Whaddya know? After the US lost the Vietnam War to the North Vietnamese, after the favorable public opinion was lost back home, and then developers lost it a bunch more times to whatever mysterious force stood between them and making a decent game, somebody has finally licked the Vietnam curse. Men of Valor is a first-person shooter set in the Vietnam War. And it's good! Those of you keeping score at home through the recent, seemingly unending torrent of disappointing Vietnam War games, can dust off the unused "win" column, take the pencil out from behind your ear, and write "1, USA!"
Now the inevitable bad news: Men of Valor is solidly good without quite crossing over into great. It's an odd combination of high polish and rough edges. Take, for instance, the visuals. The environments look great: from jungles to beaches to both intact and destroyed urban areas, the levels are packed with detailed textures, ambient life, and believably dense, cluttered landscapes. There's also some really nice effects work, such as explosions accompanied by a disorienting motion blur and a cool shimmering corona effect that surrounds open flames. But then there are the character animations, which look like somebody forgot to completely finish them. Characters have a tendency to pop from one pose to another without any kind of intermediate transition. They also often appear to glide across the ground without moving their legs, and some of the animations are just bizarre. A few of your squad members appear to be experiencing seizures when they're just supposed to be breathing hard.
Men of Valor was developed by 2015, the team responsible for Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. That game helped pioneer the heavily scripted, shooting gallery-style of gameplay that has become a staple of the shooter genre, and Men of Valor doesn't stray too far from the formula. Along with the "advance from point A to point B" levels, there are some defensive missions and some on-rails events in both boats and choppers. Typical of the genre, the game is half-shooter, half-acting exercise, in which you have to hit a series of marks as you advance through impressive but highly choreographed mayhem. Unfortunately, the scripting that drives everything forward is sometimes screwy and brittle. For instance, one particular level takes place in a maze of VC tunnels and ends with a cutscene. If you're not standing in the right place when the scene starts, you'll be immediately killed by an explosion that occurs as the scene ends. What's worse, is that until you finally, accidentally stand in the right place, it's not entirely clear what's killing you, which means you may have to replay the level from scratch a few times.
That stinks, but for the most part Men of Valor does a good job of subtly nudging you through the chaos. Between the punchy sound effects, your screaming comrades, and the mixture of friendly and enemy troops both near to you and engaged in half-glimpsed activities on the periphery of your vision, the game really nails the living battlefield atmosphere it strives to create. When it's firing on all cylinders, which is--unscientifically--more than half the time, it's as good as the genre gets. The enemy artificial intelligence may not be spectacular, but the density, confusion, and frantic pace of many of the firefights guarantees that you'll be worried less about why that VC didn't utilize proper cover and more concerned about keeping your head behind that rock so that it doesn't get blown off.
Men of Valor is a challenging game, and it's made tougher by an occasionally aggravating save system. The game saves your progress permanently between levels, and some levels include one or two "soft" restart spots that only last until you quit the game. Generally speaking, these save spots are well placed, and the lack of a save-anywhere system adds some noticeable tension to the proceedings. In more than a few cases, however, the length between checkpoints can be infuriating. Late in the game, there's a tough battle that's preceded by a couple of minutes of pointless walking and two uninterruptible cutscenes. You may find yourself navigating this uneventful preliminary section over and over again only to die within 20 seconds of the battle starting.
The single-player campaign lasts a good 15 hours (or more depending on how many times you need to restart various levels). On the Xbox (but not the PC version), two people can play the entire campaign cooperatively. This only works split-screen, but there's a complete suite of 2- to 12-player multiplayer modes available over system link and Xbox Live as well. These include standard deathmatch, team deathmatch, and two capture-the-flag variants. There's also a "mission" mode that generally requires one team to defend some object while the other team attempts to destroy it. The multiplayer game isn't groundbreaking, but it's solid enough to be compelling for a while. Though the Xbox offers only seven of the 13 maps available on the PC version (and one less game mode), the maps are big enough and complex enough to stay interesting for a while. The map size, combined with the effectiveness of environmental cover, helps keep battles from degenerating into sniper wars. Better yet, everything appears to run smoothly even with 12 people online. Unfortunately, a few issues plague the multiplayer as well. Load times between maps are painful, and both teams talk on the same channel, which pretty much rules out real-time tactical discussions.
Unlike most recent Vietnam-themed games--and unlike most Vietnam-themed anything for that matter--Men of Valor sort of recasts the war as a misunderstood WWII-style conflict without much moral ambiguity. The developers haven't completely abandoned their civic duty, though, since the main character is an African-American grunt, which leads to some earnest lessons about racism in between the shooting. The unexpected lesson, however, is that it is in fact possible to make a very good console game about the Vietnam War.