Reviewed: October 29, 2004
Released: September 10, 2004
Somebody in the game industry decided that 2004 would be a good year to slam us with an unceasing flow of Vietnam titles. While WWII has always been a popular fountain of source material for games and movies, Vietnam, perhaps due to it’s controversial nature, has never shared a fraction of the limelight. Eidos and Guerilla Games are hoping to change that with ShellShock: Nam ‘67, just one of several games based on the Vietnam war.
With no less than four Vietnam-inspired titles hitting shelves all within weeks of each other, military action gamers have some hard choices to make, unless your pockets run deep and your tolerance for mediocre games is high. After my 7-hour tour of duty in Guerilla’s vision of Vietnam, I was left as uninspired as the developers must have been making this game.
Before ShellShock, my only previous experience with a Vietnam game had been Gathering’s Vietcong: Purple Haze, outstanding on the PC, utter crap on the consoles. I was still in search of a good console war game that took me to the dangerous jungles of Vietnam, and unfortunately, I still am.
ShellShock tries to distinguish itself from its three competing titles by promising disturbing realism or as the PR hype would have you believe, "the shocking realities and tragedies of what actually happened out in the jungle." Admittedly, the cutscenes live up to their promise of brutality, and the salty language would have a sailor blushing, but once you get into the actually gameplay, things just fall apart.
Perhaps I simply feel betrayed because I was suckered in by the months of PR hype leading up to this game, the TV marketing campaign that still assaults me (and I don’t watch that much TV), and even the back of the box. There is a fine line between truth and advertising and Eidos is teetering on the edge of outright deception.
The promised “character growth” would have you believing there was going to be a skill system in place that would let you assign points, or at best improve various skills like shooting, stealth, bomb disposal, disarming traps, etc. No such luck. Yes, your character does get promoted from grunt to Special Forces, but this is only a superficial treatment through a cutscene. It has absolutely no effect on gameplay.
The core gameplay is more action-shooter than military-sim, not that I was suspecting anything along the lines of Full Spectrum Warrior mind you. You play from a third-person view but can aim down the site for a little first-person shooting gallery fun as you pop the Cong coming over the hills or peeking out of bunkers.
The damage model and health system is ridiculously forgiving, taking what little edge there may have been from the game and eliminating it entirely. The rest of your squad is pretty much impervious to damage so they can conveniently die in scripted cutscenes to fuel your rage and quest for vengeance, not that you’ll develop any emotional attachment to your men. You, yourself can magically heal by simply removing yourself from the action and keeping out of trouble for a few seconds. I was reminded of HALO where the shield recharges after a few moments of silence only now it’s your health.
AI is pretty weak. Your men don’t have to be smart since they aren’t going to die until the scriptwriter says they die. The enemy doesn’t have to be smart because they have an endless supply of screaming Viet Cong to throw at you. You might see the occasional “smart” one take cover and lob a grenade but most simply rush at you or run around in chaotic patterns making the whole game a big turkey shoot. ShellShock also employs scripted spawning, which means that enemies will spawn behind you after you’ve cleared an area - painfully annoying at first, but mindlessly predictable on future replays.
While the missions try to offer some interesting objectives, the core of them all relies on you shooting just about everything that moves and possibly blowing up or securing a few key targets. Even when the mission indicates a bit of stealth would be useful, there is nothing built into the controls or gameplay to actually give the game any stealth quality.
All of the missions are linked through the central hub known as your base camp. This is an interesting concept, for about 15 minutes, then you have seen everything and talked to everyone, and it becomes more of a diversion, and even slightly annoying. You’ll get to hear some cool 60’s tunes over the PA along with some announcements. There is even a bartering system in place that allows you to trade loot taken from the enemy for chits, so you can buy things like drugs, postcards, and a pass off the base to enjoy some “female companionship”. I’m sure banging the local whores was a reality of war, but to include it in the game (nothing is even shown other than a shaking hut), and then to offer CG-rendered photos of the hookers as unlockable rewards just seems cheap. Vietnam was a war, not a peep show.
ShellShock fails to capture the ambiance of Vietnam the way Purple Haze did. There just isn’t enough dense foliage to have me believing I’m in the jungle. Even so, the level design is admirable and the outdoor environments are large with impressive draw distance, and a soft haze filter that gives the game a jungle humidity quality.
Buildings are as simple as it gets with no complex architecture or texturing. Huts, barracks, and anything else you can enter are simple box-like structures. There isn’t a lot of set dressing so most buildings are oddly empty or sparsely decorated at best.
Character design is very nice but some of the animation is just horrible. Headshots result in an explosion that looks like the target had an M80 in his mouth. Unless you are using a shotgun at close range heads just don’t “pop”. Limbs can also get blasted off by gunfire or explosions, but these animations pale to those found in even older games like Soldier of Fortune. In ShellShock, the limbs merely drop off like something in a Monty Python sketch.
I will give credit for some of the most brutal cutscenes I have witnessed in a video game. The horrors of war are brought to incredible life with violent and bloody animations that at times can get a bit gratuitous. One particularly disturbing scene of a hooker getting beaten and executed seemed to have been there only for the shock value.
Again, I will give credit where credit is due and ShellShock features a great collection of 60’s tunes that puts you right into the era. The music is mainly confined to the menus, cutscenes and your exploration of the base camp leaving the eerie silence of the jungle to dominate the gameplay.
Sound effects are good from an environmental aspect. There are traditional jungle noises, insects, trickling water, etc. but the game really suffers when it comes to the weapon effects. None of the guns in the game sound all that threatening, although explosions are powerful. I do have to take points off for not including any type of surround support. This is certainly a game that would have benefited from 3D surround sound.
The voice acting is good for the most part despite the heavy use of foul language. I’m no choirboy, but you can always tell when characters are cussing to emphasize a point, and when they are cussing to “shock” the listener. The quality of the voices can be a bit low at times, often hollow with even some static, and that’s the guy I’m talking to directly. It’s almost like all the dialogue was run through the radio filter.
I just can’t shake the feeling that ShellShock should have been a budget title from the start. The only thing that even remotely keeps it competitive with the rest of the Vietnam titles is the presentation, and even that is lacking. There is no progressive scan, no surround sound, no online play, no nothing, other than a short and simple action shooter.
The dozen or so missions will take anywhere from 6-8 hours and you’ll have no reason to go back and replay it anytime soon. I’d still rank ShellShock higher than the console version of Purple Haze, but I have a feeling that any of the other Vietnam games you can also choose from at this time would make a more solid offering. If your curiosity is getting the best of you then give Nam ‘67 a rental before you shuck out the full price.
ShellShock: Nam ’67 is shocking on several levels. The cutscenes are shockingly brutal, the language is shockingly harsh, and the gameplay is shockingly bad. While the media would have you believe there is some epic war experience waiting for you in Nam ’67, it simply boils down to an action shooter that requires very little thought or skill.
Some action gamers might get their money’s worth in a weekend rental or a budget purchase, but anyone looking for a quality squad-based military game had better look elsewhere. ShellShock might be shocking, but it wimps out where it counts. Save your chits for something else.