Review: Men of War: Vietnam
December 6, 2011, Author: James Sheppard
Amongst PC gamers (and even many console gamers nowadays), practically everyone is familiar with the real-time strategy and real-time tactical genres, whether your thing is rushing foes with zerglings in Starcraft, relishing in the epic historical battles of the Total War series, or commanding supremely in Supreme Commander. You’ve no doubt spent many an hour as the omnipotent floating General-deity, feverishly clicking away from a birds-eye view to force soldiers to enact your will.
Whereas I’m well-accustomed to the more prominent titles in the genre, however, the Men of War series has passed me by over the last few years. Developed by a variety of different teams, the franchise has enjoyed moderate sleeper-hit success amongst diehard strategists, with several standalone expansion packs accompanying the original game. The latest, Men of War: Vietnam, has been handled by 1C Company (also the publisher for the series), and sees the license delving in to the tense warfare of Baghdad.
… Okay, just making sure you’re paying attention.
Welcome to the jungle
I rarely took an interest in history, so I’m about as knowledgeable of the Vietnam Conflict as I am of the nuances in different female sanitation brands. From what I gather, it was Vietnam versus…Vietnam, with the United States and others poking their noses in too. I also get the impression that it was brutal and wasted a huge number of human lives for no good reason (like the majority of wars, basically).
Men of War: Vietnam explores the conflict from both sides, with two campaigns that span five large missions each. As Vietnam side no. 1, you’ll be playing as four soldiers that manage to scrape by a deadly American strike, finding themselves stranded in enemy territory, ridiculously outnumbered and with all of their vehicles blown to smithereens. As allies to Vietnam side no. 2, you’ll take charge of a US spec ops team in sabotage missions to undermine the side you were playing as previously, and participate in the occasional large-scale battle.
I’m an amateur… get me out of here!
As gaming has evolved, a mutual understanding has established between developers and players. The opening missions of a title must introduce a gradual learning curve, with an interactive tutorial seamlessly integrated into the action, giving players a chance to get to grips with what’s on offer in the game.
1C Company gleefully raise their middle finger to this tradition, however, before swiftly delivering it a hefty kick to the nads. In the first level of the game you experience the American attack I mentioned earlier, with your four remaining members of the large platoon surviving with their lives intact. At least, that’s the case for the first ten seconds, after which the Americans come back to finish the job with little warning. Fail to move into cover fast enough, and you’ll be blown up by an attack helicopter, or shot to pieces by incoming US troops.
The tenacity of the situation only develops from there. With little in the way of hand-holding you’ll need to assault a heavily-manned base, destroy attack choppers before they can leave the ground and steal a vehicle in order to make an escape. The second objective is nigh-on impossible; enemy resistance is far too vast to overcome before the choppers take off, and these deadly birds will haunt you for the rest of the mission. The third objective actually is impossible, as any jeeps you find have seen better days and won’t even start-up.
So, the next plan of action is to steal a boat, which of course is heavily defended elsewhere. Let me elaborate, in that I only had a single unit remaining by this point; the horrors of the level so far had truly taken their toll. Let me elaborate further: I was on the so-called ‘Easy’ mode. Nothing had prepared me for what I would face in this hellish introductory mission. I presumed that at some point my squad would be reinforced; I was wrong. Heck, I thought the mission would have finished by now, as I was already an hour in.
By some miracle I secure the boat, but guess what? It’s out of fuel. Several holes punched in my wall later, I’m trekking off to a church fortified by yet more troops. By this stage I’m starting to feel more confident in the ability of my solitary lone gunman, as I’ve finally gained a meagre grasp on the game’s mechanics. For a Men of War newcomer, this is half of the challenge. Numerous complex strategic options are at hand, all assigned to arbitrary hotkeys and a daunting UI, with most functions discovered through chance and experimentation. You’ve got inventory management to contend with, as well as different stances, attack states, taking cover, weapon choice and even the option to control units directly (albeit in a clunky fashion).
Stealthily prowling through the undergrowth, I pick off a few foes unawares and finish off the rest with grenades. That fuel canister is mine! The church is also full of valuable munitions, so I rifle through and fill up my inventory… and that’s when I explode. One of those bloody attack choppers had returned and decimated the church, with me in it. Reload save.
This time, I begrudgingly leave behind the weaponry and waddle out with fuel in hand, slowing me down. Not fast enough: boom! Reload. I drop the canister part-way and flee to safety. I’m still caught within the blast and am swept off my feet, but at least I’m still alive. That is, until hordes of US troops swarm the area and leave me riddled with holes. Oh, for f#$& sake!
You know what it’s like to fail miserably in a typical real-time strategy skirmish, have the entirety of your base levelled to the ground, and your tremendous armies reduced to a couple of grunts? As a final act of defiance, you’ll run your measly surviving units around the map, taking advantage of the fog of war, perhaps picking off the occasional enemy straggler, and generally frustrating your opponent who’s so close to snatching a well-deserved victory. In the end though, your eventual death and failure is almost inevitable.
Well, that’s how it feels to play Men of War: Vietnam. The odds are so strongly stacked against you, only a fool would do anything other than place their bets on the other side.
Nevertheless, the game eventually becomes playable, on Easy difficulty at least. I finally conquered that first mission, and found subsequent levels easier now I knew what to expect. There is a pleasing variety injected into the stock of missions; across the course of the game you’ll find yourself infiltrating bases at night, defending positions from incoming attack, and taking part in both small squad battles and large-scale conflicts. Ten levels isn’t a huge number by any means, but with the difficulty and expanse of objectives it’ll take a satisfying length of time before you’ve conquered it all.
Men of War is definitely a lower-budget series, however; and in Vietnam it shows. There are a lot of examples of shaky design choices and sub-standard polish. Due to the setting, heavy undergrowth and trees are an inevitable inclusion, and these obscure your vision just like in real life. However, whereas this would add atmosphere and challenge to a first-person shooter, for example, in a strategy title it’s about as welcome as being pepper sprayed in the face. Sometimes you just can’t see a bloody thing and wish that the WWF would stop whining (that’s the wildlife association that hugs trees, not the association of sweaty half-naked men that hug each other), and let the world become deforested already.
Controls and AI are also erratic. The ability to directly control units is a fairly unique addition to a strategy title, but its operation could be described as an overly clunky top-down shooter at best. Controlling your squad in the typical real-time tactical manner isn’t without its faults, though, as all too often you’ll be scrambling to curb your soldiers from misconstruing orders and vaulting over cover into showers of lead.
War ain’t pretty
The game’s roughness around the edges is equally apparent as far as its visuals are concerned. Quite literally in fact, because for some reason it wouldn’t let me activate anti-aliasing, leaving my screen so hampered with jaggies I was worried I’d poke an eye out.
Textures are sludgier than a trench in a tropical rainstorm, and object and character modelling is basic and low-poly throughout. Along with horrific pre-rendered cut-scenes that made me think I was back in the 90s, the overall impression of Vietnam is very graphically dated, despite the implementation of supposedly modern effects like HDR. The game engine doesn’t appear to be particularly well optimised either, as it can chug along at times despite looking mediocre.
Most of the audio in Men of War: Vietnam does a commendable job, at least. Sound effects are dramatic, and the background music and ambience are suitably atmospheric for the Vietnam jungle. The only regrettable component is the unbelievably dire voice acting. For this I can only presume the developers decided to forgo the hire of talented actors, and instead opted for a piss-up at the office to fuel their best contrived Vietnamese impressions.
In today’s overly politically correct society, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve received complaints for bordering on racism. More to the point though, it’s downright painful to listen to.
Rally the troops
Vietnam is more solo-focused and lacks a competitive multiplayer mode; you’ll have to look into earlier releases in the franchise for that. On the other hand, a cooperative mode gives you some much-needed help in tackling the game’s levels. It’s a great idea in theory, but the netcode is unstable and problems in connecting to other players are frequent.
Om nom ‘Nam?
Men of War: Vietnam is certainly a memorable experience; particularly the overwhelming first mission. Unless you’re a Men of War veteran, this game will wake you up with a hard slap to the face and make you grateful for the level of hand-holding we’re used to in other titles. Hardcore strategy fans will no doubt lap it up, however, and enjoy the demanding yet refreshing difficulty involved.
Nonetheless, Vietnam lacks a certain refinement and requires that you forgive these deficiencies. Due to its inaccessibility and crudeness, this is an unmistakably niche title that won’t be loved by everyone. Back to the barracks for more training, soldier!