most part you will find yourself slowly and cautiously treading through the jungle in an attempt to spot that bit of foliage that just doesn't look quite right, and then shoot the hell out of it. You never know where the enemy may be lurking. It feels just like all those Vietnam movies I'm sure you've seen, which in turn feel like so many of Pa's war stories from his stint in 'Nam. It's obvious the dev team did their homework; the setting and great use of greenery is really where the game excels.
They also put some time and sweat into hammering out a good A.I. system for both friendly and hostile CPU controlled characters. It's not perfect, but enemies generally stay tucked away and fire while under cover, unless you whittle away at their numbers, making them pull back to another point of cover. Your men will flank and defend themselves appropriately, which I love. This makes the experience feel more functional and alive.
But despite the decent A.I., Vietcong suffers from a lack of creativity. It's basically a fragfest through and through, with little in the way of good scripting or truly open-ended gameplay.
While they were off trying to toe the line between realism and cinematic excitement, someone forgot to pull their head up for air and notice that the game engine is painfully outdated. Flat textures lead the charge, but that's not the worst of it. Overly blocky models akin to an earlier Delta Force game stands in brutal contrast to the smooth character animations.
And it's not just aesthetics. The framerate is far from smooth, chugging along almost regardless of the rig. I hate to think that a game that looks this dated would have a less than silky run a 1.2 Ghz Thunderbird with 768 MB of RAM and a GeForce 3 920 Gladiac. It's so consitently jerky that just running and moving the cursor could make the unseasoned FPS-head a tad dizzy.
To the game's credit, the 20 different gun models are surprisingly detailed and realistically textured. But that doesn't make up for the other technical shortcomings.
Jumping online adds a bit of replayability. Here they offer a number of game modes including Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Assault (team game where you must complete certain objectives like "Protect the Pilot"), Last Man Standing, Real War (capture all flags on the map) and Co-op. This last is the best, in which you and some friends can face off against A.I opponents while trying to complete a set of objectives.
Once the dust settles and the white flags are waved, Vietcong comes off as a very average FPS. While the framerate and graphics engine are a big letdown (these are the same folks responsible for the stellar gangster hit Mafia), there is surely enough going for it to turn the heads of jungle warfare aficionados and gamers who just crave anything FPS. The more discerning shooter fan may want to check out Raven Shield and/or wait for Condition Zero.