A buddy of mine had been hyping Conflict: Vietnam to me for several days. We used to rule the roost in the likes of Rainbow Six, Hidden & Dangerous, Ghost Recon, even a little SOCOM now and then, so when it came to squad-based military action games, I was inclined to trust his judgment. He went on and on about how it’d be such a great game with two relatively bright people at the controls instead of him and whichever fair-weather gamer friend happened to stop by that day. He trumpeted the AI as being clever, the level designs as being claustrophobic and the firefights confusing, akin to how the actual conflicts of Vietnam probably were. Needless to say, I was optimistic as he booted up the game.
Bear in mind that I’m not easily impressed. I take seriously any high water mark that a game sets for the industry, regardless of platform. For example, I have yet to see a first-person shooter with a better weapon set, variety, and controls than the N64’s Perfect Dark. PS2 visual standards have been entrenched with the likes of Transformers, Drakan, and Burnout 3. The clamorous audio of rampant firefights from TimeSplitters 3 have yet to be topped, in my book. Some of the scenarios and surroundings in Fire Warrior surprised me. SOCOM II is about the best squad-based series I’ve played in on a console in a while, as far as squad ordering and AI are concerned. These are what I measure against when I try something new.
So Conflict: Vietnam gets going. The intro movie looks decent, and the era-specific tunes like ‘Paint It Black’ help set the mood. The main menu comes up with scant options, but who’s to say that more options and modes necessarily make a game better? We start into the co-op main campaign, and visions of the luscious, go-anywhere Amazon rain forest from Transformers crossed with the competent squad interactivity of SOCOM II dance around in my head.
Our mission loads; we are dropped into a hot zone. Where will Charlie be hiding? Up in the trees? In fox holes? What about tiger pits and bamboo shoots? Turns out my worst enemy has nothing to do with anyone else in the jungle. It rests with my own controls, squad command interface, and the stupidest camera I’ve ever seen. I also struggle not to vomit at the graphics.
There is a definite lack of precision in the way the characters control. They only run when standing up and only walk when crouched. What about walking while standing or running while crouched? And when prone, you can’t shuffle left or right to fine-tune your aim on that sniper jerk in the tower who’s giving you endless grief. You either roll completely over or don’t move at all. It’s aggravating and messy, and more often than not will only help get you killed.
Add to this that the third-person camera isn’t mapped to the right stick the way it should be. I was looking for either a Splinter Cell style camera, or FPS controls that let you cautiously survey the surroundings. Instead, you’re saddled with an auto-centering view that always puts your head in the way of seeing what’s ahead of you, and makes it a twitchy nightmare to get a good look around. The obvious solution would be switching to first-person camera, but that covers up a good two-thirds of the screen with a flat reticule sprite. Being able to turn off auto-centering and viewable weapons would have helped out this game a ton.
Instead, it forces you to rely on lock-on targeting, that is unreliable at best. For one thing, it doesn’t make it very clear when you’re locked onto anything. A comparable game might consider turning the crosshairs red when you’re locked on, yellow when taking fire, and green when the target is neutralized. Not here. It just stays white the whole time. Target switching is no easy task, either. I would have settled for straight up FPS controls that let me aim precisely, a la SOCOM or Ghost Recon, but instead I got a game that reeks of PSone design theory.
Speaking of the PSone, I bet this graphics engine could have been used on that system with little to no compromise. Every level is not only very bleh to look at, but the character models are flat and boxy, and animate like they’re someone’s junior high school art project. At a special ed school. Never has the phrase “He runs like he’s got a broom up his arse” been more appropriate.
I think squad controls have been pretty much nailed by SOCOM as far as console controllers are concerned. Why the makers of Conflict: Vietnam chose such a complicated route is a mystery to me. Half the time I’d struggle trying to remember which idiotic combination of buttons would do a simple thing like hand over some ammo to a mate or tell him to go to a specific spot or take cover. Having one button and a simple menu would have made so much more sense. Using voice commands would have been great, too. It’s just way too over-complicated. It reminded me of the button config I had for Descent on the PSone. Every button had a function, plus the Select button plus every key had another function. Talk about memory overload.
I should also point out how broken the inventory system is. Time keeps moving forward when you’re cycling through inventory items, and if you start getting fired upon, whatever you’re on when you release the inventory button is what you’re stuck with, be it your rifle, or a med-kit. So, if you’re not near your primary, you’ll have to scroll all the way back through the inventory till you find it. Prepare to be dead.
One definite upside is that any squad member can heal any injured character, even if he’s dead, provided the living member still has a med-kit or two. There are situations where your buddies will be caught out in the open and the mission becomes impossible to complete with only one active member, and there’s no way to reach and heal others without getting shot yourself.
Another positive is the idle chatter and environmental subtleties in the audio department. There’s music specific to that time playing on radios as you walk around base camp, and you can hear other soldiers standing around swapping stories about some of the action they’ve seen and/or heard about, complete with every bad word you’ve ever heard of. The game earns its Mature rating if not for the violence, then certainly for the language.
As if the camera weren’t bad enough, co-op also only offers vertical splitscreen, further reducing your peripheral vision, which is something I would find valuable in any situation where something moving just to your side could be lethal opposition. No horizontal split is available, so prepare to take a few bullets to the torso as your indicator that someone anywhere but right in front of you is firing at you. And if there are people in front of you, good luck seeing them with your hero’s big fat head right in the way.
After the unending frustration of co-op, I gave the single player portion a try, thinking the visuals would get better or at least the squad interactivity would be more cohesive. Nope. At least the AI players are more aware of nearby enemies and will fire at bogies you couldn’t possibly see. Makes for a less stealthy approach, but it will keep you alive longer.
There are mini-tasks and alternate objectives like disarming mines and tripwires, and getting stealth kills with the knife or silenced pistol, all adding to the points you get for a mission that can be used to improve a characters stats, ranging from effectiveness at healing to vehicle use to machine gunning and sniping ability. Since each character already has a specialty, doubling up specialties seems like a waste of time.
The game plays out in a largely linear fashion, offering clearly blazed trails through the brush and no freedom to explore outside the occasional obvious cove or stash of enemy hardware. So much for running around in a sandbox jungle where danger lurks at every turn.
Add to all this the lack of online multiplayer and we have a game that isn’t worth any of your money or time. If you want trigger-happy jungle thrills, go back and play the couple of jungle levels in SOCOM II with some of your own ’60s music blaring in the background. That’s much better.