For all its glaring technical deficiencies, the original PC version of Vietcong simply had that X factor about it that made it feel much more than your average run and gun slog. The constant feeling of fear the game inspired with its relentless VC onslaught, its superbly spot-on 60s parody soundtrack, the (then) unique atmosphere of jungle warfare and a great multiplayer mode made it a firm favourite with many of the more discerning PC crowd. The prospect of a tarted-up console version with a few extras sounded appealing; an extra 18 months of development time to sort out some of the minor niggles, the annoying levels removed, the best ones from both the prequel Fist Alpha expansion pack and the full game as well as some new ones thrown in for good measure sounded exactly how we'd have pitched the project. But then we remembered that most PC to console conversions are pretty ropey. Could Vietcong buck the trend?
Another problem this late-late Vietcong conversion faces is the fact that since we played it in the early part of last year there's been a whole pile of Vietnam-based games - Line Of Sight: Vietnam, Conflict Vietnam, Shellshock: Nam '67, and of course Battlefield Vietnam. Throw in the forthcoming Men Of Valor (heck, even EA's World War II based Medal Of Honor: Pacific Assault is jungle-based) and it's as if the whole world is competing for some holy grand prize. Set by whom, we know not, but it's a bizarre gaming gold rush to say the least. Not all are born equal, of course. Some go for the pure FPS, Medal Of Honor-angle, Shellshock preferred FPS gameplay but in the third-person (as odd as that sounds), Conflict transplanted the Desert Storm gameplay almost exactly, while Vietcong tackles the conflict as a pseudo squad-based affair from the first-person. Think Rainbow Six on console, without the ability to really direct them in any meaningful way beyond a few basic commands.
For the most part you're creeping around deadly trap-laden environments in a gang of four, with a pointman, medic and radio specialists forming the core of your squad. If you don't fancy landing in a pit of excreta-tipped wooden spikes or blowing your face off by triggering a trip mine, then sending the pointman guarantees a safe passage; the medic patches you up when necessary; and the radio guy provides little more than the tech to talk to your superiors and get updates. Occasionally this is supplemented by an engineer to supply more ammo, while a specialist machine gunner helps out when the going gets really tough.
Except it doesn't. Get tough, that is. The most astonishing part of VC's conversion to console is just how easy the game is by default compared to the original. Unless you're particularly fond of completing games in record time, then it's probably advisable to plump immediately for 'Vietnam' difficulty, although that in itself doesn't necessarily make the game any more fun. The main point to note is just how accommodating the AI is, standing still while you fill them full of lead, and generally being as thick as possible. The only time they really pose a major threat is when they're hidden behind bushes, which proves to be something of an annoyance as they still have unerring accuracy. With a 'save anywhere' facility provided you can breeze through virtually any level within 20 minutes, half an hour tops, with the level design largely based around prescribing enemies in manageable clusters. Even without the cheating ways of the save anywhere mechanic, it's extremely easy with just a small amount to care to creep your way through, meaning the conversion lacks any of the tension that made the original such a palpitating experience.
And then there's the game engine, which you have to say is among the least impressive around, incapable of rendering a jungle scene with anything even approaching realism. Jagged, blocky terrain is the order of the day, replete with some of the most basic texturing we've seen anywhere in years. Add to that terribly animated character models that constantly act like the most dim-witted bunch you've ever seen, and the whole suspension of disbelief is ruined. One plus point is the facial detail, which is excellent, but after several hours of having to put up with your pointman ignoring your orders, or taking completely incorrect routes (at one point he apparently felt the need to commit suicide and jump off a cliff, except his terrible jump animation wasn't high enough the clear the obstacle).
Impress your friends with the marvellous displays of AI
The dim wittery isn't confined to pathfinding deficiencies either, with AI enemies regularly standing stock still as you're shooting them in the face, never once looking capable of finding adequate cover, and on a few hilarious occasions bunny hopping around for no apparent reason at all. It's not their fault. They're only doing what the alarmingly flawed AI told them to do. We saw bizarre behaviour like this on the PC now and again, but didn't for one second believe it would get worse for the console conversion. It doesn't cause any major hassles as such, and is perfectly playable despite all this, but as we said you spend more of the time just laughing at the spectacle than simply getting on and shooting VCs and soiling your underwear, as seemed to be the case with the original.
The whole pseudo squad-based mechanic seems a little arbitrary to say the least. While you do have a clutch of basic commands such as 'spread out', 'follow me', 'stay here' and so on, the chances are you'll rarely find yourself needing to worry too much about doing more than calling the medic over to top up your health. What might have worked more effectively would have been the Rainbow Six/Ghost Recon method of being able to dictate where your men should be running to, but in truth you're little more than a bemused bystander for the most part with your buddies more than happy to run headlong into gunfire. The truth is, unlike other games of this ilk, you don't have to worry about their health - they might bleat and moan that they need a medic, but help comes soon enough, and their bullet-racked torsos carry on into battle like nothing's happened.
The two all-new levels are nothing much to get excited about, either. Halong port is a solo mission for a change, while Storm is a traditional duke-out with all your team members present, setting off yet another C4 charge on a tank, but otherwise following a similar pattern to all the others. It's probably a good decision to drop the dreaded tunnel levels from the original, and most of the memorable moments are in there, but why on Earth did they chop out the between-level interludes? One of the best bits of the original was going back to base and listening to the excellent parody tracks cycle through the radio and the briefings. Now the game lacks context and feels like a series of disconnected levels - there's little feeling anymore of a coherent campaign, which is a shame.
The one point of interest for Xbox gamers is perhaps the Xbox Live support (with PS2 gamers also catered for), featuring 10 player support over 10 maps - half of which are multiplayer specific, half from the game itself (including the two new single player maps). You can get in some offline bot training in the game's Quick Fight mode, which is populated by fairly moronic crouching enemies, or else choose from basic Deathmatch/Team Deathmatch, Assault (goal-based get-the-pilot-to-the-LZ/kill the pilot), Capture The Flag, Real War (three flag Domination-style), and maybe the biggest draw of all, the four player co-op mode, allowing you to team up online and fight through all 19 single player levels against the AI. As you might expect, this eliminates squad intelligence issues, but also introduces a bigger headache in that suddenly your buddies are a lot more vulnerable than they are in standard single-player - just a few shots reduces you to mincemeat, so you can't simply rely of your buddies to pick off the stragglers while you're cowering awaiting the medic. It's a tricky balancing act, but as a straightforward online shooter, it's actually not that bad, with some very well-designed maps providing a lot of potential for online fun, providing there are enough people populating the servers of sufficient skill to make it worthwhile.
Despite all these valid complaints, we still have a lot of affection for what Vietcong's trying to achieve, but the sorry truth is the console version just doesn't deliver on the promise of the PC original. More troubling is that in the last 18 months since VC first appeared, the technical benchmark has gone up several notches, rendering much of what's on show in this fairly shoddy conversion hideously outdated. Believe it or not (largely thanks to the online play), it's still not a bad game, and for the right price could still find a few determined fans. At full price, though, you'd be better off looking elsewhere - preferably to the PC version, which, while flawed, has plenty to admire about it.