Battlefield Vietnam review

A well-known problem of game development, characterised by professional experts as 'The Sequential Success Conundrum', can be summed up thus: how much do you make your sequel like your previous, successful game? And how much do you change it in the name of progress? Difficult decisions must be made in long, sweaty meetings.

For the developers of this sequel to Battlefield 1942 the answer was something along the lines of: "It has to be exactly the same, only different too, please." To their credit, Digital Illusions have managed to live up to this contradictory ambition fairly well. Battlefield Vietnam is no reinvention of the theme, as Quake II was of Quake; instead it's a little more (dare I say it?) like a glorified expansion pack. Ouch.

Ga-argh! Sorry. I'm so sorry to mar the review so early with this ugly comparison, but I'm afraid it's true. Battlefield Vietnam loses out for just one reason, and that reason is that it never feels like a genuine sequel. The quantum leap isn't quantum; evolution has not created a new phenotype. It's simply not different enough or inventive enough. It doesn't feel like the next generation of vehicular combat, it's simply another well-bred offspring from the current batch. The grumpy comparisons that some people have made with the various mods of the original 1942 are a little unfair, though - Vietnam adds masses of new toys for both players and mod-makers alike. This is very much the work of professionals, with lots of time having been spent on the really boring stuff that actually makes these games happen, like making a decent server-management interface, all-new mod tools, network code for better online play, as well as graphical and audio tweaking. More importantly perhaps is the fact that it remains so enjoyable to play. This is a testament to the genius of the original design. The fact of the matter is that Battlefield is bloody brilliant.

This brilliance has made Battlefield 1942 one of our favourite games of 2002. Vietnam follows this now-familiar model to the letter. The main achievement of both Battlefield games is that they enable beginners and expert players alike to jump into complex combat situations and have loads of fun from the very first moment they pull a trigger. Vehicles, be they aircraft or heavy armour, are extremely easy to use and infantry-level combat is equally easy to understand, with nods towards realism that don't impinge on the all-important fun-factor. On the larger scale of things the strategy is always easy to comprehend. Succeed in this action and you can reinforce your men from the point when you die and then live again. Vehicles pop up across the map and you can jump in and play. For many gamers, this is multi-player heaven.

Keeping the same feel and the same degree of ease and intuition in play is utterly essential for Vietnam's success, but then so too is wowing us, making us pleased to have spent our money. How can Vietnam possibly hope to perform such a delicate balancing act?

Well to start with there's the new kit. We're talking M60s, claymores, caltrops, mortars, .44 revolvers and miscellaneous Chinese landmines. There's dynamite, heat-seeking missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and big old machetes to keep you amused. There are sniper rifles, double-barrelled flare launchers, sub-machineguns, M16 carbines, disposable anti-tank rockets, shotguns, Ak-47s and grenade-launchers painted with tiger stripes. You can be The Roach from Apocalypse Now: "He's close, man. He's real close... Mother."

Yes, Apocalypse Now outshines all the other Vietnam films, doesn't it? The madness, the violence, the music. In fact, there's one map in Battlefield Vietnam that could have been called the Apocalypse Now map. But... we'll come to that later on.

There are some tactical changes that really make a difference to the way the game plays out. The kit-selections mean you can be a heavy-support chap, a sniper/scout, an engineer or a standard rifle-carrying assault trooper. The medic is now significantly absent. Interestingly, there are also some dynamic spawn points that can be placed across the map, with deployable foxholes for the Vietcong and helicopter-dropped supply crates for the US troopers. These will certainly add new tactics to play and one of the scenarios Battlefield Vietnam offers is based around the Vietcong using their foxholes in the jungle to bag the US-dominated jungle capture-points. This is just one tool that Battlefield Vietnam uses to balance the technological might of the US against the Vietnamese guerrilla forces.

Of course the best way to balance these forces is via the implementation of loads of new vehicles. There's a slight lack of realism in their distribution across the two sides, with the Vietnamese having access to lashings of Chinese and Soviet hardware for their war. This means that it's not just the US players who get to play with helicopters.

Ah, sweet helicopters. Flying has been reinvented for Battlefield Vietnam and the helicopters are highly manoeuvrable and relatively easy to control. Of course you'll still end up looking embarrassingly clumsy as you pitch your Huey into the jungle the first few times you fly, but once you get the hang of it, you are the Air Cav. Players can board the helicopter with you and fire M60s from either side. Or, if you're flying the Russian-built Hind, you can expect half a dozen parachutists to want to be deployed over the strategic areas of the battlefield. Both helicopter types boast rockets too, which makes for formidable air support. Even more exciting is the possibility of being able to airlift vehicles around the map.

In fact the US forces slightly dominate the game's aerial aspect, employing Chinooks and B-52s to back up the Hueys and F4s that roar across the battlefields with impressive agility. The Vietcong fight back with the Mig-17 and the Mig-21, but more impressive still are their anti-air capabilities. They field both the Russian ZSU anti-aircraft tank and infantry-launched heat-seeking missiles. The skies are dangerous.

But never as dangerous as the ground, which plays host to an incredible array of death-mechanisms to feed you that final meal of shrapnel and lead. There are Russian T-54s and Patton tanks churning up mud and lobbing shells in each other's direction. There are Jeeps and APCs and mortars. There are dozens of other shooty machines, including incredibly over-the-top artillery. Play with these when you've got 5.1 sound and a big old subwoofer hooked up and you really know about it. Better still, a welcome favourite makes a return to a number of the maps: the Vespa-style scooter. While not particularly heavily armed, there is little more enjoyable than hurtling through villages, dodging explosions and harrying invading GIs as your Kalashnikov-wielding passenger shoots wildly from the back seat. Within minutes of play we were already zooming across bridges in this little beast, vast walls of fire billowing behind us as aircraft blitzed the village behind us. Ace.

Another impressive addition is that of boats. These range from the plastic motorised patrol-boats of the US Marines, to the wooden fishing rafts of the Vietnamese villagers. Many of the maps are set around coastal areas or swampy inlets and the boats can provide invaluable transport to attack bases further upriver. These boats are loads of fun, especially if you want to do sneaky manoeuvres on the larger maps. And it's the larger maps that provide the best experience of battle. They're varied and highly detailed, with as many open highland areas as dense vegetation and jungle. The smaller maps are good for urban combat and suchlike, but interiors and shattered buildings are not where Battlefield Vietnam's strengths lie. The real inspiration is to be found on the Ho Chi Minh trail or the scrubland lagoons. The chaos of 20 or more people on each team trying to fight for a small, swampy island is an invigorating experience indeed.

But there's another trick up the flared sleeves of this rock 'n' roll conflict: music. And I'm not just talking about the instrumental version of White Rabbit that dominates the options screen, either. Music has actually been implemented into the game itself, so that every vehicle has a radio and that radio can be heard beyond the vehicle cockpit. This means if the Marines in the Jeep that races past are listening to Wild Thing then you'll be able to hear it too. This adds enormously to the feel of this actually being a Vietnam experience: lashings of atmosphere are endowed on the proceedings by this single concept. It's obviously a cheap trick, but an effective one. Hell, you'll be smoking Thai marijuana and making 'Charlie don't surf' quips before you know it. The soundtrack includes The Kinks 'You Really Got Me' and 'All Day and All of the Night', Jefferson Airplane's 'White Rabbit' and 'Somebody to Love', Deep Purple's 'Hush', Bobby Fuller's 'I Fought the Law', Edwin Starr's 'War (What is it Good For?)' and of course, Wagner's 'The Ride of the Valkyries'. This selection of music really adds weight to the Hollywood interpretation of the '60s and '70s that you'd expect from a game made by this generation of people. People for whom this is entertainment. People like us, who were actually nothing to do with the savage atrocity of one of the most appalling conflicts of all time. Hmm.

Anyway, what all this adds up to is the pre-surfing assault scene from Apocalypse Now: yes, you can actually participate in the Air Cavalry's Wagner-fuelled attack on the beach-base, complete with opera blaring from the speakers and somebody in an F4 laying napalm down on the tree-line beyond. Boom. Incredible. Glorious. Silly too, and reeking of a strangely moving machismo. This kind of escapism is what PC gaming seems to have become all about. Of course, once you're in-game it's unlikely to go entirely the US team's way, as the Vietcong have plenty of weapons to defend themselves with. Aside from the guns and vehicles we've already mentioned, they have traps aplenty, including deployable stake-pits and giant Ewok-style rolling log traps. So very cool.

Of course I've been discussing this all in the manner in which it's meant to be played - as a multi-player game. But there's more to be found in the single-player version. The instant action and campaign maps have been augmented by a challenge mode where you must undertake extra-curricular missions to complete the objectives, including such delights as getting a certain number of headshots, or running a certain number of people over with a Vespa. The limited ability to customise the appearance of your player model is increased by unlocking these single-player bonuses. This was never meant to be a single-player game, but if you must, it's there.

In the world beyond the servers, political quibbling seems likely to arise once again as controversial wars make for more fun gaming but, putting that aside entirely, we're still left with the best Vietnam war game so far. It's also one of the best online multi-player games of recent times. The fact that Battlefield Vietnam does seem to hark towards territory normally covered by free mods or expansion packs means that a few people will wince at buying this at full price. But then we also believe that there is enough in the way of new toys and new gaming experiences to make this a worthwhile investment of money and your precious time.

I paraphrase my distinguished colleague Mr Edwards when I say that this is one game that you won't really care if you miss out on, but also a game that you'll definitely be glad of if you do decide to make it your next adventure behind a gun. Put that paradox in your pipe and smoke it.

Battlefield Vietnam in out on PC on 19 March

The methods are not unsound and there is no battle horror here. A worthy sequel

More Info

Available Platforms: PC


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