It looks like the Vietnam War is quickly becoming the new World War II. ShellShock: Nam '67 is the second Vietnam War-themed shooter to be released in as many weeks, and another three will arrive in stores over the next month. ShellShock attempts to differentiate itself from the pack by threatening to provide a disturbing level of realism, or, as the official Web site puts it, "the shocking realities and tragedies of what actually happened out in the jungle." Unfortunately, what this means in practical terms is that ShellShock is a run-of-the-mill shooter with periodic interruptions for bad language and really violent cutscenes.
The box lists "character growth" as one of the game's key features. "Develop from a fresh rookie to a hard-edged Special Forces operative," it reads, the implication being that there's some sort of skill- or character-advancement system present in the game. This is a classic example of disingenuous marketing-speak. The only character growth occurs during a short cutscene in which your character, as promised, is promoted from a fresh rookie to a Special Forces operative. Which has exactly zero effect on gameplay.
ShellShock's promise of "brutal realism" also turns out to be somewhat hollow. Your character--controlled throughout the game from a third-person perspective--can carry only a few weapons at a time: one pistol, one large gun, and some grenades. And that's pretty much where the realism ends. In fact, ShellShock has one of the least realistic damage models of any recent military shooter. Your health bar regenerates over time, so healing is simply a matter of finding a safe place to stand around for 5 or 10 seconds.
For the majority of the game's missions, you're accompanied by a squad of indestructible computer-controlled grunts (though they'll sometimes die--usually horribly--as part of a cutscene). The presence of teammates makes many of the firefights feel like an actual battle between two groups of soldiers. But your squad also provides constant cover, making it easy to fall back and heal, which often robs the game of much challenge. Even with its checkpoint save system, most of the game's 13 missions won't take more than 30 minutes to complete. A few take as little as 15.
What the Viet Cong lack in smarts, they make up for in numbers. Most of the time, they're either standing in place or running straight for you, usually while screaming one of their three or four annoying catchphrases. They'll occasionally utilize cover or toss a grenade, and the sheer number of them sometimes makes for an enjoyably chaotic, if not overly difficult, battle. Most of the missions require nothing more than moving through the level and killing whatever gets in your way. A couple of mission briefings suggest that you employ stealth, but the game has no real stealth mechanic other than walking very slowly and hoping nobody sees you. And even that's completely unnecessary. You'll sometimes have to destroy some specific piece of equipment or hold an area through a few waves of Viet Cong, and there's one brief on-rails section during which you'll man a gun mounted on a chopper. For the most part, however, ShellShock is a meat-and-potatoes shooter.
Between virtually every level, you're taken back to base camp. Here, you can wander around, conduct short, meaningless conversations with fellow grunts, listen to some licensed period music, and engage in various other useless activities. Eventually, you can even trade items you've taken from dead enemies for "boom boom" with local prostitutes. There's no practical benefit to this, and the sex isn't actually shown--evidently some of the realities of Nam are too controversial even for the envelope-pushers who made ShellShock. The camp provides some nice atmosphere the first time through, but by the second time, not to mention the 11th, it's nothing more than an aggravating extra load screen. The game also features a series of six seminude photos of the camp's prostitutes to unlock, but no multiplayer modes. After you've finished the single-player missions, which requires roughly six hours of play, there's virtually no reason to replay the game.
All three versions look pretty much the same. The outdoor environments are nicely detailed and have a soft-focus haziness that complements the jungle setting. The interiors, however, generally feature simple textures and geometry. The character animation is lackluster as well, and the death animations are especially stiff and unbelievable. Heads pop with a festive burst of what honestly seems to be confetti, and, in what may have been an effort to depict the true horror of Nam, gunfire will occasionally remove an extremity. But this animation is so bad and so frequently employed that the effect ends up being more laughable than horrifying--arms abruptly drop off less like they've been severed by the incredible force of an explosion and more like they've simply given in after a protracted bout with leprosy.
At one point, a member of your squad ties a prostitute to an upright mattress, beats her mercilessly with his fists, and then takes a giant Rambo knife to her breasts before finally slitting her throat. This is the one way that ShellShock lives up to its hype--it certainly raises the bar on vile, pointless cutscenes. However, anyone interested in more than stubbornly average gameplay should look elsewhere.