It's not the traditional way to way to kick off a review, but what the hell: why on Earth release Vietcong 2 now, right in the midst of one of the busiest release periods gaming has ever seen? It's not as if PC gamers are short of outstanding first-person shooters to play anyway, but when you have FEAR, Quake 4, Serious Sam 2 and (shortly) Half-Life 2: Aftermath all vying for PC gamer's attention, it might have been sensible to consider timing Pterodon's sequel a little better. The fact that Vietcong's follow-up is notably the weakest of the bunch merely diminishes its chances of shifting a few copies along the way.
For those that missed out on the rather charming original (released way back in Spring 2003), the craggy-looking visuals didn't detract from its status as an intriguing team-based jungle adventure. It didn't pull its punches, never attempted to glamorise this hideously unnerving war, and even managed to capture the late '60s essence of the first 'rock n' roll' war. Better still was the online multiplayer, which became the best jungle-based frag-fest around, marking itself out as something quite different from the herd. Maybe with a little bit more polish it could have raised itself above the cult status it enjoyed, but instead we were served up some rather bodged console ports and a run-of-the-mill Fist Alpha expansion pack. And now we get the full-blown sequel.
This time, the game chucks out the jungle premise (well, not entirely, but more of that later) and is set in and around the ancient city of Hue (that's "Hoo-ay"). Kicking off during the traditional Tet (New Year) festivities of 1968, you find yourself draped around a Vietnamese hooker, with orders to get your arse down to the US compound to escort a US war reporter. Surrounded by unhelpful, foul-mouthed and inebriated soldiers ogling a pole dancer, it's not the most traditional start to an FPS, but, hey, we're liberal, open-minded types here.
Meeting up with the slightly annoying war reporter, you move onto introducing him to the local dignitaries, sup some vino, raise your glasses to a toast... and then duck a passing rocket propelled grenade. Before you know it, you're dusting yourself down, battling your way out of the city hall and sent headlong into the start of the infamous Tet Offensive, tasked with taking out a seemingly unending stream of VC aggressor.
Although evidently focused on urban warfare this time around, the familiar unforgiving combat is back with a vengeance. Just a few seconds exposed in front of your enemy will expose you to a flesh-shredding hail of lead, and enough to rip away your whole health bar in one go. A few Game Over screens later, you'll soon be reminded that a careful approach is very much the name of the game. No charging out all-guns-blazing here. It's about as far away from the Quake 4 "I'M GONNA F*** YOU UP!!!" approach as you could possibly get, which - thinking about it - is definitely a Good Thing. Almost every single fire-fight in Vietcong 2 feels like it might just be your last, and it makes you feel like a better gamer for forcing you to act like a responsible soldier that, you know, doesn't want to get shot.
But don't buy into the hope of convincing realism for one minute. Yes, taking one well-placed shot in the head will kill you, and, yes, health packs are extremely hard to come by, but Vietcong 2 has more than enough of its own silly quirks and foibles that quickly remind you that you're stuck in the middle of another videogame shooter.
Not the cheesy TV chef
Once you, Daniel Boone, hook up with your Military Assistance Command squaddies back at base, most of the old mechanics we wrestled with in the original return here, complete with some 'new' squad command controls, evidently inspired/ripped-off from Brothers in Arms (which in itself was heavily 'inspired' by Full Spectrum Warrior). That's not a bad idea, though, because we loved those games to bits. Although you're now lacking the need for a 'point' man to lead you through the mysteries/miseries of a sprawling jungle expanse, and a radio man's also a bit redundant, you still call on the help of two key squad members - the medic and engineer (the chap who replenishes your ammo). Oh, and there's the Gunner, but he just gets on with wielding his weapon and looking 'hard'.
What's silly is that Boone can take pretty much any amount of flesh-ripping punishment, so long as your medic's on hand to bail you out during a quiet moment. The same applies to your ammo situation; it's a never-ending bonanza, which is especially handy once you cotton onto the fact that your squad mates will never die. Sure, they'll slump to the floor theatrically and roll around like a Premiership Prima-Donna when they've copped too much lead, but you can always rely on them to get on up and carry on like nothing ever happened (just like our top footy stars, come to think of it). They are the Terminators of the war effort, and it's just as well. It's not as if their stunning AI would bail them out otherwise. It's Pterodon's way of admitting that they had to cheat to get their own game to work. But we'll gloss over that bit, eh?
Rather helpfully - and armed with this knowledge of 'infinite lives' - you can send your men out ahead of you to clear out pesky choke points, safely allowing you to mop up the stragglers from behind. Simply hold down the 'C' button and point the BIA/FSW-style circular cursor to where you want them to head for, click the left mouse button to confirm and leave the rest to the AI. Of course, you won't want to do this for the entire game (for much of it you won't have the option as you'll often be on your own), but for the rest of the time you can simply tap C twice to ensure that they're following in behind.
Halfway to nowhere
For the most part your team mates behave relatively sensibly, taking up decent cover points where appropriate, ducking, taking pot shots and even leaping semi-realistically to dodge enemy lead. But at no stage does it ever really climb to the heady heights that some of the Ghost Recon or Rainbow Six titles have enjoyed in terms of squad AI, and certainly lacks any of the flexibility or finesse of some of its contemporaries. It's as if Pterodon stopped short of making it a full-on squad-based shooter, choosing some sort of halfway house between being a normal Call of Duty-style run and gun FPS with a persistent team of buddy AI comrades and a proper squad shooter where protecting them is as important as anything else.
Worryingly, the entire single player campaign doesn't last very long at all, even when it does throw up the odd vertical difficulty spike in your path (and with a limited stock of 10 quicksaves per level, you even have to be careful here). In fact, the last few temple-based levels are a major anti-climax next to the memorable end bits of the previous game.
And then, just when you think you're done, another single player campaign unlocks. Somewhat uniquely, Vietcong 2 then takes the unusual step of letting you play from the perspective of a young VC soldier, kicking off in the rural jungle environment of his village and surrounding area.
Out for revenge
Aping the general mechanics of the US campaign, you soon find yourself accompanied by team-mates who (surprise surprise) act as your ammo and medical suppliers. A little contrived, yes, but it's a pleasant change to return to the jungle. The engine certainly services the foliage far better than it does the often ugly urban areas, and the game feels better for it.
Admittedly, the changes are only really cosmetic. It doesn't take long to realise that this is the exact same type of game as the US campaign - just with a different environment, played with characters that speak no English (which is a relief, actually). All-too-quickly, though, the two campaigns dovetail after just three relatively short missions, and that's your lot. Suddenly, from assuming you're only halfway through the single player campaign, it turns out that this really is the end. A short, and relatively sweet vignette.
In terms of the weapons, the fact that Vietcong 2 features 50 of them isn't especially significant. Unless you're some kind of firearms expert, it's not even vaguely important to be able to know the difference between them - just so long as you realise that some have worse recoil than others, and whether it's a pistol, machine gun, assault rifle, shotgun, or, say, an RPG, we think you'll manage to suss that out pretty well. Having slightly trivialised the weapons, though, we will admit that the way the Czech developer has handled them is a really strong facet of the game, giving the impression that they really care about this sort of thing. As such, this care and attention spills over into the way the controls work too, with the game insisting you hold down the right mouse button to aim, for example. Whereas many shooters just task you with aiming a reticule, you feel like you're really being made to work simply to get your shots on target, which is a lot more fun than it probably sounds. If the game wasn't so concerned with providing squad support (and then shattering that illusion with tactical naivety and infinite lives) you'd probably find the single-player campaign more immersive than it is.
As with the original Vietcong, though, it's mainly the technically impoverished nature of the slightly rubbish graphics engine that goes a long way to contributing to its sequel's downfall. Pterodon does a consistently fine (often spooky) job of delivering characters that look facially realistic, but then sticks them on awkwardly animated bodies that never really gel with a world where lighting and physics effects have yet to be invented, and normal mapping refers to topographical diagrams. It's like Half-Life 2 and Doom III never happened.
Bereft of such increasingly standard features, the game looks three years off the pace and thus compares unfavourably with just about any other standard PC FPS on the market. Even worse is the fact that the game chugs quite badly if you decide to whack up the detail levels on a well-equipped PC. And alhough it claims to support widescreen resolutions, the game proceeds to stretch out the visuals, making an already odd-looking game look even less appealing if you're blessed with the kit to really max out PC games. But trust us on the jungle front, though. It really does look a far better game in this environment than it does in the garish urban scenarios.
So that just leaves the inevitable multiplayer discussion. Top billing for us goes to the co-op mode, which serves up four maps for up to eight players against the AI - a bonus for those of us who prefer to get our kicks in a collaborative (as opposed to competitive) environment. The only trial with co-op modes - as ever - is gathering up enough willing participants that aren't just interested in gung-ho glory hunting, but if you can get the balance right, it's a potentially good way to enjoy the experience. There's nothing quite like the tension of online gaming alongside a bunch of mates who know what they're doing, so we're fully expecting this to be a popular part of the game.
Elsewhere, the tried and trusted modes make a comeback, with 64-player deathmatch and team deathmatch making an inevitable appearance, playable either as US or the VCs. With nine decent sized maps (inspired by the varying landscapes of the single player game) and a handful of team classes available, it's not providing more than merely 'what we expected', and little more. Fans of the original might fancy some more of the same, but the rest of us might be put off by the fact that there's evidently not much in the way of hard and fast innovation going on here.
All-round, Vietcong 2 is another frustrating 'nearly' package from Pterodon that's suffering from a dated look and feel. The single-player offering misses the mark, arguably, even more than it did last time. Although the two-pronged campaign is a great idea, the US side of it is a pretty limp effort that's nowhere near as tense, exciting or involving as the original, and by the time you've got to the VC campaign you're becoming slightly over-familiar with duck-and-cover game mechanics. On the one hand it serves up a hardcore shooting experience, but then tries to sweeten the pill with a half-baked squad system that lacks cohesion, realism and conviction. The multiplayer doesn't do anything new, but if you enjoyed the previous version it's definitely worth checking out - particularly co-op - but we're not entirely convinced it's worth buying purely on the strength of that. Maybe one of those classic 'pick it up when you see it cheap' types of offerings.