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PC Review - 'Battlefield Vietnam'

by Mark Crump on March 25, 2004 @ 1:36 a.m. PST

Lock and load your M-16 and grab your flak jacket, it's time to hit the jungle in Battlefield Vietnam. The Battlefield franchise is moving to a new era equipped with more firepower and beautiful yet ferocious new combat settings. Staying true to the over-the-top, action-packed multiplayer style that gave Battlefield 1942 its critical and commercial success, Battlefield Vietnam will drop players into some of the Vietnam War's fiercest battles.

Genre : Action/RPG
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Digital Illusions
Release Date: March 15, 2004

Buy 'BATTLEFIELD VIETNAM': PC

When you have a game that revolutionized a genre like Battlefield 1942 did creating a sequel is a balancing act. How do you add enough new features to call it a full game, while not making radical changes to what made it so successful in the first place? Battlefield Vietnam does an excellent job at bringing some new ideas to the table while preserving the “Battlefield” feel. If you were expecting another revolution here you’re going to be disappointed; this one’s about evolution, not revolution. Battlefield Vietnam continues the team-based motif from 1942 with the Americans and the South Vietnamese against the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong. There is a single player mode, but the bots are mental midgets and are only good for target practice - any meaningful game-time is going to be spent online playing other people.

For those new to the series, let me do a quick recap. The most common game-mode is Conquest, where each team is given a certain amount of tickets and if your team’s tickets reach zero, you lose. You can lose tickets by either re-spawning after a death or not controlling enough control points. The more control points you own, the faster the other team loses their tickets. In Battlefield 1942 it was easy for one person to take key control points, but now how many teammates are nearby affects the speed one is taken; while one person can still take a CP, a squad is going to take it quicker.

Battlefield Vietnam has a ton of era specific tanks and jets, but the big vehicle addition is the helicopters. I know, I know, Desert Combat, the popular Battlefield 1942 mod, had choppers, but those ‘copters were too dang hard to fly. The Battlefield 1942 flight engine wasn’t designed for rotary-winged planes, but the Battlefield Vietnam engine is designed with them in mind making the helicopters much easier to fly. A word of caution though: while it’s easy to get these birds in the air, keeping them there and getting anything accomplished – like hovering, attacking, airlifting tanks and landing – is going to take some serious practice. It’s time well spent since being able to get a squad to a control point quickly and safely will help your team be successful. In the wrong hands though, the helicopters can become airborne fiery instruments of death. Speaking of fiery death, the Americans also have access to the F-4 phantom which allows you to drop Napalm, but it’s not as effective as the real stuff with a small blast radius that lasts only a few seconds; it would have been much more effective lasting longer and affecting a greater area.

One of the big problems in the game is with the weapons assigned to some of soldier classes. The American heavy assault kit comes with both the M60 machine gun and the LAWs rocket, sparking memories of Rambo. If that combination isn’t bad enough, the M60 can be fired from a standing position and has a rate of fire that is significantly faster than the prototype (the real one needs to be fired prone, and is actually a two-person weapon). This one kit carries both the most powerful anti-personnel weapon in the game, as well as a potent anti-vehicle weapon; it’s a one-stop shop for death and destruction. The NVA equivalent kit just has an RPG and a shotgun, which is more balanced. The Americans seem a tad overpowered, but a lot of the NVA weapons are more subtle – like booby traps – that are going to require some time to learn how to use effectively.

Battlefield Vietnam sports a completely re-designed graphic engine. Early screenshots left me fearing EA simply re-hashed the Battlefield 1942 engine, and I was happy to see that wasn’t the case. The new engine allows for pixel-shaded goodness and highly detailed terrain, including tons of foliage. While the battlegrounds in 1942 were sparse and barren, the Battlefield Vietnam maps are filled with lush vegetation and foliage. In addition to looking good, the foliage also allows you to hide in it, making it hard for other people to see you. This can be frustrating as frequently you’ll come under fire and not have a clue where you are being attacked from, but it does do an excellent job at capturing the feel of the Vietnamese jungle.

The maps take full advantage of the new engine and I’ve found them to be a tremendous improvement over the 1942 levels, which felt too large and suffered from flow problems. The new maps are smaller and tighter, so you won’t have to look too hard for a fight. When you are on the ground the size felt just right, but when you are in the air they feel much too small as it’s easy to go out of bounds quickly, especially with the jet fighters. The levels are a mix of urban and jungle themes, featuring historical areas like Khe Sahn, and Ia Drang (made famous in Mel Gibson’s We Were Soldiers). You also get to experience the city of Hue while it’s still in South Vietnamese hands and then later after the NVA has captured it. In one map the city is fairly intact, while during the recapture attempt it’s bombed out. In addition to the historical maps, you’ll find maps that are completely fictional, including one that’s a decent portrayal of the “Charlie doesn’t surf” scene from Apocalypse Now. All-in-all there are 14 maps with enough variety to keep people satisfied until the inevitable expansion pack.

Who can forget Robert Duvall’s character blasting Wagner’s Flight of the Valkries from his helicopter in Apocalypse Now? Well, now you can too as EA has licensed several tunes from the 60’s that you can play from the vehicles and the music is also heard by nearby players. It’s a neat effect, but it also makes it very easy to give away your location, so once the novelty passes I doubt we’ll see it used much. Other than the soundtrack, I wasn’t overly impressed with the rest of the sound effects - it did the job, but just didn’t attack my subwoofer like I was hoping. You’ll find a lot more background noise in this game, with he American bases playing a GI radio station that’s molded after Good Morning Vietnam, and the Vietnamese have a recording of a propaganda lady sounding like Hanoi Hannah. While she can get annoying, her warnings that “the planes cannot see you GI, they will napalm you” and “your helicopters fall from the sky like broken-bird” aren’t far off the mark given the skill levels of most players. Both of these repeat too often and needed to have an extra ten-fifteen minutes of extra recordings.

The controls haven’t changed much from 1942, and revolve around the common WASD theme all shooters use. It still seems to have issues with multiple controllers as I was unable to use both my joystick and my Nostromo gamepad. I was surprised to find the choppers much easier to control with the keyboard and mouse, leaving the joystick for the jets. The on-screen UI has undergone some subtle, but welcome changes. The chat window is now in the lower left hand corner making it easier to read. The mini-map is now a diamond and shows off the terrain better, but for some reason the map coordinates are missing making it hard to get a feel as to your overall position. You also have access to a 3d map which shows on your HUD the location of all friendly units and all control points, as well as the distances to them. It takes a little getting used to, but once you get the hang of it it’s a big help.

Unfortunately, Battlefield Vietnam shows that DICE haven’t learned their lessons from the almost unplayable mess that was the Battlefield 1942 release. 1942 had un-optimized network code and a sound engine that caused a decent frame-rate hit. It wasn’t until the recent 1.6 patch that Battlefield 1942 finally got the kinks worked out, and none of those improvements seem to have migrated to Vietnam. The boards are aflame with people having performance issues and my own experiences playing have been a mixed bag. I’ve got a decent system (P4 2.4 GHz, 512MB ram and GeForce4 Ti 4200) and the first few play sessions I was able to play the game at high settings virtually lag-free. Subsequent game sessions were laggy and it appears the sound engine is to blame again, since applying a tweak from a message board that recommended changing the sound buffer settings in one of the game’s ini files helped, as I was able to raise the graphics to “highest” afterwards. The server browser has some limitations as well, where you are supposed to be able to sort the servers by ping speeds, but pressing the appropriate button didn’t do anything. The ability to bookmark favorite servers, which you could do with the 1.6 patch in Battlefield 1942, is missing in Battlefield Vietnam and there’s still no easy to find my friends online. Without an in-game “buddies” list, I’m forced to rely on a third-party communication tool to figure out what server they are playing on. There’s also still no support for in-game voice chat, but given how immature people are behaving in Unreal Tournament 2004 – a game that does support in-game voice chat – I’m not as sure this is a good thing to have anymore. It’s bad enough having to watch obscenities scrolling across the screen, but having to hear them blaring from my speakers would be too much.

Battlefield Vietnam is about one or two patches away from fully achieving greatness. The balance issues alone are proof that the game was pushed out to compete with other shooters hitting the market close to its release date. I have a hard time believing that the M60/LAW combination didn’t raise more than a few eyebrows in testing, and there’s enough people having performance issues - on some high-end systems to boot - to show the game needed a few more optimization passes. The recommended and minimum system specs are modest, so you shouldn’t need a $500 video card to play the game, and if it was designed to run on high end systems EA should have simply stated that.

If you were a fan of Battlefield 1942, especially the Desert Combat mod, you’ll like Battlefield Vietnam. It’s at a reasonable price point, $39.99, which is fair for a game that feels like an expansion-and-a-half. On the other hand, there’s a certain, “been there, done that, bought the t-shirt” feel to the game and what’s going to determine the long-term success of the game how much the mod community endorses the game. If enough mods like EoD and Desert Combat move to the new engine, the future will be very bright. However, if you are a 1942 player, and are playing these mods for your modern combat kick, there aren’t enough new features in Battlefield Vietnam to make you run out and get it. For me, though, the new graphics engine, coupled with helicopters that don’t require a degree in rocket science to learn how to fly them make them game a big win for me. Technical issues aside, Battlefield Vietnam is an excellent addition to a great series.

Score: 8.0/10

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