Check out our video review:
The early 2000s were rife with World War II shooters. However, World War II wasn’t the only conflict that received attention in the gaming world during that era. The Vietnam war also received some attention, although the games that released weren’t nearly as popular. Among them was Men of Valor, Shellshock: Nam ’67, Battlefield: Vietnam which is the only one I knew about during that time, and Vietcong. Vietcong is a game I discovered years after it released and learned it attracted a rather large fanbase. Right from the start, the game tries to immerse the player into the atmosphere and time period. That combined with the conflict itself and the attention to detail make it a bit different than others of its kind. Developed by Pterodon in cooperation with Illusion Softworks and published by Gathering of Developers, Vietcong was released for PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox in March, 2003. For this review I played the PC version along with the expansions, Fist Alpha and Red Dawn which was released for free. I did install the VCStarter launcher which allows the game to run properly on modern operating systems.
The main campaign and Red Dawn puts the player in the shoes of Sergeant Steve Hawkins who is assigned to the special forces camp in Nui Pek in South Vietnam. These campaigns take Steve and his team on various missions against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Forces. The Fist Alpha expansion is a prequel and players are put in the shoes of Sergeant Douglas Warren. He and his team complete various missions which leads to the events of the main campaign. I appreciate that the writing attempts to flesh out the characters. Each one has their own personality and most of the performances are decent. But the dialogue is often terrible.
Vietcong is not fast-paced nor does it ever feel like a shooting gallery. It’s a slow-paced first-person shooter with some tactical elements. You are often accompanied by team members during missions and you can issue basic commands. Your team is more than just a bunch of background characters. They actually hold their own pretty well and serve a purpose. For example, the pointman will lead the team to objectives and detect traps, the medic will heal wounded team members, and the engineer can provide ammo. If they detect enemies, they will get down and move to cover and shoot at and kill foes. As good as your team is in most situations, their pathfinding can be problematic. They frequently get in your and each other’s way and if they follow you into a tunnel, they can end up blocking you from moving where you need to go.
If you don’t move slowly, you can easily run into trouble. Playing Vietcong like you would some other games of its kind will often get you killed. Enemies can kill you quickly and you have to be mindful of traps. You’re in a jungle, surrounded by foliage, so sometimes visibility can be a problem. And it’s by design and it will keep you on your toes. That said, unless you’ve played through the campaign before, it’s wise to stick with your team and follow your pointman because he will alert you to traps and enemies. But he moves extremely slowly so you need to have patience. You are given a limited number of saves per area and if you follow the pointman, it can be a while before you reach the next checkpoint and if you don’t save before you get there and then die, you will have to trek the long distance again and that can be frustrating.
One thing that stands out about Vietcong is immersion. I don’t think I have played another war game that immerses you into the experience quite like this. It’s a combination of gameplay elements and world design. From the creatures and sounds of the jungle to the intensity of the combat, Vietcong is one of the most immersive and detailed war games I have ever played. After you complete a mission, you’re brought back to your camp or base where you can swap out and test different weapons and read up on information about your team, weapons, and your next mission. The protagonists will carry a medkit, knife, sidearm, grenades and one primary weapon which can be swapped out with others you find. If a medic isn’t around, you can heal yourself with a medkit and you can search dead bodies for medkits, ammo, and weapons. Some bodies contain personal affects like pictures, letters, and other items that Steve will comment on. They don’t affect the gameplay in any way but it’s a very cool little detail.
The combat in Vietcong can be very intense and any objectives that you have to complete solo can be terrifying. That’s when you realize just how helpful your team is. Death can be instant if you’re not careful. It’s often wise to stay down and get to cover during firefights and lean around corners. When your team is with you and they engage the enemy, they essentially distract them from targeting you. But when you’re on your own, you’re going to be outnumbered and enemies are often accurate with their shots. The enemy AI isn’t always the greatest but for most encounters, their flaws are masked by the environment. Even in the more open areas with little foliage, they can still drop you quickly if you don’t take any precautions.
When there’s not a lot of foliage, you can easily spot foes and pick them off. They blend in better in the more lush jungle environments which is why moving slowly is important. It’s wise to let your pointman take the lead and you should always keep an eye out for movement in the distance. Even during firefights, it can still be hard to see where the enemies are. You want to look for muzzle flashes and you can sometimes reference the radar on your HUD to see red dots which indicates enemies. Sometimes you can be looking exactly where one of the dots is located but not see the enemy which is typically because they’re behind cover or at a different elevation. A firefight doesn’t occur around every corner which can result in a very tense experience. If you follow your pointman, there will be long stretches of just walking. But you should always be vigilant because you could walk over a hill or turn a corner and, bam, you’re being shot at because you just strolled into the view of an enemy patrol.
I do think Vietcong does a great job at depicting jungle warfare. There’s no objective markers on your HUD to reference or obvious paths to take most of the time. You can often bring up a map of the area and it’s usually obvious what direction you should move in but the game doesn’t hold your hand. The pointman is your guide. The jungle areas are large and dangerous. Traps and enemies can be anywhere. The earlier mission areas are more linear than the later ones which will often contain branching paths and multiple ways to a destination. And it could be as simple as going left or right around a large rock or structure.
In addition to the jungle areas, you’ll fight your way through villages and camps, navigate around ruins, and move through tunnels. As you may or may not know, Vietnam contains an impressive network of underground tunnels which soldiers would use to get around and hide. The tunnels served as communication and supply routes and contained weapon caches and living quarters. There’s a few missions that take you through a network of tunnels and from a game design perspective, these are the most confusing and frustrating areas in the game, mainly because it’s not clear where you need to go and the tunnels contain numerous paths, dead ends, and traps. Plus, enemies are scattered throughout. It’s just very easy to get turned around, lost and stuck. Quicksaving becomes very useful during these missions. Despite the more frustrating aspects, it is impressive how the tunnels are depicted. You’ll move through living quarters, various rooms, you can stop at weapon caches to acquire weapons and ammo and even see where they shit.
The actual missions the game takes you on are what you would expect from a game like this. Find and rescue NPCs, defend areas, and blow things up. There are a few standout missions like one where you have to sneak or shoot your way through a Viet Cong village and then escape in the dead of night and others that have you engaging enemies from a helicopter and boat. Every mission feels intense but that doesn’t always mean every mission is enjoyable. The end of the Fist Alpha campaign features a lot of forced stealth objectives which can be very tedious, even if you follow your pointman. In the Red Dawn mission, you’re objective is to locate a pilot and the map is large and contains several enemy snipers that can pick you off from a distance. It can be frustrating simply due to its trial and error nature. As you progress through the main campaign and Fist Alpha campaign, you’ll unlock maps and weapons for the game’s Quick Fight mode. The goal of this mode is to simply survive. You can play as a U.S. or Viet Cong soldier, select the map, difficulty, what equipment you want to bring and if you want to bring along team members.
For the time it released, I think Vietcong was a great looking game. Pop-in is the only real eyesore I encountered. A lot of things look great and crisp from a distance. The weapon models look great, the reload animations are good, and the game is packed with details. If you decide to play this on a modern system, I would recommend the VCStarter launcher because it fixes various issues and improve texture filtering, among other things. I did play through the game in widescreen and cut scenes do appear slightly stretched but during gameplay, everything looks fine. Weapons fire sounds pretty good, team members and enemies will shout during combat, and the action is accompanied by an appropriate soundtrack and includes several songs from the time period. Although, surprisingly, no “Fortunate Son”. On the technical side, I did not encounter any issues and the game ran silky smooth.
Vietcong is one of the best war shooters I have ever played. And primarily because it feels different. It contains a nice balance of realism and convenience. It’s not ultra realistic but it’s not a shooting gallery either. This is war. Staying down and behind cover is often the best way to survive firefights. Having a medkit and medic on your team doesn’t mean you can run out into the open and tank damage like a Terminator. Enemies can drop you quickly. You have to take things slow, be mindful of your surroundings, and stick with your team. Each member serves a purpose and can be helpful. There’s a lot of little things in the game that make the experience feel unique. However, it’s not without flaws. The AI can be problematic. Friendlies can frequently get in your way and watching them and even enemies repeatedly jump up and down for seemingly no reason or because they’re trying to get over something and can’t can pull you out of the immersion. Furthermore, the slow paced nature of the game is not going to be for everyone. If you approach Vietcong like it’s a Call of Duty game for example, you’re going to be in for quite a surprise. That said, I would recommend first time players follow the pointman but that means some missions can feel like they drag on. There will be significant stretches of walking and no combat. But that’s also what makes the combat intense. You don’t really know where the enemy is and the jungle doesn’t make it easy to spot them. Some missions can suck for different reasons but most of the time, the gameplay is fun. Vietcong is a game that requires patience.
I would absolutely recommend Vietcong. When it comes to war shooters, it’s very refreshing, even to this day. The main campaign, expansions, and Quick Fight mode ensure there’s plenty to do if playing solo and the game does come with a multiplayer component which I didn’t get to try. Vietcong still has a following and I think it’s worth mentioning that I did find some mods out there. Ultimately, Vietcong is a great game and if you don’t mind a slow-paced experience, I would definitely suggest checking it out.