Vietcong got a bum rap when it was released a little less than a year ago, even though, for the most part, it was an excellent first-person shooter. Unfortunately, certain bugs and other issues in the shipping version caused the game to perform poorly on some systems, and as a result, some of those who tried it came away disappointed and were understandably dismissive of the game's many fine traits. Well, the game's since been patched into the state in which it should have shipped to begin with, and now, Vietcong also has its very own expansion pack--for good measure. This add-on, Fist Alpha, is available either as a budget-priced supplement for those who already own Vietcong or as part of Vietcong: Purple Haze, which is a bundle that includes the original game and its expansion and also sells for cheap. Either option is a good deal. Though Vietcong has noticeably aged in the past year, it does still hold up to current standards. Furthermore, Fist Alpha offers more of the intense and suspenseful single-player and multiplayer action that made Vietcong the respectable game that it is.
Fist Alpha is a pretty straightforward expansion that offers up a fairly brief, new single-player campaign set during 1967. Included are eight new multiplayer maps, a new multiplayer game type, and some new weapons. The most surprising thing about the new campaign is how much swearing it gets away with, despite its teen rating. The new main character, Sgt. 1st Class Warren Douglas, is a good ol' Southern boy...with a noticeable propensity for cussing when things turn sour. As well, some of his colleagues--whom Vietcong players will recognize from the first game--are just as quick to start flinging the four-letter words around. Anyway, though Fist Alpha's new campaign is relatively short and only about a day's work, it still capitalizes on Vietcong's rather unique mission design and pacing. This means that you'll often find yourself skulking through the overgrowth--usually following your point man's lead--while on the lookout for hidden assailants. Though there's understandably not a ton of variety to the environments, the missions themselves are actually quite varied and generally intersperse suspenseful sneaking with brutally fast kill-or-be-killed shoot-outs. The missions are linear, and your progress is automatically saved at key points, which undermines some of the suspense since you'll have a pretty good idea of when you're safe and when you're not.
Nevertheless, the campaign can be pretty difficult. The Vietcong, as well as the North Vietnamese Army troops whom you'll clash against, tend to be numerous, camouflaged, and careful about attacking from behind cover and in groups. You often won't see them until the flashes from their muzzles betray them. Even once you do see them, it's no easy task to take out a partially obscured target that's firing on you from 50 meters away when you're using a relatively inaccurate rifle that kicks wildly in your hands. Fortunately, your squad will help you fight, and your fellow troops are a significant aid in battle. In fact, you'll notice that they almost can't be killed, though you aren't blessed with this same quality. All this adds up to a healthy challenge, for the most part, though the campaign includes a frustrating stealth sequence near the end in which you automatically fail if the enemy notices you before you silently take him out. (Didn't these instant-fail stealth sequences go out of style more than a year ago?) In addition to the new campaign, Fist Alpha--like Vietcong before it--lets you play a randomly generated quick mission in which you'll face assorted enemies with or without a squad at your side. Since the enemy AI is very tough and the core gameplay is good, these quick missions can extend the life of the single-player game substantially.
Fist Alpha features a few new weapons that weren't in Vietcong, such as the M14 (with and without optics), the Sten submachine gun (which features suppressed fire and therefore is perfect for the aforementioned stealth mission), and the Scorpion machine pistol. Also, bayonets are available for certain weapons and can lead to satisfying (or humiliating, depending on your perspective) multiplayer kills. All in all, these make for good additions to the game's already substantial arsenal of pistols, grenades, submachine guns, rifles, and other weapons. You'll also see a few new vehicles during the campaign, though vehicles don't figure prominently in the gameplay itself, because this isn't Battlefield 1942.
Despite the new weapons, the core gameplay hasn't changed in Fist Alpha. You can still move from standing, crouching, or prone postures, and the right mouse button (by default) conveniently lets you switch between shooting from the hip and aiming down the sights. When you're behind cover, the aim button offers the added benefit of automatically making you emerge from cover only as much as necessary, thus allowing you to take potshots while keeping your head down and also preventing you from having to wrestle with the game's controls. This remains an excellent feature exclusive to Vietcong.
Though Vietcong uses a proprietary 3D engine developed by Illusion Softworks, it happens to provide a solid multiplayer experience, which Fist Alpha carries onward. A variety of multiplayer modes are available here, ranging from cooperative battles against computer-controlled VC squads, to pure deathmatch and team deathmatch, to capture-the-flag, to a mode called "turn table," in which sides take turns on offense and defense--with the offensive side trying to capture a number of flags while encroaching on the defensive side's territory. CTF, team deathmatch, and co-op still seem to be the most popular multiplayer modes, and plenty of servers can be found running them at all times via the game's built-in browser. The new maps in Fist Alpha are large and quite cool, such as one that takes place in and around an ancient temple, which conceals an underground tunnel network. Vietcong may not be as smooth in multiplayer as some other shooters out there, but it offers a unique enough feel and a good breadth of options (such as the ability to choose from different character classes, like soldier or sniper), thus making it a competitive and compelling choice amid a saturated market of war-themed shooters. The simple fact that many people still play Vietcong online, almost a year after its release, speaks volumes.
The game's graphics have held up fairly well during the past year, though they've noticeably aged. If you don't get too close to any of the characters or scenery, it all looks quite authentic. Foliage moves gently in the breeze and is thick all around, creating a convincing sense that you are, in fact, in a lush jungle. Character models move their mouths when they speak, and their eyes flit about in search of danger, though the characters look a little blocky overall. Many of the game's animations are great, like when characters vault over fallen trees or search dead bodies and so on. But at times, at least in the single-player, the character pathfinding can be pretty spotty, so you'll see your squadmates getting "bunched up" on one another every now and then, which ruins some of the illusion. At any rate, Fist Alpha doesn't look any better than Vietcong before it, but it does feature the same serviceably good graphics. The audio is still quite impressive overall, and it adds a lot to the game's atmosphere, especially as evidenced by the selection of '60s rock that punctuates the game's menu screen and campaign cutscenes. Other than this, weapon effects and ambient noises seem appropriately loud and realistic.
Fortunately, Fist Alpha is compatible with Vietcong game servers, so those who upgrade to the expansion won't be limited to playing online only with those who did the same. That's smart of the designers, who've succeeded in building a sizeable following of dedicated players for their game, not only due to their insistence on ironing out the game's most significant issues but also because Vietcong and the new Fist Alpha expansion offer a decidedly different first-person shooter experience, which is one that presents plenty of action and variety in both single-player and multiplayer modes. So if you're a fan of Vietcong, for 20 bucks this add-on is worth your while. And if you passed on Vietcong the first time around, now's a fine time to give it a second look.