Genre: Squad-based RTS
Publisher: Strategy First
Developer: Digital Reality
Release Date: November 2002
The movie Platoon stormed theaters in late 1986 with its gripping tale of a band of young soldiers thrust into the middle of the Vietnam War. What made Platoon so special from your average war movie was while it did portray the combat between the soldiers and the Vietcong, it also dug into the way the squad interacted with each other with so much pressure and stress around them. The Platoon franchise expanded from there with a PC game published by Ocean in 1987. This time around the Platoon legacy returns to the realm of the PC, with a heart worthy of the film but with a bit less polish than desirable.
In the newest PC iteration of Platoon you are the leader of a squad of men made up of various grunts and specialists. In addition there are also “super” units that are named and gain experience over the course of the game. Regular soldiers are pretty much limited to shooting the enemy infantry, while the super units and specialists can take on additional roles such as anti tank and minesweeper. Every solider has three modes of movement; prone, march, and sprint. Prone soldiers are covered more from enemy fire but move very slowly, sprinting soldiers are an easy target but can move from place to place very quickly, and the regular movement mode of march strikes a balance between the two.
One aspect that sets Platoon apart from other games of the genre is the stamina system. Soldiers have their own amount of stamina, displayed in addition to their health bar. When soldiers sprint, fire their weapon, or perform special skills the stamina is lowered. To regain stamina soldiers must stay still and take a breather. Soldiers who have low stamina will be unable to sprint or fire their weapon, which means they can get separated from a retreating squad, unable to return fire, or both. A soldier’s stamina can only be as high as their health bar, so wounded soldiers will tire much quicker than fresh ones and will be significantly hindered in combat.
Platoon’s storyline follows that of a squad of men smack in the middle of the Vietnam War. Just as in the film, the game explores the brutal combat that took place in Vietnam while peeking into the lives of the individual combatants. In the course of Platoon’s 12 level campaign mode the objectives range from destroying a contingent of Vietcong forces to recovering stolen rice shipments to aid a local village. However, in between missions the player is presented pages from the lead characters diary detailing how a young husband would feel when separated from his wife and thrown into a mix of blood and bullets.
Platoon’s gameplay mechanics are very nice but have a few frustrating spots. The game is entirely 3D (Utilizing the Haegemonia game engine, also created by Digital Reality) down to every tree, bit of foliage, and unit. The player has near full control of the camera with the ability to pan, rotate, and zoom, but the camera can never deviate too much from a top-down perspective. The camera system would be near perfect but is hampered by a high degree of sensitivity. It is all too easy to be fighting with the gyrating camera angle while the player should be fighting the Vietcong, which can lead to a lot of frustration.
Another aspect that really shines in Platoon is its visibility / cover system. Every type of terrain in Platoon has its own cover factor and visibility range that works both for and against the player. If the player’s squad is running through the jungle enemies on a nearby road or different area of the jungle will have a hard time locating the player’s squad and even when located will have a hard time hitting them. On the other hand, you can literally come face to face to enemy units that are also hiding in the jungle, or miss important things like an enemy tank rumbling along a nearby road. Enemy units also know of this, and rather than running straight at the player’s squad enemies will use cover to their advantage, using the jungle and foliage to sneak up to you and then using it as cover once the battle has started. Woe to the squad that is caught prone in the middle of the road with a group of Vietcong shooting at them from the misty jungle.
Along the same vein Platoon’s gameplay can also get a bit flat. While the infantry to infantry combat is very well done and explores elements seldom seen in other games, you are always commanding infantry and will never get the option to command APCs, helicopters, or armored units. That’s not to say those types of units aren’t in the game, many of them fight alongside you, but it sometimes feels like the same old thing level by level.
The graphics in Platoon aren’t cutting edge but really shine in many areas. The games terrain looks remarkable with dense jungle, grasslands, dusty roads, and thick foliage all meshed together to form a vibrant and lifelike world that not only is pleasing to the eye but also can be used to the player’s advantage. The models of the individual units are all nicely modeled, textured, and animated. The infantry seem to be a bit bland in terms of coloring, but then again your standard grunt isn’t wearing a designer combat outfit by any means. Units such as tanks and cargo trucks are well modeled, as are the buildings and trees. Platoon’s HUD is made to look like some form of military-esque handheld device with screens that show unit status and movement mode.
Sound in Platoon is good overall but has it’s own share of rough edges. The various sound effects of war are all nicely done and balanced. The music soundtrack is also well done with various types of songs to set the mood and overall feel of what it was like to be a grunt in a jungle that seemed to be hostile in itself. The part where the game falls through is the voiceovers that are played during cutscenes and at key points in a level. They don’t sound low quality or bad in a view of their sound quality, but it almost seems that the voice actors tried too hard to go Hollywood with it rather than really getting into it and capturing the essence of what the character is saying and / or going through.
Voice acting notwithstanding, Platoon is a good example of where the RTS genre should be headed. While solely infantry based and occasionally bland Platoon does it’s best to establish itself in a genre already overcrowded with me-too titles and comes across as a pretty good game hindered by a few flaws. The tactical element of sneaking through the jungle to catch a group of Vietcong off guard is a blast, but one could hope for a bit more variety in the units under the player’s control. The camera control can and will be frustrating but becomes less of an issue once the game is played a bit. Overall Platoon can be recommended to RTS fans who enjoy a bit more of a tactical side to their game experience and want to play a title that really tries to expand upon the RTS genre with fresh gameplay elements.