Conflict: Vietnam Review
Just a year ago, World War II games were still all the rage, but you can only kill so many thousands of Nazis and storm the beach at Normandy but so many times before it gets tiresome. Nobody wants to kill the value of their series by putting out too many games with the same settings (Men of Honor) so the simple solution of course was to move on to a different war. The new flavor of the week is Vietnam, and already there have been several games based on the war released for both PC and consoles. The latest to enter the fray is the third game in the Conflict series entitled Conflict: Vietnam, a squad-based, third-person shooter from Global Star Software, and developed by Pivotal Games. The game's got an intense story, great music, and solid voice acting; but problems like poor controls, frustrating gameplay, and a general lack of polish keep the game from earning a gaming medal of honor.
Conflict: Vietnam follows four soldiers who become separated from their squad after the famous Tet Offensive. Stuck behind enemy lines with little to no training, you must keep yourself and your fellow soldiers alive against wave after wave of Vietcong. Along the way you'll face many challenges familiar to console war game veterans. The story starts off a little slow, with your soldier being dropped into a base with very little backstory, but after a slow start, the game gets interesting, and the action rarely stops.
Conflict's basic control scheme is simple enough, but once you start controlling four soldiers, it quickly becomes unmanageable. Giving orders to a soldier is done by pressing the L1 button, holding it down and then hitting other buttons like R2 to tell your mates to move ahead. This isn't so bad, but telling them to pick up an object and take it somewhere requires far too many button presses than you can accomplish in the heat of battle. Healing other soldiers, which is a big part of the game is also far too difficult as you must go to a menu, select the bandages, and then try and get the computer to realize that you want to heal the guy that's dying on the ground, which like giving orders, is far too difficult.
Last but not least, the controls for weapons leave a lot to be desired. Switching weapons is a pain, trying to figure out who has what gun and who has what kind of ammo is also a needless chore. Instead of soldiers picking up ammo on their own, you have to pick it up yourself, figure out who needs that particular kind of ammo, and then give it to them. You can tell each soldier to pick it up if you point them to it, but that's really no easier.
Firing your weapon, which you would think would be something that you'd really want to get straight in a war game is an exercise in futility. Shooting from the first-person perspective is near impossible due to a huge portion of the screen being taken up by your gun, not to mention the horrible collision detection for bullets. Firing from the third-person perspective is much easier since the game's auto-aim feature will actually target enemies before you see them. Don't think that this makes the game too easy, as it still can take 6 bullets from point blank range to register a hit.
If you can get past the controls, the game actually becomes enjoyable. Your squad mates are decent shots and semi-intelligent, which is a pleasant change of pace. You are encouraged to use all members of your party, because at the end of each level you'll get performance based rewards to help increase your soldiers' attributes. To be honest, it's pretty tough to tell if improved attributes really help, but it's at least a way to get you to use all of your guys. The characters you'll meet along the way are interesting and do a nice job of adding to the story, and most of the combat is pretty fun. In the later levels you'll get to drive a jeep and a tank, pilot a boat, and hit the skies in a helicopter. There's a wide variety of stuff to do here, it's just a same that the game isn't more refined.
It's a little disappointing that there's a set path you have to follow, especially when you're in the heart of a jungle, as that would have been the perfect opportunity to allow you to seek out cover and get the jump on your enemies. Instead, you're forced along a specific path with a horrendous guidance system to "help" you. The compass, which points out your objectives, jumps around all the time, sending you in circles until you check your map. Unfortunately, the map isn't much more help than the compass as it's very hard to see what paths you can take. Another negative aspect of following a set path is that the attacks of the Vietcong are pretty predictable. They'll charge relentlessly through a door, and all you've got to do is sit back and wait. It also sets you up for cheap shots, as no matter how careful you are, you're destined to end up in someone's sights. A bizarre save system, which only lets you save twice a level, rounds out a frustrating experience.
The Xbox got four player co-op support, but PS2 owners will only be able to enjoy two player support, which is still better than what most games offer. Playing with more than one person helps alleviate a lot of the game's control issues and makes the game much more fun, and less frustrating.
Rough around the edges is the best way to describe Conflict's visuals, both literally and figuratively. There are lots of aliasing issues, and the same lack of polish that plagues the gameplay can be found here. There's tons of clipping, lousy textures, and the way the game draws in textures is easy to see and it can be very distracting. In keeping with a movie-style presentation, the game does support widescreen. The default camera is rather good, which it had better be since it's so difficult to move it around on your own. Jungles aren't an easy thing to replicate in a videogame, and here Conflict does a decent job. There are tons of trees, lots of shadows, and varying levels of terrain. Another thing the game does well is smoke effects. When grenades explode, the cloud of dust makes it difficult to see, and later in the game where you're marking targets with smoke grenades so an air strike can bomb them, the smoke looks great. The game's cutscenes are pre-rendered, and while they aren't Final Fantasy quality, they do look nice.
The narrative at the beginning of the game isn't very strong, but as soon as the action gets rolling, the audio takes a turn for the better. The script is solid, and the voice acting, while too heavy on the expletives, is compelling. Pro-Logic II is supported and the game uses an aggressive mix that sounds great when you crank it up. The only negative thing about the surround sound is that when a player is talking and you turn away the sound moves to a speaker in that direction, which wouldn't be so bad, but the voice suddenly disappears from your front left and jumps to the rear left speaker, instead of slowly fading out.
Conflict: Vietnam features licensed songs to a similar effect that Forrest Gump did in the early 90's. From the Rolling Stones to Jefferson Airplane, it really makes it feel like you're in a movie when after a big battle a song like "Painted Black" fades up from the background. There's even a "Good Morning Vietnam" style radio station to listen to at the beginning, which again helps the game feel like a movie.
In the end, Conflict: Vietnam is one of those games that you want to love, but it just keeps breaking your heart. For a while you can forgive certain issues because the game is cool and the story is strong, but eventually the frustration is too much to look past. I'd say there's a lot of potential for the series, but since this is the third game and there are still so many kinks that need attention it looks like things aren't going to change. If you're into squad based games and the other Vietnam titles haven't satisfied your thirst for war, the game could be worth a purchase, but otherwise, rent only.
10/29/2004 Aaron Thomas