Vietcong: Purple Haze
Games based on the Vietnam War seem to be all the rage these days. In fact, in the span of just a few months the Xbox will have gone from being completely devoid of ‘Nam-themed titles to having five games based on the infamous conflict. Vietcong: Purple Haze, Gathering’s offering into this suddenly booming sub-genre, is a decent first person shooter with solid online play, but a lack of split-screen multiplayer, questionable AI and dated visuals keep it mired firmly in mediocrity.
The game starts out promising enough. A stylish video montage sets the mood by explaining the state of the U.S. in the mid-sixties and the whirlwind of controversy surrounding the war. Since no videogame has really delved into the murky subject matter of the Vietnam War before, I found myself hoping that Vietcong’s gameplay could offer something compellingly original when compared to the dozens of WWII titles currently available. I wanted to feel the terror of creeping through the dense jungle, knowing that the enemy could be lurking just meters away, ready to spring a lethal trap. I wanted to feel the nerve-fraying anxiety of trying to determine the difference between guerrillas and innocent villagers going about their daily lives. In fact, I had some fairly high hopes for this game, but, alas, once I sunk my teeth into the meat of Vietcong, some serious flaws became immediately evident.
First off, the game’s graphical engine is distinctly sub par when compared to the majority of Xbox titles currently available. Blurry textures, pixilated 2D bushes, choppy animation and poor lighting all help suck away potential realism and any type of emotional links with characters and in-game experiences. And there are some big visual inconsistencies also. It’s not uncommon to glance up at some trees and see a fairly detailed leaf texture, only to notice the canopy texture right above it looks like the result of a preschooler’s watercolor doodling. I want to feel the oppressive density of the Vietnam jungle closing in around me, but Vietcong just doesn’t provide this level of realism.
Naturally, mediocre graphics can be overlooked if the gameplay is there, but some considerable problems hinder this aspect of the game as well. Most of the 19 levels play out in linear fashion, with you traveling alongside a small platoon of soldiers towards some sort of objective. Sometimes you’ll be blowing up VC gun emplacements and acquiring enemy plans, while other times you are simply clearing a particular area of Vietcong soldiers. Like in the Medal of Honor games, most of the levels are extremely linear in nature, meaning you really lose the feeling of actually traveling through realistic jungle environments. It is annoying to be constantly steered in one direction by rocks, cliff walls and inexplicably placed walls plastered with vine wallpaper.
Having squad mates accompany you during each mission is a nice touch, especially due to the interactive nature of your comrades. If you sustain a few flesh wounds, just walk over to the medic and get patched up. Need some ammo? Hit up you engineer for some extra rounds. Your AI buddies do a decent job of getting behind cover and helping flush out enemy positions, but they do tend to make bonehead mistakes a bit too often, especially your pointman, who sometimes has to meander around aimlessly for 15 seconds before actually moving in the correct direction. On one occasion I planted some C4 and moved to safe distance, only to watch as two of my squad mates ran in place for about ten seconds and got obliterated by the ensuing explosion. Which brings me to another concern: if any of your fellow soldiers die, you must restart the mission. How’s that for realism?
The main partially redeeming aspect of Vietcong is the inclusion of online multiplayer. You can play with up to ten other people on Xbox Live in multiple game types like standard Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Real War (obtain all three flags on the map to score) and Co-op. The online interface is a tad simplistic, but the lag is minimal and the gameplay is definitely engaging when played in short spurts. A huge drawback to the game, however, is a complete lack of offline multiplayer. Considering the simplistic nature of Vietcong’s visuals, implementing splitscreen Co-op and four player Deathmatch would have been completely feasible, so why Gathering chose to gloss over this is mind boggling. They didn’t even include the option to use system link! It’s a shame too, as I would have added two more points to the overall score if splitscreen Co-op and Deathmatch would have been included.
Audio-wise, Vietcong is a mixed bag. Many of the basic sound effects for walking and the like are extremely repetitive and seem rushed. The voice acting is fairly good, with your soldier buddies often yelling out expletives during heated firefights and chattering realistically during radio calls back to HQ. The soundtrack is disappointing, though, with only a few period songs included along with a bunch of forgettable tracks from various modern no-name bands. A little Smokey Robinson, the Doors or Jefferson Airplane would have gone a long way in capturing the emotional feel of the Vietnam era.
In the end, Vietcong: Purple Haze is a flawed game that fails to differentiate itself from the crowd of first person shooters already available for the Xbox. The Vietnam theme certainly makes this game unique (until the flood of ‘Nam games hits later this year anyway), but the true potential of the subject matter is far from being realized. If you are just dying to get your hands on a new shooter and have access to Xbox Live, Vietcong may actually be worth checking out. But, chances are most will find the game’s substantial flaws far too unforgiving to warrant plunking down 40 dollars on a purchase.
Five out of ten