Sequels That Should Have Been: Vietcong 3
The insects buzz everywhere around you. The strange croaking of some reptile echoes in the green hell. You clutch your gun, and, squinting, you spy through the dense jungle. Somewhere out there Charlie’s staring back. Chances are you won’t notice him until you’re two feet away from each other. Luck decides who walks away, and who gets to end his miserable existence with a bayonet in his gullet. You curse this place, and whatever officer put you on this mission. What’s the point anyway? What use are we in this hellhole? You hear the distant sound of footsteps. The cracking of branches. The sloshing sound of boots wading through a bog. Now’s your chance. Stay quiet, and keep a straight shot.
That’s pretty much what the first Vietcong (2003) felt like. It offered an extremely tense atmosphere on the varied missions that took place mostly in the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia. The player took the role of Steve Hawkins, who had been assigned to a Special Forces camp near the Cambodian border as squad leader. Already in the first few minutes of the game’s intro, reality sets in as Hornster, one of your squad mates, tells you the story of what happened to the guy you’re replacing. AK-47 bullet to the skull. Right out of nowhere. Incidentally, the guy you’re replacing is also the main character in the expansion pack, Fist Alpha. So you even have the privilege of being permanently killed in a game.
At the surface, Vietcong might seem like little else than a simple shooter. You are handed a variety of guns in the beginning, given directions to the jungle and told to kill any and all VC you locate. Well, sort of anyway. You always begin at Nui Pek, the camp situated at the top of a hill, where you get assigned to whatever mission your superiors need you to go on. Often the objectives set for the mission would change wildly as you play, as you adapt according to your enemy’s moves. For example, one mission started as a simple patrol, evolved into a search-and-resuce operation, and concluded with the player trudging through the dim and narrow tunnels beneath the surface, which are apt to either kill you or make you go mad.
Vietcong 2 (2005), on the other hand, did away with the jungle setting and instead took the combat to the city of Hue during the infamous Tet Offensive. This was a highly unsuccessful decision by developers Pterodon and Illusion Softworks (best known for their Mafia series), as it highlighted the mediocre action parts of the game and removed most of the tension the first game succeeded at creating. In the first game, you had to be extremely careful when wandering through the jungle, as tripwire and explosives had been laid out everywhere. One misstep and your story’s over. Vietcong 2 had its moments of tension too, but too often it relied on repetitive action mechanics that were far inferior what other similar games at the time, like Call of Duty 2, offered. In addition, Vietcong 2 never managed to build the same bond to your squad mates as the first game did. Even though the characters could easily be said to be stereotypical, there was still some welcomed familiarity to it. The six of you went on merry adventures in the mucky jungles of Vietnam again and again, whereas the few regularly appearing characters in Vietcong 2 seemed more like mere ammo and health dispensers.
Another point where Vietcong stood out from its peers was in terms of realism, especially in the portrayal of the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War is a polarizing matter, and possibly one of the first conflicts in modern times where the United States could not withhold that the war was waged on sound moral grounds. Former wars, like World War 2 or the Korean War, all had a clear, powerful aggressor, either Nazi Germany or North Korea, who were a clear threat to both the United States and her allies. The Vietnam War, while still being a war against Communism, was being fought on far murkier terms. The Vietnamese had been fighting the French and Japanese for decades before that, and thus it was far easier for opponents of the war to depict the Americans as aiding the continued colonization of a country, and incidents like the My Lai massacre certainly didn’t help. Coupled with the ease of broadcasting news from Vietnam without distillation almost straight to TV, support of the war declined rapidly. In 1971 only 28% of Americans still supported the war.
Vietcong capitalized on this being one of the most unpopular wars in modern history, by giving a fairly sober depiction of the war. You and your squad mates are neither portrayed as heroes nor villains, but rather as people who have been sent there to do a job. There are no lofty morals driving you. If you’re given an order you might question the judgement power of your officers, but not the deed that needs to be done. Instead of showing you solely the glorious battles and flag-waving, it showed a brief glimpse of a soldier’s life outside off the battlegrounds. And that life is oddly mundane and deadly at the same time. Incidentally, the game ends with an assault on Nui Pek by the Viet Cong, which culminates by it being evacuated of all military personnel and the base destroyed. All the killing and dying done in the game has been for naught, perhaps further establishing how hopeless the unwinnable war was. You have gained absolutely nothing in the end.
Another point where Vietcong excelled in terms of realism was in its environments. Sure, by today’s standards doesn’t exactly feature flashy graphics or huge, expansive maps, but they were filled with more character so many shooters. For entire minutes at a time (!) you’d be sloshing through rivers and bogs, making slow progress towards your objective, occasionally spotting some VC hiding in the trees, although they often spotted you first. Also, there would often be neat little “treats” for you to find throughout the map, in the form of pictures and other memorabilia dropped by dead enemies. I clearly remember a picture of Stalin standing next to a small kid, followed by Hawkins’ wonderfully dry comment “He probably neck shot the kid afterwards”. Practically the whole cynical feel of the game summed up into one sentence.
Vietcong clearly wasn’t made by a AAA developer, as should be evident by its rather simplistic mechanics and graphics, but it may have allowed them to experiment more with the story than major developers attached to major publishers. It would certainly benefit from a visual makeover, which could attract a greater crowd, but the depiction of the environments could also improve the chaotic feeling of the green hell. Also, with Pterodon and Illusion Softworks having gained more experience with story-telling, particularly with the well-crafted Mafia II, oddly enough also featuring characters that couldn’t exactly be described as heroic, I can think of few other studios capable of tackling a matter like the Vietnam War. And considering that 2K Czech have made no announcements since Mafia II’s release, I, for one, am rubbing my hands in anticipation for an extremely hypothetical Vietcong 3.
So imagine a Vietcong 3 with the same narrative approach to the portrayal of the Vietnam War coupled with the technology of modern day shooters. Would it make money? It’s doubtful. After all, it’s predecessors are sadly fairly obscure, as Vietcong wasn’t always a game for the trigger-happy people. It required patience and observance. You step into the enemy’s line of fire, you’re gone. Just like in reality.
Previous installments in the “Sequels That Should Have Been” series: