It's hard writing the words 'expansion pack' without prefixing them with the word 'inevitable'. Ach, why fight it. Fist Alpha is the inevitable expansion pack that the hardcore fans will lap up and the rest of you will shrug your shoulders and pretend you've got better things to do than worry about missing one of last year's better first-person shooters.
Inevitably, nothing much has changed. Effectively a prequel to Vietcong, Fist Alpha tells the story of the unit of the same name, and their experiences at the very beginning of the Vietnam War from March to June 1967. Split over seven missions, the single player campaign plays out - as you'd expect - almost identically to the original, except that this time you're controlling SFC Warren Douglas, another over-confident Yank thrust into a war assuming it'll be a walkover. Oh ho ho.
The most unforgiving game of the most unforgiving war ever?
But battle-scarred Veterans of last spring will recall that Vietcong is among the most unforgiving shooters ever devised. Tense, nervous jungle warfare that keeps you on your toes from the first step to the bedraggled last crawl. We're not sure what it is about Czech developers' obsession with a) war and b) the need to make the player suffer as much as possible, but it hardly comes as a surprise to note Illusion Softworks' involvement alongside Pterodon. Think of Vietcong as a first-person Hidden & Dangerous in the jungle; complete with all the dread and frustration of one shot kills, psychic enemies, occasionally rank AI, but somehow balanced out by some of the most involving atmosphere any game has managed. It's a tightrope that Vietcong and Fist Alpha walks, but somehow it just about gets away with it.
As with the original, most missions take place with a bunch of squaddies in tow, each with their own specialist ability, be it a point man, medic, engineer or gunner. Most of the time they're just along for the ride, and rather unrealistically, they are almost immortal. Whereas the game barely allows you the luxury of being hit half a dozen times before death, your team happily go about their business with no such headaches. With this in mind, your best bet is simply to allow them to mow down the majority of the lurking enemies to avoid taking too much damage yourself.
The problem in combat is twofold. Not only is it extremely difficult to see the very well camouflaged and (mostly distant) enemy, but recoil on nearly all the weapons is so harsh that your cursor jumps wildly off the target instantly, meaning you can only ever attempt short bursts of fire. You can, of course, hit the right mouse button to enter targeting mode, but this can't dampen the massive recoil. Bizarrely this more precise targeting is counter-productive - seemingly less accurate for certain guns as opposed to more - targets appear to be directly in the line of sight, but take no damage, yet a quick spray of bullets in default mode has a far greater degree of success for reasons hard to understand. To compound your misery in combat, your enemy's aim is staggeringly sharp to the point that you spend most of the time crouching on the floor or slithering in the mud praying that your squad can deal with the mess. The occasional brave foray nearly always results in your bullet-riddled corpse, followed by the huge 'gong' sound to denote your death and the stabbing of F6.
Excreta tipped spike up the arse?
And while we're addressing the AI, the missions near the end where you're expected to be stealthy are, to put it mildly, a complete pain in the arse. Enemies are either their usual annoyingly psychic selves or just plain dense. Armed with nothing more than a silenced pistol (you can't alert anyone to your presence), you're expected to wade through clusters of enemy on the way to destroying a radio. Taking your squad with you is utterly useless, as they open fire immediately, blowing your cover, but on your own you've got about one second to get a head shot on a patrolling soldier. Not the easiest of tasks, but straightforward enough once you know exactly what to do.
But the rest of the guards on that, and the level after that, mainly just sit crouched on their own awaiting your bullet. One guard, not two feet away from another, never reacts to his buddy being shot in the skull, yet can apparently detect you rustling the leaves 30-40 feet away. It's demented, and does little to goad you into finishing the game.
So how can this fairly miserable experience possibly be enjoyable? Most of the time you're churning out expletive syllables so quickly you're inventing new ones at the rate of knots, so in a sense that's entertainment, although we're sure our doctors might have something to say about that. Maybe it's an as-yet undiagnosed disposition: Gamer's Masochism. We're sufferers all right. There's something oddly compelling about a game where the odds are so heavily stacked against you that you just plough on through, almost to prove that you've still got what it takes as a gamer. You're no pushover. You don't suck! And so piece by piece you crack each challenge, even if it means three continuous hours of swearing, and no toilet break even though you're about to explode. I'm an odd beast, me.
Looks good, looks crap, we can't work out which
Meanwhile, the graphics engine remains the contradiction it always was. At its best, it makes a good, ahem, fist of rendering the dense jungle environment, with splendid detail, variety (believe it or not) and excellent foliage - something games have been struggling to do for years. Some of the views are outstanding at times, with fantastically undulating rocky levels with rope bridges straddling lush canyons and gushing waterfalls. But at what cost? The game's an absolute system hog for no good reason at times, forcing me to whack the resolution down to 800x600 and use 16-bit texturing to get anywhere near decent performance out of a GF4 4600 P4 system. Even then, the frame rate still had a tendency to bleat at me when the action hotted up, making an already hard game even harder. Elsewhere, the character models may look great, with excellent facial detail, but the animation just never really looks that convincing, especially when the dim-witted path finding sees everyone clattering into each other and running into objects. Nit picking, maybe, but the likes of Call Of Duty and their ilk have spoiled us. Sorry.
And as we've evangelised at length before, the soundtrack and general ambient effects are among the best we've ever heard in a videogame. Although Fist Alpha doesn't add a great deal to what was already on offer in Vietcong, it's one of the things that makes you warm to the game, when a pile of other annoyances are chipping away at your resolve to bother with it.
Vietcong and its expansion pack ultimately succeed in providing an approximation of the horrors of jungle warfare. The shit-scared feeling of imminent death is translated as well as anyone has managed to date, although perhaps for many FPS fans this might not equate to a fun gaming experience. If all you want is a dumb linear jungle shooter that you can yawn your way through, then Rising Sun might be more your thing, but for the serious, determined player that wants a challenge and a more realistic approach, then you might get a lot out of Vietcong - a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and expletives, granted, but by the end of it you're satisfied that you've been utterly tested - as much by the game's limitations as your own skill.
I hate it... I love it... Arrrgh!
If Pterodon and Illusion Softworks has any intention of translating this to console (which I understand is on the cards), and producing a sequel, it's got to try harder to nail some of the fundamentals first - the graphics engine isn't up to the task, and the AI is, for the most part, just broken and cripples your enjoyment. Apart from that, the game does just about everything right - it builds a fantastic atmosphere, is challenging, and manages to feel sufficiently new in that it's a totally different prospect to all the generic WW2 and science-fiction shooters that clog up the shelves.
But all of this might be an irrelevance if you're only interested in the multiplayer aspect of the game - something I'll address in full once the servers allow for the new 1.51 version. The prospect is intriguing, though, with an all-new co-op mode and eight new multiplayer maps and a level editor. In my experience of Vietcong online, most of the issues of dodgy AI and the like go out of the window, and what you're left with is possibly one of the most enjoyable online experiences out there. Tense jungle combat online for 64 players is definitely to be recommended, and with a new level editor thrown in, the chances are the mod community will be getting busy.
Six new weapons have also made it into the package: the optic equipped M-14, the 61 Scorpion machine gun, the Tokarev SVT1940 sniper rifle, the Sten MK II SMG, and the Degtyarev DP light machine gun. Bayonets and Machetes are also said to have been added, although hand-to-hand combat isn't exactly something you get the chance to engage in during the single player campaign - my priority for this particular review.
For the single player Vietcong fan, you're looking at about eight hours of intense action - more of the same in truth with little added or fixed from the last outing, but for many of you that'll be enough, even taking the frustration factor into account. I definitely enjoyed enough of it to recommend it for fans, but be sure you go into your purchase with your eyes wide open to the pitfalls ahead. On the other hand, for those with a multiplayer interest it looks irresistible for the price, and I'll be looking to deliver a more informative assessment in due course.