Review by SaP
"Designed from the start to sell for $20 and get 5/10s."
One of the most annoying changes brought about by videogames crossing the boundary from being a niche product to becoming mainstream entertainment is the appearance of bland shelf fodder. By this I mean games that do the job - as you can't have people returning the product - but refuse to go an inch beyond serviceability. Operation: Vietnam, a simplistic tactical military shooter, is a game that runs well and plays alright but rather than being an enthusiastic project that prematurely ran out of breath, it was conceived from the start to be just good enough, and possibly satisfactory to the less discerning.
Technically, the game is quite good. The game engine is solid, the controls are responsive, there is no slowdown, and collision detection is excellent. The sprite-based in-game graphics are very clean, though unfortunately contrasted with the washed out, faux-hand-drawn cutscenes with the blandest dialogue imaginable, there to support a story that wants to be humourous by playing on war-movie cliches - which has long become just as big of a cliche itself. The sound effects are sparse and often poorly implemented: the player could definitely use more information about the battlefield, especially since the viewing distance of the top-down perspective is severely limited. This way, your entire squad can get shelled to death by a tank before you're even able to discover where it is because (a), you can't hear its engine, and (b), tank shells explode with the same sound as landmines. I appreciated the absence of music throughout most of the game, though I suspect the decision was more of a cost-cutting measure than one intended to provide greater immersion.
Gameplay-wise, Operation: Vietnam is functional in its simplicity but also extremely unexciting as a consequence. The four members of the squad feature the four most typical specialisations - the versatile leader, the lightly-armed medic, the sniper, and the grenadier - which fit the various gameplay situations like a glove and never invite any creativity or lateral thinking. The number of enemies is rarely overwhelming, but since there are no stealth elements or any real way of taking cover (other than exploiting the fact that enemies can't follow you five pixels around the corner that is), engaging them usually means standing directly in front of them and shooting your weapon - you can't even manoeuvre around your target since there lock-on targeting is only there to compensate for the fact that you can only really move, and be pointed, in eight directions. Needless to say, this routinely results in injuries, which is not so much a problem initially when the missions are easy and power-ups (which don't carry over into subsequent missions) plentiful, but it gets annoying later when enemies would need to be outsmarted yet there's simply no way of doing that. In practice, Operation: Vietnam is thus not so much a tactical shooter - as it doesn't allow for any real tactics - than an unwitting Mercs clone.
Notwithstanding all criticism launched at it, the game's foundation is solid enough that it wouldn't actually take a lot for Operation: Vietnam to be a much better game. The ability to see slightly beyond the shooting range would be very welcome, for instance, as trial-and-error and memorisation of the battlefield is the only way to stay alive. In connection with this, save points are sorely missing - having to repeat a 30-minute-plus mission because you need to figure out how to defeat a gun emplacement or a respawn bunker by running head-on at it is no fun even the first time around (it certainly helps with longevity, though, as the main campaign comprises a mere ten missions). Better AI is another priority, especially on the part of your squad, who can't even find their way around obstacles to re-join the squad leader, let alone defend themselves. In fact, contrary to the game's central premise, it's often better to leave them in a neutralised area and go around exploring alone, hoping that a stray enemy soldier won't kill them before you can take control of the situation. Speaking of which, squad management is extremely limited yet still clumsy enough that it's useless in the heat of the battle - active pause would be very helpful. But the number one improvement would be a co-operative multiplayer option complete with a suitably generous number missions; this way, you wouldn't be tied to the uninspiring and often infuriating single-player campaign, and it would help to sell more games, too.
Even though it may well be Majesco's best DS game, Operation: Vietnam is still a mediocre product at best. If the developers had the sense of implementing just some of the above suggestions, the game could've set the long-starved action segment of the DS market on fire, yet it fell by the wayside deservedly quickly. There is nothing to really recommend it - in fact, soulless as it is, I have no qualms about warning prospective players to stay away from it. Yes, I played through it, but not once have I felt a sense of challenge or excitement, and upon finishing it, I felt very little in the way of accomplishment.
Reviewer's Score: 5/10 | Originally Posted: 07/07/10, Updated 07/19/10
Game Release: Operation: Vietnam (EU, 11/02/07)
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