Developer: Coyote Console
Release Date: August 20, 2007
War is hell. I know this because the sixth page of the Operation: Vietnam instruction manual told me. I've never been to war, personally, so I can't remark on the merit of that statement, but I can confirm that if real war is anything like playing this game, it is, in fact, hell.
Operation: Vietnam opens with a helicopter crash in the midst of a war-torn jungle. The enemy is all around you, and help is nowhere to be seen. It's up to your squad of four elite soldiers to make its way to safety and defeat any enemy forces along the way. Throughout the journey, the soldiers are plagued by a Vietnamese Commander with a scar on his face, who seems determined to prevent your squad from making any progress.
The game gives you the option to control four different soldiers, each with his own weaknesses and strengths. The main soldier is an all-around guy, his reload is decent and his weapon does adequate damage. The medic has a weak gun, but he can use health packs twice as effectively, while the sniper can shoot at long ranges but has a slower reload time. Finally, the heavy-weapons guy has a rocket-launcher that can make quick work of enemy armor or vehicles but takes forever to reload.
Now, Operation: Vietnam is priced at $20 new, so as a budget title, I can kind of recommend it for a nice little diversion while one waits for something better to come out. However, expect plenty of frustration and a pretty short campaign as you make your way through this mediocre war game.
The first major problem you'll notice is the control scheme. Since the game provides a top-down view, you'd think that it would be a great fit for some stylus control, but you receive controls which are completely mapped to the d-pad and face buttons. The problem arises primarily from aiming. You use the d-pad to both move and aim, so if you want to shoot at the enemy, you have to run toward them. Now, as mentioned above, I've never been in war, but I can imagine that this is not a strategy normally taught to soldiers. Needless to say, this control scheme becomes extremely frustrating in the later jungle levels, when you walk right into an ambush and find three enemies coming at you from different directions.
Operation: Vietnam does try to help you out by providing an auto-aim, but it has plenty of problems as well. If you hit any direction on the d-pad, you'll break the auto-aim, which means if you want to dodge the hail of bullets coming toward you, you have to stop aiming at the enemy, move out of the way and then start running toward the enemy again, hoping the auto-aim kicks in. A lock-on of some sort would have helped this game immensely, but as it is, you spend most of your time running away from enemies, trying to put enough distance between you and them, so that you can turn around and try and hit them.
The title frustrates these concepts even further by making you direct your squad with the stylus. If you want a squad member to hold back, you need to break your game and grab your stylus to tap on the screen a couple of times to issue the command. This can include a command to stop, follow you or stay on guard. In many of the furious battles, it can get incredibly frustrating to try and juggle the different controls.
Now, not counting the controls, the gameplay itself in Operation: Vietnam is at least bearable. The title is well balanced, and there are certainly plenty of health packs to limit the frustration. There are a few areas that might have improved with a bit more testing. For example, there are some major clipping issues. On numerous occasions, a multitude of bullets would rip from my machine gun and go right through the enemy. The problem seemed even worse if the enemy were running toward me, which they do 100 percent of the time. Also, if the enemy were running at an angle, even with the auto-aim locked in, my shot would miss completely. In a game with such a demanding control system, this is really inexcusable, and it just adds to a pile of mounting frustration.
If you die, as you end up doing quite a bit, the game returns you to the beginning of the campaign. In most of the levels, this isn't a big deal, since they're pretty short. Some of the later levels, however, take a good 15 to 20 minutes to navigate, and if you die at the very end during the boss battle, you have to do everything again. This can lead to a 20-minute level taking as long as two hours to complete.
The game also has a weird habit of sending one squad member into the boss battles alone. Since teamwork seems to be a major selling point for this title, I find it odd that at the end of a level, when you could probably use backup the most, one of your characters is sent in to deal with a major threat without any of his squadmates.
However, you won't have to deal with the problems for too long. The campaign barely registers on the time scale, and any long stretches of gameplay will be spent replaying levels on which you've died. There are a few bonus missions, which lengthen the experience a bit, but not enough to really pack a lot of meat into the title.
Now, Operation: Vietnam isn't without its merits. The graphics are surprisingly well done for a budget title. This isn't top-of-the-line for the DS by any means, but it does show nice colors and textures, as well as a lot of movement on the screen with zero slowdown. For the audio department, there isn't really any music to speak of, but the sound effects are good. The jungle has plenty of ambient sounds, and the gunfire and screams of a dying enemy are surprisingly satisfying.
There are a few city levels in the game which introduce a nice strategy element. Due to navigating the streets and alleyways and moving between buildings, you can progress through the level at a much slower pace than the jungle levels, allowing you to plan your attack with a bit more strategy.
The story, while hokey at times, is pretty good. Dialogue sprinkled throughout the levels allows the characters to comment on the horrors of the war and how the violence affects more than just the soldiers who fight. In between the levels, the story conveys hopelessness from the characters as they feel that they may not make it out of this experience alive. In the end, you get the feeling that the soldiers are fighting their way to safety because they want to do everything they can to survive. It may seem a bit melodramatic reading my description, but when you play the game, it really fits.
As with any game, the overall question should be, "Is it worth the price?" As a budget title, I can say that Operation: Vietnam is indeed worth $20 for fans of classic top-down shooters. It's certainly frustrating and is a bit on the short side, but it does provide some fun moments and some shining points that make it worth noticing. However, if you're looking for a strong, well-made experience to whittle away the hours of a long commute or trip, I would avoid it — or at least wait until the price drops even more.