Platoon: The 1st Airborne Cavalry Division in Vietnam Updated Preview

We take a second look at this Vietnam era real-time strategy game from Digital Reality.

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Since our last preview of Strategy First and Digital Reality's upcoming real-time strategy game, we've received another copy of Platoon, the game based on the 1986 movie of the same name. Platoon takes the gameplay popularized in Commandos--small-scale tactical battles--to a slightly higher level in terms of graphics, squad sizes, and military capabilities. Wargamers might liken Platoon to the underappreciated and very good tactical real-time strategy game Close Combat from Microsoft, although Platoon offers more simplified combat and attempts to fabricate a human story around a main character who grows from naïve soldier to anguished commander. Set in Vietnam between 1965 and 1968, during some of the most intense fighting, the game tries to re-create the gritty yet emotional feel of the movie.

You'll play as Seargeant Lionsdale, so protect him at all costs.
You'll play as Seargeant Lionsdale, so protect him at all costs.

Unlike other tactical real-time strategy games, Platoon tries to win you over with a personable lead hero: Sergeant Martin Lionsdale. You'll control him as a unit on the battlefield and also receive all mission briefings through him in the form of his personal diary. Before each of the game's missions, you'll be able to read his handwritten notes on the upcoming mission, which also include personal thoughts about his new wife. Even as the fighting escalates in the later scenarios, he wonders about his wife and newborn son and agonizes over his wife's infrequent and late letters. The diary in the current version of the game reads poorly, and not because Digital Reality is deliberately inserting slang and poor grammar to pen a believable diary. Instead, the writing is highly formal in most places but is interspersed with rare moments of down-to-earth speech, as if the writers suddenly remembered that real people don't write literate essays in their diary. Hopefully, that'll change as the game nears completion.

At least the diaries give you a good idea of what to expect from the missions. There are simple search-and-destroy scenarios, rescue missions, ambushes, and a huge assault on a Vietcong base located in a religious temple. In almost all scenarios, if Lionsdale dies, you lose.

The game's interface seems simple, but it does offer a quick way to jump to your troops. In the upper right corner of the screen, you'll see icons for the various units under your command for the particular mission. Each icon represents an individual unit rather than all units of that type. So, for instance, if you have two infantry under your command, you'll have two infantry icons. Each one has a bright graphic indicating the type of troop--such as tank, troop transport, commando, rifleman, and so on--as well as its health and any advanced levels and rank. Clicking on the icons will quickly switch your control to the unit in question.

Your company will come across a number of destroyed Vietnamese villages.
Your company will come across a number of destroyed Vietnamese villages.

While in the first missions you control only a few men, later in the campaign you can control up to a maximum of 30 individual units. Since you are newly promoted and not yet fully tested, your first command involves a few infantry. But as you gain levels and progress through the missions, you'll get to command more-specialized units, such as snipers, grenadiers, machine gunners, and elite commandos. You'll also get to control vehicles, such as the M48 tank and the M113 armored transport. Although they don't count as actual units you can carry over from mission to mission, you'll also find interactive stationary objects on the map, like mortars, that your men can find and use.

Your main character, Sergeant Lionsdale, won't be the only unit that can level up. While he grows in rank, so will your followers. As you rack up kills and complete missions, you'll be able to promote units, and they'll gain abilities, provided you don't lose them permanently to death. Most ground units share simple commands, like firing, walking, and crawling. The latter command will be used frequently to crawl through thick underbrush to avoid detection. Other units have more-specialized commands available, like the commando, which can set up land mines and lob grenades, and the armored transport, which can load up infantry. Still other units can lob mortar shells or set up explosive charges to level buildings. Lionsdale, though, reserves the most spectacular abilities for himself: Once he achieves a higher level, he gains the ability to call in air strikes that can level everything onscreen.

Graphics and Environments

The game's graphics can be scaled from 640x480 up to 1240x768 resolutions, and at the highest settings, the game looks good. Tanks leave tread marks in the dirt, men and vehicles cast real-time shadows, helicopters blow out rings of dirt and dust as they hover in place, explosions erupt with bright fire and billowing smoke, and weather effects such as monsoons, heavy wind, and fog appear with all the characteristic fury of real-life elements. Digital Reality is trying to make the environments in the game as close to the real Vietnam as possible and is packing lots of visual elements into each level.

Some maps will represent a 500-meter by 500-meter area.
Some maps will represent a 500-meter by 500-meter area.

In addition to the visual effects and weather, you'll see terrain features modeled after the Vietnamese countryside. There are villages in the jungle complete with huts and houses, ruined buildings in the wilderness, bridges across rivers, rice paddies to wade through, dense jungles, marshes, tall grass, and other objects and buildings such as haystacks, boulders, and bunkers. The designers are trying to cram as much visual detail as possible into each level, given that any map can represent up to a 500-by-500-meter area. When viewing the game, you can zoom out far enough to see the row of houses and markets on a village street, bring the camera down under the treetops to get close-up views of your troops walking through waist-high grass, or even zoom in to see the faces of your riflemen as they stand idle waiting for orders.

All the environmental detail, though, isn't just for show. Because in real life the terrain had such a huge impact on the fighting in Vietnam, the game ultimately also tries its best to emulate the real-world effects of the environment on battles. Thus, high ground offers a bonus to range and damage, while the thick jungle offers a defensive bonus and limits visibility. In the jungle, for example, your troops get a +50 percent bonus to defense, and visibility is limited to 18 meters. Being on a road actually lowers your defense by 25 percent but improves visibility to 35 meters. Meanwhile, rough terrain adds 20 percent to your defense and offers 32-meter visibility. You will also have to use the terrain in more obvious ways, such as by crawling up to a ridge to get into position around a town without being seen.

The Vietnamese jungle is thick and crawling with hidden dangers.
The Vietnamese jungle is thick and crawling with hidden dangers.

When the game arrives in the near future, it will also offer multiplayer support and a map editor, in addition to the single-player campaign.

While the subject matter might still be a bit too painful to revisit for some gamers, the chance to relive one of the most controversial wars in American history should be an intriguing and inviting lure for strategy gamers, if for no other reason than to win a small victory in America's lost war. Platoon packs a lot of appealing visual and visceral effects, but it still remains to be seen whether gamers will go for a Vietnam-era game that straddles the line between the squad-based gameplay of Commandos and the large-scale real-time strategy gameplay of games like Command & Conquer. You'll be able to see for yourself whether Digital Reality and Strategy First can pull it off when the game ships in a few months.

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