Reviewed: March 4, 2004
Released: February 12, 2004
Before we dive into the review for Vietcong: Fist Alpha I should probably point out that this is an expansion pack, just part of the 4-CD game Vietcong: Purple Haze that was sent to us for review. Purple Haze includes both the original Vietcong and the Fist Alpha expansion pack, but for those who already have the original game Fist Alpha is also sold separately. Please keep this in mind when taking our final score into consideration. Purple Haze is an excellent value while the expansion pack by itself is a fairly short experience.
I was literally blown away last summer when I got to play and review the original Vietcong. Feel free to check out that review for specifics on that title, as I will only be covering what is new in this expansion pack. Fist Alpha is a prequel to last years jungle combat simulator, so if this is your first trip to Vietnam and you have just purchased the Purple Haze combo game then you could conceivably play the expansion first and follow a linear timeline.
In this game you play as Warren Douglas, a long serving US Army soldier who is approaching the end of his tour of duty. His recent crisis of conscious, faith in his superiors, or even his reason for being in Vietnam are forcing him to consider leaving the army. Since Sergeant, Steve Hawkins is his replacement in the original game I'll leave it to you to figure out what happens to Douglas in this adventure.
Those of you who played the original will remember your home base, Nui Pek, that dirty hilltop camp out in the middle of nowhere. In Fist Alpha you take part in the missions that scout the area where this future camp will be built as well as defend the site during its construction. In fact, it's on your initial scouting mission where Fist Alpha begins. A jet fighter on routine patrol takes some AA fire. The pilot ejects and the plane crashes into the jungle and Douglas gets the call for a rescue mission.
You will gradually be introduced to your team made up of several familiar members of the original game. Crocker, the medic, Bronson, the demolitions expert and all-around hardware guy, and DeFort, the radioman are back. Ngyen is your "point man" and will lead you on most of your explorations into enemy territory. His familiarity with the area, culture, and language makes him a crucial member of the team. Perhaps one of the best elements of the Vietcong games is the element of teamwork. You are often required to rely on your squad, calling on your medic to heal you or your radioman to place an important call to base, call in an airstrike, or an emergency evac.
One thing that Vietcong had going for it that Fist Alpha maintains is a total level of immersion from the opening movie to the closing credits. Unless you hit the ESC key to bring up the menu you are never taken out of Vietnam. All of your in-game decision are made through interactive environments like clipboards, radio, notebooks, etc. If you want to outfit yourself before a mission you don't go through some invasive menu; you head to the armory and handpick your weapons and ammo.
Fist Alpha comes with the same training mission as the original game. Veterans of Vietcong can skip this unless you think you need a fresher course, but I highly encourage all grunts to check it out. There is some invaluable information contained in this interactive boot camp complete with a barking drill sergeant right out of Full Metal Jacket.
Vietcong features what I consider to be one of the most difficult, yet totally realistic targeting systems in any FPS game to date. You basically carry any firearm at your side with a typical targeting crosshair out on the horizon. If you fire this way you have a slim chance to hit whatever is in that crosshair, but if you ďaimĒ your weapon the gun will come up from your side and you will be peering down the barrel using the real sight on the gun. It takes a bit of practice but itís extremely cool and very realistic.
Fist Alpha consists of seven new missions arranged in a campaign-like structure. These are structured so that they are quite unique with varying objectives ranging from generic recon assignments to rescue, search and destroy, and base defense. You'll get to go meet the "natives" on a goodwill mission, recon the area for the new base, then defend the base as it is being built. Mission are often quite long and consist of several parts or objectives.
Danger is always lurking in the thick jungle and you never know when you will hear that high-pitched whine of a bullet from some unseen enemy. If you are lucky some bark from a nearby tree will be the only casualty, but you can easily fall victim to a one-shot kill. Vietcong is brutally real in its damage model and it only takes one or two clean shots to kill or be killed. Nothing is as intense as getting hit by a bullet followed by the screen going red and your heartbeat drowning out all other sounds.
Much of the tension is derived from long periods with no enemy contact. While this can get boring at times it just makes those sudden encounters that much more surprising and terrifying. To add to the excitement is a great cast of characters that will react just like you would expect and probably like what you have seen in movies. Youíll be wading knee-deep through a swamp when the bullets start flying and your men will start shouting and diving for cover.
This leads to the AI portion of the review. The enemy AI is brutal. During one particular encounter my team was ambushing a group of VC that were trying to ambush us. Once alerted to our presence these guys dispersed and took cover behind rocks and trees. I thought I would be smart and climb the trail leading to a high ledge where I could snipe the enemy. While I managed to take out a few the resulting rain of grenades on my location ended my life quite quickly. This is one of the few, if not only game the stresses the importance of moving to a new location after each shot. The enemy is very good about zeroing in on your position, either by sound or muzzle flash.
The AI of my men is pretty impressive and you are given basic commands to make them do your bidding. You can adjust their agression level, have them stay put, defend an area, retreat or advance. They are pretty good about following your orders and most of your men can take care of themselves and can usually survive most encounters. There were a few rare instances when one of my team would pop-up in my line of fire and I would accidentally kill him and fail the mission. My native guide in one of the missions would often rush into enemy fire and die, so I had to keep an extra eye on him, but I found that oddly realistic.
Fist Alpha is brutally hard. Some of the missions are considerably more challenging than anything in the original game, but the game features the same excellent save system as the original. The game autosaves after each radio communication back to base and you are also allowed a certain number of quicksaves based on your chosen difficulty level that you can use whenever you like.
There is an excellent selection of weaponry in Vietcong and Fist Alpha adds eight new weapons and the much anticipated bayonet feature, although you will seldom ever get close enough to stick anyone. You'll get to lob grenades, plant C4 charges, and disarm booby traps in some very realistic missions that are so complex and strategically designed that I wouldn't be surprised if they were based on real missions.
The original Vietcong suffered from several bugs and performance issues but those have long since been resolved with updates and patches. Fist Alpha respresents the latest version of the Vietcong game engine and the game was flawless. It has never looked better or run smoother but you are still going to need a beefy system to experience this game as it was meant to be played.
Vietcong is a visually stunning game if you have a suitable system to play it on. My Athlon 3200 with 1gb RAM and FX5900 video card delivered a breathtaking experience at 1600x1200. If Vietnam is half as beautiful as this game then it should be an exotic vacation spot instead of a battlefield. While perilous, the jungles come to life with rich lush detail. Massive gnarled trees rise up to a canopy thick enough to block the sunlight. Bushes, small trees, and vegetation sway in the breeze and perhaps the most amazing aspect of all is that you see virtually no repetition. Every tree looks different, every rock a unique shape and size.
The movies are all generated with the game engine and with the exception of the letterbox format you would have a hard time knowing when the gameplay ends and the movies start. This allows for a seamless integration of the story and some of these elements are actually interactive such as the radio messages. If you aren't careful you can actually get shot while calling your base.
Architecture is simple, but justifiably so and the textures are suitably detailed and gritty. Wood looks like wood and so does grass, trees, water, dirt, and anything else used to create a major section of Vietnam on your computer. The temple level exterior is stunning and looks like something out of National Geographic, surrounded by multi-tiered farmlands. There are complex tunnels, an underground weapons factory, and even a friendly native village.
Character models are excellent. If you have played Mafia or Hidden and Dangerous you will know what to expect. While the faces are a bit surreal at times the level of texture detail is exquisit with unique features, facial hair, detailed clothing, and realistic weapon models.
I have to give the sound in Vietcong some pretty high marks. The music that plays in the main menu is beyond crystal clear. The 60ís theme music carries on throughout the game borrowing on musical themes made popular in movies dealing with the Vietnam War. You'll hear plenty of familiar tunes in the movies and on your radio in the bunkhouse.
The speech is all really good with plenty of foreign accents and unique personalities. There were a few characters that talked too much in my opinion but there is nothing stopping you from walking away. I did think the radio chatter lasted a long time with all of the protocol issues and such, but you can skip this easy enough if you get impatient..
The authentic sound effects are what really steal the show here with every subtle jungle noises you can think of combined with realistic weapons fire for each of the numerous firearms you can use. You'll hear crickets, frogs, and VC soldiers yelling in their own language. You're men will be calling out for assistance or yelling taunts like "Communist Pig!" while they unload their clip into the hillside at fleeing enemies. There is the crackle and static of radio chatter and the occasional helicopter flying overhead. Perhaps the most amazing effect is when you are in the blast radius of a grenade. All of the audio is instantly muffled and you hear a high-pitched whine in your ears for several minutes and all other sounds are barely audible.
Fist Alpha is hard and you will die or fail your mission many times but it never gets terribly frustrating. This expansion should keep you busy for about ten hours on the normal difficulty. As an expansion, it's not a terrific value, even with the new weapons and multiplayer content that you could get for free with the latest patch, but those who are new to the game and get the Purple Haze compilation will find exceptional value in that package with more than 30 hours of combat gaming.
There is a good multiplayer component that features cooperative and versus play but donít even think about playing this online unless you have a powerful system and broadband Internet. There are plenty of deathmatch and team modes as well as the new Turn Table mode which is a sort of CTF game. Your team must capture a group of flags and when all of the flags have been captured the sides are reversed and you do it all over again. Whoever captures all the flags in the shortest amount of time wins. It's a varation of the assault mode in Unreal Tournament and it's a lot of fun.
Vietcong: Fist Alpha is a decent expansion pack that offers many exciting new missions, which only makes it that much more sad when the game is over all too soon. The game is intense and the variety of missions and objectives keeps things fresh throughout the entire campaign. Following Bronson's exact steps through a live mine field was certainly a novelty.
If you played and enjoyed the original Vietcong then picking up Fist Alpha is a no-brainer. It might be a bit short for a $20 expansion pack but what else can offer you this much fun for $2 an hour. But for those of you who haven't played the original game and are looking for one of the best combat action games out there I highly recommend getting a copy of Vietcong: Purple Haze so you can enjoy both titles at a very affordable price.
There are many combat games out there and many are technically better than Vietcong, but there is nothing more immersive or representative of the close-quarters jungle warfare of Vietnam than this game. The realistic environments and engaging characters combined with the story and mission designs will have you living this experience.