Vietcong was probably the first time PC gamers got a taste of real virtual Vietnam action. It was brutal, it was action packed, and it was challenging - all of which worked in its favor for creating the best Vietnam experience around. However, with Battlefield Vietnam from EA and Dice.se lurking, Gathering have released Vietcong: First Alpha, an addon pack for owners of the original game featuring some new weapons, maps and the same classic gameplay. For the new comers out there, addon packs are pretty useless, so Gathering also released Vietcong: Purple Haze, a 4 disc pack featuring both Vietcong and the newly released Fist Alpha add-on pack, designed specifically for an all-in-one solution to anyone who missed out purchasing the original. Can both Purple Haze and First Alpha please their respective audience?
The difficulty of both the original and Fist Alpha is moderate on the lowest settings, which makes for a pretty decent challenge. However, sometimes the difficulty becomes a little 'over done' so to speak. Maybe it is just me getting use to FPS games with easy opponents, but sometimes the accuracy and reaction of your enemies are uncanny - not to mention their ability to 'guess' exactly where you are. This is acceptable in most cases considering the fact you're in their jungle with an obvious disadvantage in an unknown environment, however this doesn't quite explain why enemies are sitting outside the exit of a tunnel you're walking through without possibly knowing of your existence with their guns pointed and ready to fire, waiting for your head to pop out.
There is no doubting that both Vietcong and Vietcong Fist Alpha replicate the most realistic Vietnam atmosphere in PC gaming at the time of writing, however with Battlefield Vietnam only around the corner, this may change - atleast as far as multiplayer goes. Vietcong features multiplayer with up to 64 players, with Fist Alpha introducing 8 new maps along with new weapons including the M14, Sten SGM, Scorpion Machine Pistol, and more, not to mention the fact that rifles for both sides now have bayonets attached, so if Battlefield Vietnam does offer a superior multiplayer experience, it is going to have to try very hard.
Along with these goodies in Fist Alpha comes 7 new single player missions. As far as addon packs go, 7 new missions is not really all that impressive, which means Fist Alpha is definitely for the gamer who enjoys both the offline and online aspects. Nevertheless, the 7 missions are no push over, so they will still require a decent length of time to complete.
Unfortunately, both the original and Fist Alpha suffer from what I simply call "buggy gameplay". If the unpredictable robot like accuracy and intelligence of some enemies as mentioned before doesn't frustrate you, then your teammates probably will. Often I found that teammates would lag behind considerable, sometimes to the point where I actually had to go back and retrieve them. The cause for this varies, sometimes it was because of distant unthreatening enemies that we left behind without killing, other times it was simply because they became stuck. What makes this matter worse though is the fact a lot of the game's triggered events rely on your teammates, for example, sometimes you have to command your anti-communist Vietnamese teammate to lead the way to find the next objective since he is familiar with the jungle, however if he becomes stuck or in some sort of buggy loop, you can't proceed. Often these problems fix themselves, but not after some time wasting frustration.
Other than this however, the AI is reasonably strong, specifically during combat, despite the fact that on occasions teammates will attempt to fire even with an object in from of them (like a tree, for instance). Most of the time their fire is useful and since they also seem to feature the 'machine like' reflexes and accuracy seen in the enemies as mentioned before, they saved my hide on more than one occasion. It is not wise to just sit back and let them mop up the mess though, as sometimes teammates blindly run into hot spots by themselves, and without your help they could be killed quite easily.
The visuals in both titles are somewhat identical, however it is normal for an addon pack to feature no graphical enhancements. With that said, Vietcong is far from eye candy when compared to some other FPS titles out there, but it does a reasonably good job. The jungles are pretty high detail with quality textures and environment models, and the player models aren't too bad either. There is no doubt that the best part of the visuals is the environments, often it is very hard to see your enemy making the camo worn actually useful unlike many other games out there. On top of this, it isn't a massive system hog but I'd still recommend a pretty hefty PC on high detail settings.
As far as the controls go, I was left a little disappointed. Like every other FPS title out there, Vietcong uses the 'WASD' control scheme for movement along with your mouse, which is fine, however it is the more indepth functions that seem to suffer from questionably button placement. For example, the 'use' key is Enter - located well away from both the WASD keys and your mouse which is annoying should you want to 'use' something quickly, while caps lock is walk, with shift and control crouch and prone respectively. This isn't the worst scheme I've seen, but it could have been easily better.
I wouldn't call the Vietcong series an essential buy for every FPS fan, but if you're looking for a bit of a challenge and don't mind some glitches here and there, it is certainly worth your time. If you're new to the series then Purple Haze is for you, alone it features a massive amount of gameplay straight out of the box. As far as the fans go, the Fist Alpha addon pack is for you, featuring some nice additions here and there, so owners of the original Vietcong that are looking to enhance their gameplay both offline and online should certainly give First Alpha a look also. Regardless, though, I still would have liked to had seen some fixes to the somewhat buggy gameplay.