Review: I gotta get out of this game / If it's the last thing I ever do. ? With apologies to The Animals
ShellShock: Nam '67 sounded oh so good at first: we were promised gritty realism unmatched by any other Vietnam-based video game; that we would be forced to make difficult moral decisions; and that our character would develop from a green ?cherry? to an elite Special Forces killing machine.
Wouldn't it have been cool if these things were actually included in the final product?
Somewhere between concept and execution, something went terribly wrong. Actually, a whole lot of somethings went terribly wrong; much like the real Vietnam War, ShellShock: Nam '67 is left suffering the tragic consequences of exceedingly bad and questionable decision-making.
There are very few bright spots in this game, but are worth mentioning. You start off as a ?cherry?, a fresh recruit that doesn't even get a chance to step off the plane before you are ordered into combat. That's right ? there's no training level, no easing into things ? it's literally trial by fire. Welcome to Vietnam, kid.
Developer Guerrilla wanted to emphasize realism, and they start things off well. For example, you can only carry a single main weapon, a pistol, a handful of grenades, and additional items like C-4 or Claymore mines, but that's about it. You can pick up and use any weapon, whether American or Vietnamese, though you may favor the enemy's weapons since American ammo is less plentiful to find. You can crouch or lie prone and by doing so, your accuracy increases accordingly. You can also lean and shoot around obstacles, which you will do a lot as the bullets fly fast and furious.
Similar to Ghost Recon, your aiming reticule widens when you're moving (which decreases accuracy) and tightens up when you're still. Only sniper rifles have scopes, so unless you have one of these, you are constantly shooting at distant targets that are difficult to see, just like it really was. Luckily, you have a slight auto-aim assistant that turns your reticule red when you are pointing at an enemy, so you're not entirely blind when shooting into the jungle. To further help you take on the deadly swarms of Viet Cong, you are accompanied by a small squad of AI teammates.
The battles are often brutal; enemies attack from all sides and you often can't tell where the gunfire is coming from. When you do spot an enemy, a few well placed shots can blow their arms or heads off in a puff of blood and guts. You can even wound enemies, who will crumple to the ground in pain and lose their ability to fight.
Graphically, the game has a grainy, yellowish tinge which emulates photographs and news footage from 1967. It actually works quite well, and gives the game an appropriate ?period? ambiance to it. The maps are littered with corpses, body parts, and images of tortured soldiers slumped dead in interrogation rooms. It's disturbing, but that's the point.
When you're not fighting, you spend time at your base camp where you can talk to fellow soldiers or the cute nurses in the hospital. You earn chits by completing missions and taking trophies ? like medals from fallen enemies or Communist paraphernalia ? which can be redeemed to buy drugs, sexy postcards of the nurses, or even partake in the services of mama-san's prostitutes (sleep with each one and you unlock their own sexy postcard). You can also test and equip authentic weapons of the era while listening to the Weapons Sergeant grumble about how the beloved M-14 is being replaced by the M-16, ?a plastic gun made by a toy company.?
The best part of base camp ? heck, of the whole game ? is the camp DJ. He plays licensed music from the era by artists like Roy Orbison, John Lee Hooker, Percy Sledge, Sonny and Cher, and many others. If you love music from the sixties like I do, this was a real treat ? but unfortunately, since the music plays through the camp loud speakers, it sounds tinny and hollow. The DJ is voiced by the talented Billy West, best known as the star of Matt Groening's sadly cancelled animated comedy, Futurama
. I'm a big fan of West, but for some reason, he uses his Zapp Brannigan voice which added a bit of unintentional humor as I kept expecting him to say, ?Kif! I have made it with a woman ? inform the men!?
The Bad ? and the pretty darned Ugly
Put simply, this game is not enjoyable ? thanks mainly to the glaringly bad design decisions that ruin the whole experience.
For example, take the supposed ?unnerving realism? of this game. Your character (played in the third-person view, a bad choice if you want realism) has a Shock Defense Meter which acts exactly like Halo's rechargeable armor; as you take hits, your Meter runs up into the red, but if you duck out of harm's way for a few seconds, your Meter will run down to full strength. Since you only lose health after your Meter is maxed out, you simply have to use a pop-and-shoot strategy and never have to worry about dying. Oh, and see that grenade that just landed at your feet? Don't feel like disarming that trip wire? Feel free to let things blow up in your face since they will only damage your rechargeable Meter and not your health. Pretty realistic, eh?
Even worse are your teammates, who are literally invincible. No matter how many bullets or grenades or RPGs they take, they cannot die ? which is probably a good thing since they're also pretty darn stupid. They will attempt to shoot at enemies through walls ? and through you ? and have no qualms about standing out in the open. Heck, they're invincible, so why not? They're also lousy shots, even with enemies at point blank range, so don't expect any real help from them.
Luckily, the enemies are equally as stupid. They will occasionally duck behind cover, but are more likely to stand right out in the open or run straight towards you. To make up for their apparent lack of AI, at certain points they will respawn in endless waves until you complete an objective, like destroying enemy machinegun nests. Once the objectives are completed, the enemies miraculously stop respawning. At other times, enemies will swarm you in large numbers, but again come in waves at predictable intervals from the same locations, so all you have to do is find a good camping spot and shoot until the pre-programmed number of VC are killed. Yes, it's as boring as it sounds.
Not only are the NPCs stupid, they're annoying as well. Your teammates will continually yell the same half-dozen phrases over and over until you feel like shooting them to shut them up ? which would be a good idea if they weren't invincible. You can talk to your fellow soldiers at base camp, but they too have a limited vocabulary and say the same things ? and you can't fast forward through the dialogue, which at times can be quite lengthy. Even worse are the VC, who yell at you in English
. Perhaps the VC really did taunt American troops in English, but did they also shout ?man down!? and ?grenade!? to their own soldiers? The VC do occasionally speak in Vietnamese, which adds a nice authentic feel to the game, but again, the same phrases are repeated ad nauseam to the point where it simply degenerates into white noise.
Despite what was promoted, your character really has no moral decisions to make, nor does he ?develop? into a better soldier. Yes, you can choose to kill civilians and wounded enemy soldiers or not, but feel free to do whatever you want, because there are no consequences or rewards for acting one way or another. I accidentally killed a civilian I was supposed to rescue, but nothing happened ? no reaction from the remaining civilians, and no reprimand from my superiors. I also chose not to kill wounded enemies, but my AI teammate came running in and shot them anyway, again with no consequences. Your character also does not gain any enhanced abilities as you progress; you simply complete a level and move on to the next. Whether the marketing department was really stretching the truth or these features were simply left out is irrelevant at this point, since it would take a lot more than that to salvage this game.
Gameplay is repetitive and linear. Pop and shoot, complete objective, pop and shoot, complete another objective. You will also experience much frustration from the twitchy aiming, the occasionally flaky hit detection, and the fact that you have to hold down the white button to stay prone on the ground, making it extremely awkward to aim and zoom. All of these issues work against you, especially during those times when you are overwhelmed by swarms of VC while your useless teammates do little to help.
Fortunately, the maps are filled with plenty of trees, logs and rocks to duck behind, but where is the dense foliage Vietnam is known for? Most of the maps are surprisingly bare of plant life, making it look like you're walking through a park rather than a jungle. There was only one authentic looking level that had foliage so thick that I walked right past a VC who was only 10 feet away and never saw him. This was also the obligatory ?stealth? level, so the thick vegetation was likely added to give you extra cover to sneak around in; but if you are discovered, don't worry about it ? just run and gun like Rambo and you'll complete the level a lot faster and with less frustration. For a nice change of pace, you will also fight in city streets, but will get a strong feeling of d?j? vu as whole map sections are reused in supposedly different locations.
Distant views are obscured in ?fog?, which actually works quite well (you're supposed to be in a tropical jungle, after all) but there is a lot of draw-in, even at close distances. You will also see clipping problems where dead enemies seem to fall into the ground. Certain areas are also blocked off by cheesy ?invisible walls? to mark the edge of the map, and since you can't jump and are unable to step over knee-high obstacles, expect to do a lot of circuitous running. Sure, walking carefully would be the safer and more realistic way of doing things, especially when you have to be careful about booby traps, but run around all you want ? just look for the big orange warning icon that pops up every time you get close to a trap. And even if you do set off a trip wire, just remember that your MJOLNIR armor ? er, Shock Defense Meter ? will protect you.
In between the game's 11 levels are cutscenes that advance the rather weak story about a sadistic VC general you are tasked to find and kill. The cutscenes alternate between being excessively brutal and unintentionally funny: brutal because they show violent scenes of torture (both American and VC) that are supposed to illustrate the evils of war, but really feel like they are there simply for the shock value; funny because the lip synching is worse than Ashlee Simpson's. Rather than make any attempt to match the lip synching with the dialogue, the character's jaws simply flap up and down like they're chewing with their mouths open, whether they're actually saying anything or not.
The animation in both cutscenes and gameplay is also comically stiff. Your character uses the same arm-pumping running animation whether you're sprinting full speed or walking, so when you're creeping slowly, it looks like you're doing a hilariously bad Bionic Man impersonation. And don't expect any fancy ragdoll physics here; enemies pretty much just keel over when they die.
The sound effects are no better. Gunfire and explosions lack any semblance of punch or authority, and end up sounding like toys.
As for the much ballyhooed drug use and hiring of prostitutes, don't get too excited. Maybe I was doing something wrong, but I noticed exactly zero difference when popping pills that were supposed to enhance my stamina or steady my hand to increase accuracy. And sleeping with prostitutes? Despite the graphic display of brutal torture, dismembered bodies, blood and gore, apparently the act of two people going ?boom-boom? is too much for us to see. When you hire a prostitute, you see a very lame cutscene of your chosen lady preening for you as your character walks into a hut and closes the door. You then see a window shade bounce up and down a few times, and then the door opens with your character having a cheeky spring in his step. That's it. Pretty darn exciting, wasn't it?
The final nail in the coffin is the fact that you can complete the game in less than five hours, and it has virtually no replay value. Even if this were a budget title it would be way too expensive for what you get.