Vietnam shooters apparently need more than just Charlie creeping through the jungle these days. ShellShock 2: Blood Trails takes a sharp left turn away from its gritty, realistic 2004 predecessor, ShellShock: Nam '67, and throws zombie hordes into the expected mix of AK-47s and rice paddies. Combining horror with stereotypical first-person shooter combat does little to make the game stand apart from the crowd, however. While there are a few thrills and chills here, this is too much of a shooter-by-numbers to be engaging to anyone but the least discriminating twitch gamer, and both the 360 and PS3 versions are hampered with horrible controls.
The plot introduces ravenous zombies into what is otherwise a standard Vietnam War movie storyline about a kid experiencing the horrors of war for the first time. If you tossed Platoon and 28 Days Later into a blender, this is pretty much what you would pour out. You play as Nate Walker, a raw recruit who touches down in country and is immediately shipped off to a border base under siege by the Vietcong (cue the usual angst about war being hell). But then the game shifts suddenly from one stereotype into another, with Walker being introduced to his zombie brother, Cal. As you might expect, this isn't much of a family reunion. Just as you're coming to terms with a brain-chomping bro who won't be interested in eating turkey on Thanksgiving anymore, the VC crash the party. Your brother escapes, and soon you're running through the jungle to battle the zombie plague and figure out what the mysterious Whiteknight is before the godless Commies do.
Sound like a decent basis for a shooter? It is, and the Source-engine-based visuals are reasonably good, though a long way from something modern like Crysis. The look of the game is pretty much identical on both the 360 and the PS3, although the latter seems to be a fair bit murkier in corners. While you can crank up the gamma to sort of address this issue, it never completely works on the Sony console and you wind up flailing about in the dark too often. The level design is attractive too, even if it seems like you're running from one Vietnam movie set to another. One moment you're racing through a misty jungle, then you're dealing with booby-trapped VC tunnels, and then you're in a run-down village. You get the picture.
At least much of the scenery is chilling. Bloody trails are everywhere, and it seems like you can't walk two feet without encountering a beheaded soldier mounted on a wall, a buddy with his legs blown off, or some poor guy impaled on a bunch of bamboo spikes. The audio doesn't have anywhere near the same impact, though. M-16 and AK-47 fire can barely be heard at times, and there isn't any thump to the rat-a-tat-tat or explosions. There might be some bugs in the sound, because some effects like the swing of a machete cannot be heard at all on either console. Most of the voice acting is well done, however, at least by B-movie standards. The actor playing Walker sounds a lot like a young James Woods, which adds a bit of Hollywood class to the proceedings.
But there isn't much game here. ShellShock 2: Blood Trails is very short. The solo campaign can be blasted through in four or five hours, and there are no multiplayer modes, so when you're done, you're done. Replay value is nonexistent due to the simplistic nature of the level design. Actually, "design" is probably too strong a word for how these levels have been slapped together. There isn't any artistry here. Every level is a straight run from point A to point B, with pauses along the way at choke points where you have to hunker down for a few minutes and gun down respawning enemies. Basically, you run along until you meet up with a bunch of fellow Yanks, then you stand still and help them shoot the horde of VC and/or zombie wannabes that start spawning from nearby rooftops, jungle pathways, and the like. Enemies never give any thought to what they're doing and typically just run out of their spawn locations like clowns out of a funny car.
Yet even these suicidal bad guys aren't enough to compensate for the awful gamepad aiming controls that afflict both the 360 and PS 3 versions of the game. Although there is an assist option to help when you aim with the right analog stick, it doesn't seem to kick in until you have your sights almost perfectly lined up already. It's so ineffectual that it can be hard to tell if you have the assist on or off. Either way, you generally wind up wildly flailing about trying to nail enemies with enough shots to put them down before they send you back home to Uncle Sam in a flag-covered box. Since those aforementioned choke points are typically loaded with a dozen or more baddies coming at you from all directions, expect the latter to happen a lot more than the former.
About the only intriguing aspect of combat is a minigame that pops up whenever you get into close combat or you trigger something like a VC booby trap. If you encounter one of these situations, the game surprises you with a quickie challenge where you need to react immediately to avoid certain death. This feature is best realized on the PC and 360, as on those platforms you use simple keyboard and gamepad button combos to stave off doom. On the PS 3, however, close-up reactions are initially handled by wiggling the Sixaxis controller to trigger the motion sensor. Interesting idea, although the Sixaxis doesn't seem up to the task. You have to shake the controller so hard to get a reaction that you have to be careful you don't accidentally let the thing go and boomerang it across the living room. Thankfully, you can turn off the motion-sensing option and go back to the simple button presses exactly the same as on the 360.
Chances are good that you won't hate ShellShock 2: Blood Trails. But odds are also high that you won't particularly enjoy it, either, due to the frustrating controls and the forgettable game design. Even if you're interested in the Vietnam War and have a zombie fetish, you can likely find a better use for your money.