We've had thinking men's action games before, but with Men of Valor, 2015 seems to be set on populating Vietnam with thinking men and leaving you and your squad-mates to worry about them. The AI displayed by your NVA enemies, the developer insists, is some of the most adaptive and persistent ever encountered. Of course, we've heard claims like that before, but when we're creeping through the jungle and all of a sudden a bush rustles behind us and starts unloading Kalashnikov rounds into the back of our head, we have to put our hands up and admit it's probably going to be a tougher trek through than most.
Vietnam is already a much-visited conflict in gaming terms, of course, but having watched most of the award-winning Medal of Honor: Allied Assault team depart to continue plundering World War II for inspiration, the rejuvenated 2015 is determined to make its name again - and Men of Valor certainly takes a lot of bold steps with that in mind. In addition to the AI, there's an intuitive health mechanic that requires far more application than others (by holding a bandage button to try and limit injuries as you continue to fend off your enemies), a restricted number of restarts per map, no instant quick-save, restricted munitions (and having to ransack downed enemies for more rather than just walking over them), and a rather slow movement speed - offset by the fact that you can sprint, but can't fire at the same time.
The scenarios are, as we told you when we looked at the Xbox version recently, a lot more chaotic than the average objective-driven war FPS. Missions change on the fly, you have to worry about allies that you can't order about and belligerent commanding officers with badly aimed mortars, targets have to be laced and then evacuated before the napalm lets fly, and the jungle is positively suffocating. It's a linear adventure, but it doesn't have the same feeling of rigid linearity about it. And probing through jungles and tackling enemies, diving between cover points and leaning out to try and finely tune your firing line, whilst desperately trying to conserve your health long enough to reach the next checkpoint in a decent state, is a different sort of task. You'll still find shades of Allied Assault in tasks like strapping charges to weapons emplacements, but the game has certainly moved on.
A Shade Apart
But while the Xbox version certainly has all that going for it, the PC version that 2015 is developing concurrently is shaping up to be a much more interesting proposition. Here, in its native environment, the Unreal-based tech brings Vietnam to life, making full use of DirectX 9 and tacking on various Pixel Shader 3.0 enhancements to transform the vast single-player missions that run the whole length of the war into a gorgeous spectacle, with denser foliage, sharper textures and more detailed character models - right down to the ammo packs on soldiers' clothing, ripples in the cloth and rank and insignia - and a couple of other showpiece effects: parallax mapping and real-time reflections.
Parallax mapping, first, is a similar sort of thing to the 'normal mapping' approach that was so celebrated in The Chronicles of Riddick on Xbox, and looks to define much of the periphery visual effects in Doom III and Half-Life 2. Although the normal mapping process is a bit different - normal mapping produces a texture with lighting information that gives the 2D plane a lot more depth, and allows it to react like a 3D object to real-time lighting effects - parallax mapping is still an impressive and integral element of bringing Vietnam to life. In the vast outdoor environments, corrugated iron that really looks corrugated whatever the angle adds extra geometry to the illusion of a seamless world, and unless you're probing claustrophobic moon bases or prison interiors, the lack of dynamic light reaction proves less important. Indeed, when your pseudo-3D object is busy writhing in the midst of smouldering heat haze and flanked on all sides by individually modelled blades of grass flapping in the breeze, it's an effect that makes a real difference.
The real clincher though is the volume of reflective effects that 2015 has managed to work into the game. Wade across a small lake and everything is picked up and reflected with a delicate glassiness - the foliage, the jets overhead, the character models as their hips struggle against the liquid, even the flash on the end of the muzzle as their guns spit lead death in the direction of entrenched NVA. And yet despite the volume of effects on display, the game still maintains a very rundown and gritty look, piled high with rubble and busted trucks and generally built up like the sort of crumbling, overgrown, boxed back garden that probably lurks untended behind your mate's bedsit. Albeit without the shopping trolleys.
One of the biggest differences between the Xbox and PC versions, however, is the multiplayer aspect. The modes are the same, but playing a first-person shooter online is always a very different experience on the PC, not least of all on account of the larger player capacity (2015 is aiming for 24), but in terms of the sharpness of control and style of play - something the developer is working to get a handle on. During our recent playtest, we tackled 20 or so adversaries in a class-based deathmatch game on one of the PC's exclusive multiplayer maps (of which several are planned) - a gritty, bombed out set of city streets, stuffed to the shattered girders with overturned vehicles, unkempt foliage, crumbling masonry and vantage spots aplenty.
Both the US Army and NVA were represented with seven classes apiece, each with a specific loadout of weaponry that can be changed prior to respawning. Riflemen and marine snipers proved popular early on, only for swathes of machine gunners with their enormous guns and high firing rates to quickly take advantage and start clearing them out of the sliced up ruins upon which they perched, but it wasn't long before a lot of folks settled on a particular breed of Vietnamese soldier, equipped with both a rifle and a rocket launcher. It's a balancing issue, really, but it's already quite an enjoyable multiplayer game - racing around, trying to stay out of sight of snipers and other rocket-toting players, and watching RPGs soaring through the air just in time to catch a sniper as he unwisely pokes his head out from behind cover.
One of the more interesting aspects was the inclusion of booby traps, which the NVA regularly set up in the single-player game, and which can be enormous fun if you think carefully enough - and wind up chasing an enemy through a narrow doorway only for him to realise just a minute too late why you're not wasting much ammo on him. Heck, we got French people to swear at us doing that, so it must be good, right?
It's hardly the most exotic extrapolation of FPS multiplayer we've encountered, you're probably thinking, but it is relatively solid, and 2015 is still adjusting it, having made some sensible changes already - like the addition of a one-button quick-throw for grenades. Truthfully though, we're more interested in the other modes - particularly the co-operative, which should (fingers crossed) also be playable over the Internet and via LANs, just like the competitive modes. 2015 is apparently planning ten historical scenarios that work as objective-based missions, and that seems to be in addition to the main single-player game, which also works with a pair of GIs at the controls.
Other gametypes include a team-based variant on the deathmatch mode we tried out, and more objective-based team endeavours - like having to capture documents from an enemy stronghold, or collecting mortar components from around a map to blow up an objective while the other team tries to prevent you doing so. 2015 is also including a Domination style territorial control option, and we got the impression that's not all.
On the whole, there's just a sense that while the Xbox version could be good, the PC version is where a lot of the last year or so of extra development has been focused. There are many more elements to it - including a single-player mission in which you recapture the Imperial Palace in Hue after the Tet Offensive, which is apparently so intensive that the Xbox couldn't handle it - and it's going to look phenomenal on the right kit. Ah, you say, and surely that is the question - what sort of system is it going to take to take advantage of the things that Men of Valor does? Probably, we'd reply, about the same sort of system you'd need to make Unreal Tournament 2004 look the part. System requirements have yet to be set in stone, but - Pixel Shader 3.0 support aside - hopefully it won't be out of most people's reach.
Looks Aren't Everything
Yet, all that said, Men of Valor still has a lot to do to prove itself in some respects. Some more distinctive multiplayer ideas would be helpful, and on the single-player front there's the continuing concern that it's solid in some areas, but a bit inconsistent in others - particularly in narrative terms (2015 apparently prefers not to draw any conclusions about the conflict, but doesn't shy away from trying to reflect on the civil rights issues going on back in America at the time). But it has a lot of good ideas, and on this evidence the PC version is certainly going to look the part to back them up. If the team can consistently live up to some of the more enjoyable scenarios we've encountered - like a particularly overwhelming jungle hill trek - and delivers on the co-op promises, we'll certainly be keen to check it out later this year.
Men of Valor: The Vietnam War is due out on PC and Xbox this October. For more information, have a look at our recent Xbox impressions, and our two-part interview with 2015 addressing issues pertaining to the game itself, as well as some of the more controversial aspects of making a Vietnam shooter.
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