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Vietcong: Fist Alpha Review

By Jeff Buckland, 2/9/2004

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Vietnam games are difficult to make. While the movies have generally been pretty well-liked and successful, even the best games based on the conflict wind up being frustrating, stupid, and downright un-fun. Last year's Vietcong was probably the best entry into the Vietnam first person shooter market, as it had an intense atmosphere, brutal gameplay, and some decent AI for its time. It's been a year, though, and games like Call of Duty have opened our eyes to what a military shooter should be. Almost a year after the original game was released, can Pterodon's Vietcong: Fist Alpha expansion pack add enough to the original game to be worth it?

Fist Alpha serves as a prequel to the original game, as you'll play a part in the squad of the same name during the earlier days of the Vietnam conflict. As such, many of the soldiers you fought with in Vietcong are here, and you'll play the role of a new character to this expansion - SFC Warren Douglas.

Pterodon's custom game engine is largely unchanged for Fist Alpha. It renders some pretty expansive jungle levels in detail fairly well, although it seems that the developers have pushed this thing to its limit. The new maps are larger, but the frame rates are also quite a bit worse than in the original game. In some areas of the game, the sluggish frame rate makes the larger maps a burden rather than a blessing.

While I encountered few technical bugs or major issues, the game's AI seems to have actually gotten worse compared to Vietcong. Your squad constantly gets stuck on things, even more so than in the original game, and you're definitely going to need them this time around. This means backtracking to find them and then walking them carefully up to the spot of the next battle.

While the jungle sure looked nice in 2003, Vietcong's engine now looks dated when compared to the technically superior Far Cry; an engine upgrade would have really helped Fist Alpha in the graphics department.

Most of the interface conventions from Vietcong made it into Fist Alpha - switching weapons, throwing grenades, and checking your map all work the same. This all works fairly well, although sometimes it's difficult to hop over a fallen tree or a rock. The feel of your character isn't quite right, and in a game where invisible walls are everywhere (can't just go throwing up rocky cliffs on all sides - this is Vietnam!), I felt very much like I was trying to figure out what the devlopers wanted me to do. I didn't feel free to attack a situation the way I wanted.

Despite this, the controls are still pretty solid, and you do have options for commanding your troops - if they're stuck, it won't help, but they do work otherwise. These controls translate well into the expansion's multiplayer modes as well, meaning that the skills you build in the solo campaign can be used online.

Even though the engine has stayed the same, Fist Alpha still renders the jungle environments well. Frame rate issues aside, there's plenty of detail here. Your own squadmates look great, although there's a mix of some excellent and terrible animations. Whenever the AI fails to work correctly, your guys will start walking around in circles, jumping around for no reason, and flipping back and forth between animations very strangely. Again, the AI generally works, but when it doesn't, it means you will likely die (or just waste time trying to make it work again).

Enemies in Fist Alpha look fairly accurate, although as before, there isn't a very wide variety of faces here. Still, combine the faces present with the differing clothes, and it doesn't seem like you're fighting the same guy over and over.

There are a few flourishes here and there that make Fist Alpha interesting to look at - the developers seem to have tried to insert a few more specific landmarks in some levels to break up the monotony of endless jungle, and this move has worked for the most part. The levels are more memorable this time around, and while the actual combat may not be, they've at least improved this aspect of the game.

I'll say it right up front - Vietcong: Fist Alpha is really difficult. On the normal difficulty, the enemies have impeccable aim, and they're very likely to kill you before you even see them. Combine this with spotty teammate AI and a system that only allows you a limited number of saves on each level, and this game becomes frustratingly difficult. On top of all this, the load times were bad enough that in a few areas, I was spending more time loading then playing. I should expect that back in my Commodore 64 days when two-minute load times were common, but the 30-45 second load times in this game are pretty bad compared to other FPS games around nowadays.

The actual missions you'll go through in Fist Alpha are pretty decent, as you'll be recruiting some of the South Vietnamese locals to help fight the VC, raid some old ruins to destroy a factory built underground, and more. Pterodon has thankfully let up on the underground tunnel mazes and stuck with the outdoor settings a bit more. We also get a pretty decent selection of new weapons, and you can now use bayonets to impale enemies. Of course, the bayonets aren't always practical in the single player campaign, but they can be fun to use.

The problem comes with the new focus towards the end of the campaign on stealth. It's hard enough to make stealth fun when the player knows where every enemy is; put this into a jungle environment where enemy locations are largely unknown and it's just a total drag to play. You'll also be grossly outnumbered on most levels, and even though that's pretty standard for FPS games, the fact that the enemy can kill you with a bullet or two (and they'll do it pretty damn often) means lots of loading time. Max Payne had bullet-time to balance this out, but all you get is the finger in Vietcong: Fist Alpha. If you want an unforgiving, tough-as-hell shooter where the enemies commonly kill you long before you knew they were there, then this is your game.

That's not to say that I totally loathe this game; even though I died a record number of times in each mission, I still wound up moderately enjoying Fist Alpha's difficulty. Throw in the expansive yet simultaneously claustrophobic atmosphere of the Vietnam jungle, and it's enough to make any gamer get a bit nervous. Vietcong delivered a unique gameplay experience last year, and that trend continues a bit further with this expansion pack.

One might argue that the original game was too long; it's not a common complaint these days, of course, but there it is. Yeah, there were too many underground levels and the overall pacing was horrendous, but I still came out enjoying it. This leads me to the biggest problem I have with Fist Alpha - now that we have better missions, we only get enough to make up about seven to eight hours of gameplay. This includes the yelling and cussing after each death, the load times, all of that.

One way that Pterodon tries to make up for the short single player mode is with the game's Quick Fight system - this allows you to throw together a mission with some unique parameters, and it makes for some great practice for the multiplayer modes. I don't think this really is going to add hours and hours of gameplay for most people, but it is fun to screw around with after the campaign is over.

Multiplayer is where you will need to spend most of your time to really enjoy this game. Fist Alpha includes 9 new maps as well as an editor for making new ones with, and the the single player campaign's weapons all moved over to the multiplayer mode as well. The action in this expansion pack's multiplayer modes is pretty fun, with a mix of the more fast-paced style you'd expect in online play as well as a bit of that nerve-wracking Vietnam tension.

Pterodon has also gone through some specific efforts to support the game in ways many developers haven't. Since the first game was released, many new patches have come, adding new features and closing up exploits and cheats. The most recent v1.6 patch includes voice chat support and actually allows Fist Alpha owners to play on original Vietcong maps with those players who haven't bought the expansion pack. Owners of the original game can even pick up and use the new weapons added in this pack! This will help keep the game's online community going that much further - now let's hope that Pterodon continues to support the game. I'd like to see some Punkbuster support, as it seems that using it is the best way to stay mostly ahead of the online cheaters.

The developers of Fist Alpha did a nice job with sound in the first game, and they've outdone themselves with this one as well - well, except some of the voices, that is. . The jungle environment sounds wonderful, and the weapons sound great. The voice acting from some of the characters is still cheesy and moronic, and not in the endearing way that we saw in 80's Schwarzenegger action flicks. No, some of this stuff is convincing, but most of it is BAD.

At the very least, they got rid of the original guy who played your character in the first game - SFC Douglas has a southern accent, and he actually seems like someone that was there in Vietnam. While the game's music never actually plays during the missions, you'll get plenty of it in the menus and during the cutscenes. It's all 60's era electric guitar, and it works surprisingly well.

Vietcong: Fist Alpha is a tough expansion pack that's going to frustrate the hell out of many players, even with its many virtues. If you can get past the flawed AI, dated visuals, and immense difficulty, you'll find a pretty good game. Throw in some multiplayer, and this one will be worth getting over the original Vietcong.

Overall: 80%



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