A huge number of World War II games have been released over the last few years, but just when it was starting to feel like overkill, game developers began shifting more toward the Vietnam War for inspiration. We've enjoyed high-profile games like Vietcong and Battlefield Vietnam, and there are a host of other 'Nam games already in the works. This new trend surely means we'll see some real stinkers along with the thrillers, and Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh Trail looks like it should be one of the stinkers. It doesn't exactly bode well that it's a homely looking budget game (only $9.99 from the publisher's Web site) from an obscure Chinese developer. Taken for what it is, though, Ho Chi Minh Trail is actually a pretty fun, if overly tough, action game.
At first glance, Ho Chi Minh Trail looks like a first-person shooter, but you quickly discover that you can't actually move about. The game simply plops you down in the middle of the countryside and freezes you in place, only letting you move your crosshairs with the mouse. This makes no sense, but in fairness, neither do many old-school arcade games, which is what Ho Chi Minh Trail is at heart. With slight variations, everything boils down to repetitive, mindless shooting where your only goal is to blast everything in sight during the course of 60 levels. A handful of bland landscapes are reused across multiple levels, with only the time of day or weather varying. The enemies are mostly as dumb as stones as they advance right into your fire.
Fortunately, Ho Chi Minh Trail makes up for its total lack of depth with the visceral thrill of raw, senseless destruction. As hundreds of troops (and later, vehicles) descend on you from all around, you'll blast them with a host of weapons. You're armed with an M16 that you can zoom in and snipe with, a minigun, a mortar, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and a pistol that's laughably superfluous in light of all the other weapons.
As if that arsenal weren't enough, you can also request napalm air strikes and artillery barrages that you aim with a glowing crosshair. You'll want to use these strikes only on choice targets--you can call in unlimited attacks, but there's a significant delay between each one, so timing is important. If you start running low on ammo for your personal weapons, you can call in a Huey for resupply. (Why you don't just hop on board the Huey and fly out of there boggles the mind.) Oftentimes, the chopper will get blasted to scrap before it can resupply you, which is frustrating, to say the least. The game tells you that you're supposed to defend the helicopter, but that's easier said than done when hundreds of enemy troops dot the surrounding fields and rice paddies.
Unfortunately, there are no difficulty options in this game. While the difficulty level ramps up reasonably over the initial handful of levels, the game can become ridiculously hard before even the 10th level. At least the weapons are better balanced than the game as a whole--the more damage one of them does, the longer it takes to spin up or reload--and just as importantly, the weapons are fun to use. It's a kick to drop mortar rounds into a crowd of enemies while air and arty strikes are decimating their buddies on either side.
Solid sound effects add to the mayhem. Most weapons boast a satisfying aural punch, and the giant walls of fiery napalm make a great "swoosh" when they burst high into the sky. The voice-overs, mainly radio calls for support, are few and repetitive but acted well enough. The graphics, though, definitely fall into the "get-what-you-pay-for" category. The graphics barely get the job done and, not to put too fine a point on it, can be darn ugly. Drab lighting, lame weapon models, and generic, recycled terrain all give Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh Trail a woefully dated, cheap look. At least some of the death animations are colorful, with hats flying off VC soldiers and napalmed men running around on fire.
Either way, once the action really gets going, you won't have any time to dwell on the graphics--you'll be too busy swinging your crosshairs around to blast the next batch of soldiers. That frenetic pace, coupled with copious quantities of carnage, make Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh Trail a simple but exciting game, at least until the sometimes-extreme difficulty wears you down.