Gruelling. That’s the word to best describe Men of War: Vietnam. Like the war itself, the game is a slow, often painful, slog through booby trapped jungles, sniper nests and villages of dubious loyalty.
Men of War: Vietnam (MoW:V) is the third ‘stand-alone expansion’ to the real-time tactical squad combat series and is comprised of ten solo missions, which can also be played in two to four player co-op. The first five place you in command of a mixed squad of North Vietnamese fighters and Soviet military advisors who’re trying to reach Cambodia, while the other five follow a set of US soldiers in a series of traditional Vietnam missions (disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail, rescue prisoners of war and so on).
In the vast majority of these missions, you have control of four or five guys and are encouraged to engage in stealthy, guerilla-style tactics against numerically superior foes. You might be tasked with looting a supply depot, or taking out radio operators in a well-defended base, but whatever your mission objectives happen to be you can be sure of this; they will be bastard hard to complete.
Those of you who’ve played a Men of War title before will probably know that stealth, Commandos-esque mechanics are not really the strong point of the series, so basing almost an entire game around this concept was an early misstep in the design process. The game’s user interface is still as in-depth (and, to a newcomer, baffling) as ever, but the main problem with forcing players to pursue a stealth path is the distinct lack of feedback offered by the title.
Take the very first misson in the game, where at one point your little guys need to sneak into a US base and take out two sets of helicopter pilots in order to prevent some Hueys getting off the ground. The main approach takes you across a bridge, patrolled by US soldiers. Can you take them out with a sniper without alerting the base? Experimentation shows that yes, you can indeed. The bridge area will go on alert, but the base will remain calm. You can even take down a few of the guys inside the base perimeter without problems, if you get lucky. On other occasions, trying to do this will wake the whole base up. What caused these two different outcomes? The game doesn’t really make it clear.
Presumably you did something that was seen by the guards. But moments before you were happily killing guards on the bridge in sight of the whole camp without the survivors warning their friends. It’s this kind of discrepancy in feedback that becomes annoying very, very quickly.
While it’s possible to select an individual enemy soldier to see a kind of ‘awareness cone’, this quickly becomes limited in its use because almost every infiltration zone is swarming with enemy troops. Soldiers will also react to gunfire outside of their line of sight, but this too is haphazard and unpredictable.
MoW:V fails as a tactical stealth game because it doesn’t set out its own internal rules in a clear and consistent manner. To a certain extent this can be explained by its role as an expansion; it doesn’t feel as if it needs to re-teach any players the ropes. But the increased focus on covert missions performed by small squads, as well as the new jungle setting, would seem to justify a bit more in the way of player feedback.
The concept of using the Men of War engine to replicate guerilla warfare is one which sounds nice in theory, but the developers seem to have recreated the dangers of the Vietnam war with a bit too much accuracy. Yes, it probably is difficult to spot hidden spike traps amongst jungle foliage in real life. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a fun idea for a videogame. Losing one of your squad to an insta-kill green pit that was hidden amongst the green grass and the green, leafy branches of the green trees is a bitter blow, and forces tedious, methodical combing of upcoming areas before you advance. Realistic? Sure. But not the slightest bit entertaining.
Thanks to the wonky stealth mechanics, there’s a tacitly enforced reliance on the sniper character that both Russian and US squads possess. During the third mission of the game, in which your mighty force of four has to recapture a heavily fortified bridge, I ended up just ducking and diving my sniper in and out of the bushes until most of the enemies were dealt with. For a while it was fun, but when huge chunks of each mission end up like this it begins to feel like a boring grind; especially when a fortunate return shot or stray mortar can highlight the fragility of your troops and force yet another reload.
MoW:V does at least feature a couple of missions where the manic Men of War spirit of balancing ‘big picture’ fumbling with serious micro-management is in evidence.
The fourth Russian campaign mission ‘Gatecrashers’ gives you an APC and a tank (and even a couple more troops) to play with as you try to fend off US attacks. It’s a brilliant clusterfuck of a mission, that began with me sending armoured units left and right to stem to the tide and ended with my lone surviving soldier dodging gunfire to scavenge a rocket launcher and send the final US tank back to the junkyard. Men of War excels at this kind of experience, but in MoW:V they’re very much an exception to the norm.
Co-op play helps to mitigate some of the problems. I was able to rope in Tim McDonald for a jaunt through the first mission, essentially halving the command duties. With two of us able to concentrate on just two guys each, it became clear that it’d be possible to co-ordinate a two-pronged attack on those damn chopper pilots. In the event, I still managed to screw it up by being spotted, but it was clear that tackling the maps with multiple people would make matters a bit smoother. Co-op also deviates from the solo game’s save/reload pattern by giving each soldier packs of morphine with which to revive ‘dead’ comrades. In multiplayer, being reduced to one man is only a temporary disaster.
The solo parts of MoW:V, quite frankly, kicked my arse. In some games, it can feel fun to fail. The challenge of overcoming a particular mission can be the driving force behind your enjoyment. Here, that is not the case.
In total, I was able to complete four of the five Russian missions; and only by toning down the difficulty to easy. For the full retail release, missions have to be completed before the next one is unlocked, which, in the case of MoW:V, seems masochistic in the extreme. Thanks to an additional file provided with the review copy of the game (normally I avoid using these, but in this case I had little choice), I was able to sample the US missions too. I’ve not yet been able to finish a single one.
There’s no doubt a core of Men of War players who’re craving more of a challenge (not that previous titles were exactly a breeze) will get some enjoyment from this brutal offering. However, much of MoW:V is difficult through artificial means and unfortunate design choices.
The joyful freedom of blundering your way through events has been lost, replaced by an attempt to guide players through a more surgical approach that the pathfinding, AI and chronic lack of player feedback simply can’t handle. A seriously misjudged emphasis on stealth missions (which makes sense in context of the war, but not in the context of the series’ creaking mechanics) leads to endless frustration and a yearning for the all-too-infrequent moments when you’re given a few more men and vehicles to play with.
There are much better Men of War games out there. This one is a gruelling quagmire.