A couple of months ago, reviewers were having problems handling Men of War: Vietnam. Not because it was broken, but because the difficulty was so severe that both Rock Paper Shotgun and Kotaku writers couldn’t get past level one for the entirety of their reviews. Because of this, RPS’ review was entitled ‘The First Level of Men of War: Vietnam.’

Since then, 1C’s in house Digitalmindsoft has patched the easy difficulty setting allowing for a much more forgiving experience. Now we can review the stand-alone expansion of this venerable series with the respect that it deserves.

Although an expansion, Vietnam shares little with his father, Men of War: Assault Squad - a game requiring tactical resource management, unit purchasing and, most importantly, a constant stream of reinforcements. Whilst the UI, graphics (the graphical updates were ported to Assault Squad, thanks 1C!) and general tone of the game oozes that Men of War charm, there are several striking differences that left me bemused when I started playing it for the first time – such as awkward control scheme changes.

Still, Vietnam is repaired – and a decent game in it’s own right, so what is it about?

A rare gem among the genre, Men of War: Vietnam throws players into the jungle of Vietnam for an intimate and challenging RTS experience. Unlike Assault Squad, Vietnam features a fully voice acted, scripted single player experience for the Vietcong and US forces.

Mechanics

Vietnam requires expert excecution of all the mechanics the Men of War series has to offer; from direct control of the character, Commandos style, to stance control and ammunition replenishment right down to the UI features, such as ‘show items’, ‘show corpses’ etc. The mechanics are tight and clean; they work well, and, although they take a while to get used to, remain integral to completion on any difficulty.

New fans of the series will probably wonder to what degree the mechanics actually work. For example, mission three of the North Vietnamese campaign, you’ve a team of five who’s job it is to sneak around a village, steal TNT, take out machine gun posts, blow up a supply depot, ammo supply and 7 t-35′s – all without being seen, in dead of night. Starting this mission, I wondered exactly how close I could I could get, how much noise I could make and how weapons would work, etc, before the entire village came down on my head. I was anxious, but totally in vain.

So long as you’re prone, you can get as close as you like without rousing attentions. The thick brush of the jungle provides ample cover, with sneaking between bushes and trees a breeze. The snipers silencer worked a treat, and so long as you don’t pop any heads around the other enemies, sneaking works really well.

As ever, cover is implemented well in Vietnam, with units crouching, leaning and standing around objects just as you’d expect. They have retained the ‘ghosting’ cover graphic that shows you exactly where and how every unit will stand, which, in this unforgiving stand-alone expansion is life saving.

Taking control of your unit is a bigger deal in Vietnam than it was in previous titles, with land-mines and trees and the canopy of the brush to get in the way and impair your view, you might want a little more control. I personally map character movement to my Nostromo’s d-pad, but generally you’ll be using the numpad to control a unit, retaining movement of the map with the arrow keys – a change from Assault Squad’s method whereby you’d get pot-shot by an AT gun a mile down the map because map control was so fiddly.

On the note of sound, from the rustle of the bushes to the clack of machine guns – it delivers on immersion, but falls short of accuracy. It’s up to you to decide the import of accuracy, but there’s enough boom and detail to immerse you into the jungle and get you screaming Mel Gibson in ‘We Were Soldiers’.

Gameplay

Vietnam focuses on tight unit control, most of the game entailing purely infantry. Keeping your team alive is just as important as eliminating key AO points on the map. Clever use of cover, silencers and explosives give the player the upper hand as you make your way across the map, hitting targets relative to whatever the story objective might be. The gameplay is split between cut-scenes of context, voice acted in true Men of War style (badly).

If you’re coming from Company of Heroes or even Assault Squad, it’s important to note that this isn’t a base building game, and, regarding Assault Squad, features a more streamlined, story experience. You get what you’re given, and you don’t get them replaced. Because of this, you’ll find yourself saving the game practically after every kill; although it doesn’t tell you, as you lose members of your squad and reach the end of your objective, the map will open up to reveal more. If you’re stuck with two or three members towards the end of a mission you may be giving yourself a hard time. This might sound annoying, but, this play-style isn’t really all too rare. Mistakes cannot be made in Men of War: Vietnam, and that’s something that drew people to the franchise in the first place. Under heavy criticism that Assault Squad was too easy, 1C has swayed heavily to the latter end of the spectrum and delivered a truly punishing experience.

There are tanks towards the end of the game, but because of the ‘you get what you’re given’ nature of Vietnam, use of said armour is conservative and apprehensive. Needless to say, if you lose a tank you aint’ getting it back.

In reality, Vietnam isn’t as rough around the edges as it looks. The mechanics work well and the gameplay has depth. The difficulty isn’t a mistake, the game is balanced for it. And whilst many of us will be upset with a lack of competitive multiplayer, as this is a co-op story game, if you allow yourself to get stuck in and adopt to the rules of Men of War you’ll find a truly rewarding gaming experience to be had.

Visuals

At risk of losing my objectivity, Men of War: Vietnam looks like a 1C game – It looks like a PC game. Whilst a little rough around the edges, the tank models and animation and destruction show a lot of love. Vehicles in particular, as ever, are modeled beautifully well and certainly rival Company of Heroes. Still, the world textures, although improved in Vietnam, still look a little jagged with poor AA implementation. The jungle is beautiful, though – with thick brush, grass and rubbery, reflective flora and fauna.

All of this comes at a cost, though – it’s so damn hard to see anything. Enemies show as a red dot on the map, which is basically where your eyes will be set for 60% of the game. There’s an option to show corpses, highlighted in red, and an option to show your team in blue – but any living enemies will remain unseen, requiring you to really dive down and level out the camera to get under the brush.

It’s not all doom and gloom in that respect, though. Entering manual fire and pumping out machine gun rounds into the thick jungle is incredibly pleasing, and blowing up huts and tress with grenades or launchers really gives you that chaotic Vietnam feel. That’s what they were going for, and they pulled it off.

The UI is neat and tidy, reminiscent of Wargame, with easy to read tabs. There’s plenty to see in the bottom left and right of the GUI, with all bindable actions just a click away. Much of what you need to succeed in the game is offered on the UI, allowing for easy integration into the style of the series.

By no means is Men of War: Vietnam an ugly game, but it’s also not a beautiful one. It’s meta in that it oozes Men of War charm and appeases our need for more. It is a functional, visual experience – and the atmosphere of the jungle really is at your fingertips. After-all, we’d only be complaining if our beautifully modeled and visually realistic rock had a poorly programmed hit-box and our whole squad died because of poor foresight and too much emphasis on a pretty world – not an excuse, perhaps – but functionalism is important when everything in this game is trying to kill you. 

Is Men of War: Vietnam for me?

If you were to tell me you were going to try Vietnam because you’re a fan of Company of Heroes and thought it’d be cool to shove that all in a jungle, I’d say you should do a little research before you commit to the purchase – and even players of Assault Squad need to realise that this is a story driven, stand alone expansion to the series. There isn’t a single competitive element.

Read this review, understand that this is a difficult, intimate game with a steep learning curve and an emphasis on trial and error. If you’re still infatuated with the idea of an RTS set in the Vietnamese conflict, and take that on board with a pinch of salt and an open mind, then you’ll have a great – albeit stressful – time in Men of War: Vietnam. 

What there is here is good, but there isn’t really enough. If they’d adopted the multiplayer of Assault Squad and expanded upon the units and weapons of the era, I could have given this a much more positive score – but as it is, Men of War: Vietnam earns stars for a decent, challenging and rewarding gaming experience for what’s left of the PC gaming demographic.