Up until a couple of years ago, the humid jungles of Vietnam were all but uncharted territory for gaming. But all of a sudden Vietnam games are all the rage. Developed by Czech Republic-based Pterodon Team, Vietcong is neither the first such game to be released, nor will it be the last, considering that at least one other Vietnam shooter is currently in development. It's an odd trend on the one hand, but on the other, the appeal of this subject matter makes a lot of sense. The small-arms guerilla warfare that characterized the conflict, which began in earnest in 1965 and ended in 1973, can make for just the sort of tension-filled, tactical, relatively close-range combat that fans of first-person shooters love. And Vietcong, at its best, does deliver this. It also often does an excellent job of establishing its setting, helping make the experience more dramatic and more cinematic. Vietcong has a lot of great qualities both as a single-player game and as a multiplayer game, so it's unfortunate that some technical issues detract both from its performance and its presentation.
Vietcong features a complete single-player campaign, a single-player quick-mission mode that throws you into an enemy-infested area per your specification, and a fully featured multiplayer mode with a built-in server browser for finding open game sessions online. The quick-mission and multiplayer modes let you play as either the Americans or the Vietcong, but in the campaign, you'll assume the role of Sergeant First Class Steve Hawkins, who is transferred to a Special Forces unit based in Nui Pek Camp at the start of the game. Here Hawkins will meet his other squadmates, including Vietnamese point man Le Duy Nhut and loudmouthed machine gunner C.J. Hornster. Clearly, Vietnam War movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket informed and inspired Vietcong as much as any history books did, but in any case, the character-driven plot works well to make the campaign more engaging. The events of the campaign are predictable enough in and of themselves, but they may take you by surprise as they come up, and they're the sorts of experiences you'd probably hope to get out of a first-person shooter set during the Vietnam War. Between creeping through the foliage with your squad, hoping to spot any camouflaged VC before they spot you, and lurking all alone through the VC's elaborate tunnel networks, wondering if you'll ever see the light of day again, Vietcong's campaign by and large hits the right notes.
This is due in no small part to the game's artificial intelligence for both friendly and enemy forces. The AI isn't perfect, and it does occasionally exhibit strange behavior, but when combined with Vietcong's realistic motion-captured animation, the AI makes for some pretty convincing action more often than not. You'll see your squadmates gesturing to each other when the coast is clear, vaulting over or crouching under felled trees that are in their way, bolting for cover when under fire, and more. As squad leader, you're free to lead the charge, and your teammates will follow suit. Alternately, you can ask your point man to lead the way.
Enemy forces, meanwhile, will always fight from behind cover, and they do a fine job of making themselves difficult to spot. They are tenacious and tend to have superior numbers, and they seem more brave than foolhardy. They'll retreat if injured and will keep their heads down when under fire. Realistic tactics work against them. When the rest of your squad is pinned down by embedded VC forces, often you can take the initiative and flank the enemy, catching them completely off guard for a satisfying victory. At other times, you'll be caught off guard yourself, either by enemy fire or by booby traps. Vietcong uses a combination of sporadic autosave checkpoints and a limited save system to strike a good balance between letting you save your progress as necessary but not allowing you to abuse a save-anywhere feature, which would make the shooting sequences trivial. In another testament to the game's AI, when you do end up replaying certain battles, you'll notice that they play out differently on successive attempts--the enemy behavior isn't just scripted.
A good variety of realistically modeled weapons are available in the game, including mainstays such as the M16 and AK-47, the classic M1 Garand, the M60 machine gun, and the Dragunov sniper rifle. Plenty of side arms, submachine guns, and explosives can also be picked up and used, though you're restricted to carrying only one weapon of each type at a time, so you'll need to choose wisely and often salvage weapons from fallen foes. Any weapon can be shot from the hip like in any other first-person shooter, or you can bring it up to eye level and steady your aim for more accurate firing. What's extremely helpful is that this aiming mode also automatically causes you to peek up from behind cover. You can move from a crouched or prone position, and keeping a low profile not only makes you a harder target, but it also improves your accuracy. You'll rarely fight from behind ideal cover, but you'll still quickly learn to always use your surroundings to your advantage, as that nearby tree or shrub can mean the difference between life and death if you manage to position it between you and the enemy's bullets. Taking a bullet doesn't necessarily mean instant death, but you can't survive more than a few direct hits. Again, the game makes a good compromise between enjoyable action and gritty realism: A medic or a health pack can be used to quickly heal your wounds, though you lose some of your maximum health for that mission each time you're injured. All in all, the game does a good job of making you tread carefully, and it's legitimately challenging much more often than frustrating.
As you play through the campaign, you'll unlock new weapons and scenarios for use in the quick-mission mode. You'll also be able to play through the campaign missions as stand-alone scenarios at varying difficulty settings, the hardest of which takes away all your graphical indicators, like your health and ammo displays. The single-player game has good replay value, but of course there's the online multiplayer mode, too. Seven different multiplayer variants are available, including the standard deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture the flag modes. The others are assault team, which is your basic Counter-Strike derivative with a character class system, pitting Americans against Vietcong in a number of specific scenarios that tend to boil down to both teams meeting at a choke point and killing each other; last man standing, which is a deathmatch where you can't respawn until the end of a round, and he who doesn't die wins; real war, which is a capture the flag variant with multiple flags; and cooperative, where players can team up against packs of AI-controlled enemies. Multiplayer runs smoothly over a broadband connection, and plenty of servers are already up and running, though online games are sometimes prone to crashes or disconnects.
Sadly, that isn't the only technical issue that mars Vietcong. The game attempts to auto-detect your graphics card settings when you begin play, but it does a pretty lousy job of it, defaulting to a low resolution even on systems that could easily do better. Or rather, should be able to easily do better. The biggest problem early adopters of Vietcong are experiencing is the game's proprietary 3D engine runs at a suboptimal and inordinately slow frame rate on relatively fast machines that should be getting much better performance. For many users, this problem is due to the fact that the CD-ROM is constantly being accessed during play, though there are some workarounds that fix this problem. At any rate, it's possible to get Vietcong running smoothly if it doesn't run smoothly on its own, though at this point it's not unreasonable to think that PC games shouldn't require this sort of fine-tuning. The game has a few graphical blemishes, to boot, most notably in the way characters will often clip right through their surroundings. This is especially noticeable during indoor firefights, where fallen enemies can regularly be seen jutting right through solid walls, each other, and more.
These problems with the visuals detract from an otherwise convincing graphical presentation. The game's character models can look odd from certain angles, but they're rendered with impressive detail, down to the whites of their eyes. Their camouflage looks just right and actually helps them blend in with their surroundings. The various weapon models look authentic, and the ability to raise all the guns to eye level helps make them seem more real. The game's environments look best from medium distance--up close, the vegetation gets blocky and ugly, while from far away, things can look a little sparse. From many other angles, though, the settings of Vietcong look just right, with thick greenery, all of it gently swaying in the wind, and plenty of bugs and other critters. Also, Vietcong somehow squeaked by with a T rating instead of an M, even though there's a noticeable spatter of blood when someone gets shot. The violence isn't graphic, though, which might disappoint those expecting the sort of harrowing depiction of warfare featured in the aforementioned films.
Vietcong's audio is well done, thanks largely to a fine selection of '60s and '70s rock that can be heard during certain moments in the game, such as when Steve is in his bunk between missions, listening to his radio and taking a breather. The voice acting in the game is ham-fisted--overenthusiastic Steve sounds like a superhero's sidekick rather than a hardened soldier--though the game deserves credit for having the Vietnamese characters speak either in their native language or in English with an authentic accent. Audio is also used to further create the impression that you're actually in a jungle, with realistic footstep sounds and ambient noise. And the report of each of the game's firearms is distinctly different. Bullets can be heard whizzing right past you or thudding hard into nearby objects, which adds a lot to the sense that you're in serious danger during a firefight. When you do get shot, you actually hear your heart begin to race for a while, which is a good idea in principle but becomes somewhat repetitive in practice. Also, explosives that go off near you will cause a realistic ringing in your ears that mutes all other sound around you, a great audio effect that's rightfully becoming more common in these types of games.
Vietcong has a lot of fine details such as that one, but they don't change or hide the fact that the game has some obvious rough edges. It's really too bad that the game isn't more polished out of the box. Its technical issues are going to get in the way of some players' enjoyment of an otherwise solid and relatively original first-person shooter, and they'll likely convince other players to avoid the game altogether. Vietcong is still a very good game, however. So if you aren't discouraged by a few possible bumps in the road while trying to get the game to run properly, you'd do well to give it a shot.