Old Bullets In New Cartridges
I’ve said it before: There is something disconnectedly weird about the very idea of a Vietnam war game on the innocent screens of the Nintendo DS. In a way that I can’t and won’t explain, it’s like being enthusiastically handed a condom with Hello Kitty printed on it. Your first thought is: Do I REALLY want to do this? (Ugh... lame... ~Ed)
If you can get past that, however, Operation: Vietnam is an old-school budget game—enjoyable even in spite of its odd mechanical handicaps. Players take command of a squad of U.S. soldiers, whose chopper is shot out of the sky as the game begins. After the crash landing, you initially control a single squad member who staggers away from the wreckage and goes in search of his brothers-in-arms. Soon you’ll have four under your command - a sniper, a medic, a heavy-weapons specialist and a well-balanced sergeant - one of which is always ‘actively’ controlled while the others obey his orders. You’ll use their different weapons and skills to make your way through a series of top-down missions.
When I say ‘old-school’, we’re talking antediluvian. This is pure top-down, run-and-gun action, with the kinds of visuals once seen in arcade games at 7-Eleven -but even so, the graphics are pleasantly cartoonish and easy on the eyes. On the upper DS screen where the action takes place, character sprites are on the verge of the super-deformed. You can feel the artists wanting to give them Big Heads, but they didn’t quite get the green light. In all other respects, the Vietnamese enviroments -rivers, jungles, villages, temples and the like -are presented cleanly, with nice ambient details such as flowing water and skittering fauna.
For a humble action game, the members of your squad throw surprisingly entertaining bits of dialogue back and forth, with some clear verbal winks to Apocalypse Now. There is even a mention of the ‘Nung River’, the main vein of Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic take on Joseph Conrad’s classic “Heart of Darkness”. That might sound like heavy material for a DS arcade game, but thankfully, ‘counters’ like the cartoon-evil, V.C.-level boss show up in a twin-turreted tank and gloats, “GI Boys, all your base are belong to us!” Also throughout the game, enemy soldiers and beleaguered non-player civilians will occasionally pipe sound-bytes of broken English or pseudo-Vietnamese. For script writing, it gets a ten out of ten for style.
In terms of gameplay, it’s a mixed field-kit: Top-down, run-and-gun skirmishes with squirts of squad-based strategy, semi-destructible environments, and some very low-level puzzle-solving. For example, after clearing out a hornet’s nest of V.C. guerillas, you suddenly have to spread your squad members out on various pressure plates to open the gate to a boss. You’re like a sub-mental Link working on your own case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The puzzle-solving elements are negligible. The challenge almost always lies in using the right squad member and item for the job - heavy weapons to collapse VC bunkers (spawn points that can be a real choÌ caÌi in later levels), sniper rifles to kill enemies with a single shot before they get near you, grenades to demolish fortifications, med-packs to heal your team, and signal-markers to call in immensely satisfying, screen-scorching air strikes. You’ll be tempted to use the Sniper as much as possible, but there will be situations where your squad members are separated and have to go it alone. There will be times when you can only use a single squad member against a boss, which kind of dampens the notion of a squad-based action game. Oh well.
Furthermore, there are two mechanical flaws that work against the game. The targeting system takes a little getting used to. An ever present targeting reticule will auto-lock onto enemies you’re facing, once the character weapon in question is ready to fire. This means you always have to run in the direction of the enemies you’re targeting - not so great.
The greater sin in terms of control lies on the lower screen, which serves as a map, a weapon screen, and a squad-behavior menu: For some inexplicable reason, Operation: Vietnam requires players to use the stylus, as opposed to single-button commands, to designate behaviors such as “follow me”, “defend”, and so forth. This means that, while you’re mostly focused on the D-pad and buttons during heated combat, you need to keep that stylus kind of clamped between your DS and your palm, just in case you need to make some sudden, mid-combat duty switch-ups.
The enemy AI is actually pretty decent and aggressive, willing to hunt you down relentlessly for several screens. And of course, you’re going to want to take care not to blunder into minefields, setting off trip-wire traps, or even running into your own, pre-designated air-strike kill zones. This sounds like total R-Tard Territory, but you will inadvertently do at least one of these things once. Accept, deal and move on.
The lack of multiplayer is a shame - but whaddaya want, it’s a budget title. The presentation shines, from the clean visuals to the seamless in-game hints and banter. Even the missions themselves are named after songs appropriate to the era, such as “Bad Moon Rising” and “Break on Through”. You don’t often see a budget DS action title that is “understated” or “cool” in any way, but I have to give it props on both counts. If Operation: Vietnam was the new (if not exactly muscular) kid on the block, he would kick the bigger bad kid’s ass and steal his girlfriend, too. Hard to beat for nineteen bucks.