The Vietnam War genre in the gaming world exploded there for a while, and although now it has slowed down a bit, even after the dust had settled, no one title really stood out and claimed this genre as its own. We saw buggy rushed title after buggy rushed title until, I guess, the steam just ran out. This, however, didn't deter 2KGames and their release of Vietcong 2, although perhaps it should have, as VC2 does little but fortify the status of the Vietnam War FPS genre as lacking compared to the rest of the FPS market.
Right from the get go, it is clear that like the original VC titles, VC2 is a buggy game. It seems you just can't get through any reasonable length of gameplay in this game without encountering something which bluntly reminds you you're not in Vietnam shooting commies, but rather, you're playing a game that could probably use a patch or two. To list everything we witnessed would take too long, but during the game, expect to see quirks in the means of team members of your squad failing to follow you, squad members taking odd routes to locations and failing to react at all at times, sound cutting out, objectives which don't want to trigger (to start or finish) and various visual quirks such as clipping irregularities and texture/object flickering to name a few. It isn't so buggy it ruins the game, but it sure doesn't do the game any favors.
One area related to the buggy feel of the game does tend to do much more to ruin the gameplay however, and that area is the AI. A good FPS titles finds middle ground between AI that is too stupid, and AI that is too smart. A bad FPS somehow manages to skip the middle ground and offer either one, or in some cases, such as VC2, both. At times the enemy AI in single player will seem a walk in the park - in fact, often when you open fire on an enemy rushing your position, they will take little cover and simply barge forward, taking bullets to the body in the process without missing a step whilst seemingly being reluctant to open fire. At other times however, the enemies will be deadly accurate from insane distances with guns that would be hard to aim accurately at point blank range let alone beyond the game's view distance boundaries. The chosen difficulty doesn't seem to eliminate these inconsistencies either - it's just on the easier settings you'll just see more dumb AI while the harder difficulties will showcase more of the insanely difficult AI. There never seems to be a true feeling of realism in VC2.
If anything good about the gameplay can be said, it is the battles and gun fights in this game can become quite intense, and even though the AI is clearly lacking in realism and authenticity, it does at least create a challenge at some times. On top of this, your fellow soldiers will actively participate in the battles and actually (usually) make a difference in successful mission outcomes so, in most ways, VC2 does at least do an ok job of making you feel as if you are part of an army, and you're not just taking on the VC by your self. Unfortunately though, this impression of the game does little for the overall feel and is more a "well, at least they didn't screw this part up too" achievement than anything else.
One more valid area of achievement for VC2 is the way in which the game depicts the Vietnam war. A few games in this genre took the "USA vs. The Evil Empire" approach but some Vietnam games did tend to show the war for what it was - a messy, questionable series of events that involved a lot of underestimating and "pride over reality" mentality. In fact, the very early scenes of VC2 showcases a US/South Vietnamese celebration party that goes wrong, which sets the tone for the entire game; a lot of unpredictable, unorganized mayhem that doesn't usually end in a pretty manner. Of course, few FPS titles end in a pretty manner, but regardless, the feel you get from VC2's storyline is that of a "on the fence" view of the Vietnam war which doesn't glorify too much. One of the main reasons this is the case is the game's single player mode allows you to control forces from both sides of the war, which is a nice touch and does allow some lasting appeal as you take on a different approach with different strategies throughout the single player experience.
VC2 has also improved upon its controls slightly - in the original titles we saw poor button placements such as the "Use" button as Enter and questionable buttons designated for prone and crouching amongst other things. This time around, "F" is the use button which makes interacting with people and the environment a little less annoying, however naturally the buttons can be remapped completely, so this is somewhat of a null point. Unfortunately, when you delve past the mere button maps the control system of the game does tend to suffer - the game just doesn't react with a response you look for in quality FPS titles. The game often feels like you're skating on ice as you move around, and as you move about, seemingly irrelevant objects can sometimes block your path. On top of this, the weapon control just doesn't feel natural - it can be hard to articulate the sense you get when controlling a powerful weapon in an FPS, but it isn't hard to tell when an FPS features an authentic feel to its shooting aspects, and in VC2 it feels like you're basically using the exact same weapon over and over again no matter which you pick up.
Once you've put the single player mode down, which we did without regret, you still have multi player to attend to and surprisingly enough VC2 probably does better here than it fairs in single player. On offer you will see the ability to customize your character in online/LAN with different faces and equipment like hats and sun glasses. You can take this character into the standard set of MP modes - assault, coop, CTF, deathmatch and team deathmatch. Once in game, you have 8 classes to choose from - Infantry, Engineer, Medic, Gunner, Marine, Radioman, Sniper and Commando, with VC equivalents of course. Despite the reasonably healthy MP options though, the game still features the same lacking mechanics of the single player experience where relevant and even though the game can be quite enjoyable in MP, I don't imagine it will be challenging any of the big players in the online FPS world.
In many cases, FPS games lacking in gameplay excel in graphics but it seems VC2 comes short in both categories. While the character models do look decent, just about everything else reeks of outdated quality - textures are distinctly low resolution on the highest visual settings. The environments are nothing special and the animations feel disjointed and unnatural. What's worse is the game performs like a dog. Even on mid range quality settings on a high end PC (A64 4000+, 1GB, ATI X1800XT) we encountered some frame rate issues and general less that pleasant performance from the game's engine. It would be nice to say that Vietcong 2 makes up for its gameplay with the visuals but it doesn't, it simply reinforces the impression of a rushed game.
Vietcong 2 is not the sequel many would have hoped for. In fact, relative to the other offerings in the FPS genre at the time of release, the original titles (including addon pack) were more enjoyable despite their serious short comings, as little has been improved upon here in VC2, at least, little in the areas that matter. All you really get from Vietcong 2 is an FPS that is well behind the times and generally not up to scratch with what you'd expect, and what exposes this further is the brilliant FPS year 2005 has been - any other year maybe the few bright spots of VC2 would have shined through a little more, but with the FPS genre really rising the bar this year, titles of this quality just aren't going to cut it. Unless you're some freak of nature that must devour every FPS title in 2005 to stay alive, I'd feel comfortable giving VC2 a miss. It seems we will have to wait even longer to see a truly impressive Vietnam based FPS.