Reviewed: November 6, 2004
Released: October 19, 2004
Somebody in the game industry decided that 2004 would be a good year to open up the historic vault on Vietnam. While WWII has always been a popular fountain of source material for games and movies, Vietnam, perhaps due to itís controversial nature, has never shared a fraction of the limelight. 2015, the award-winning designer of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, is hoping to change that by combining the latest Unreal technology with their own specific brand of military action and storytelling.
Men of Valor is just one of four Vietnam-inspired titles hitting shelves all within weeks of each other. In the grand scheme of things, Men of Valor rises to the top of the entire pack with some challenging and ingenious gameplay along with one of the best wartime narratives of recent memory.
Men of Valor distinguishes itself from its three competitors with a unique storytelling approach that tells an engrossing tale of Dean Shepard, a young African-American soldier, fresh out of boot and thrust into the intense action of the Vietnam War. While youíll be living most of the adventure, there is a lot of story told through narrated letters that Dean writes home to his parents. Some of these simply recount the previous mission while others give a touching insight into our lead character.
The story is heavily integrated into a lengthy series of missions that are as varied as they are challenging. Despite some limitations brought upon by its console roots, Men of Valor is an outstanding achievement in military action gameplay and a fantastic ride.
Itís almost uncanny how the game immerses you in the character almost immediately. You find yourself in the compound crawling under a truck to retrieve a stray football. Using the targeting and fire buttons you can toss the pigskin around until a surprise enemy rocket attack sends everyone diving for cover. After everyone regroups, your first mission Ė locate the enemy rocket launch site Ė is handed out to your squad and you all pack into the APC and head out.
Men of Valor doesnít try to make you the hero. You arenít a one-man killing machine and you arenít in command of a squad or anyone else for that matter. You are a lowly grunt and must follow the orders of your squad leader. In a way, this takes a bit of the pressure off, as you can now simply follow orders without the pressure of making command decisions or controlling AI teammates.
Gameplay is straightforward and remarkably similar to 2015ís previous Medal of Honor, game in both style and gameplay. Missions are linear and the engagement area from your starting location to your waypoint is often limited to cleverly concealed, but nonetheless, narrow paths. A good example of this is on one of the earlier missions where you must follow a riverbed. Even when the banks of the river appear shallow enough you still cannot leave the confines of the ďpathĒ, a painfully annoying glitch that keeps you from collecting the ammo from fallen enemies just out of reach on the shore.
Much of the game relies on heavily scripted events and trigger points. This can make the gameplay predictable, especially on sections where you die frequently and have to replay portions over and over again. In one mission you are trying to rescue a captured news reporter and his cameraman. You must clear out several huts that are continuously filling with an infinite supply of Vietcong until you enter the hut, at which time the spawning stops. Once you realize this you can cap 2-3 soldiers and rush into the hut to secure the waypoint, otherwise you can stay outside until your ammo runs dry.
Speaking of ammo, this is where Men of Valor takes a break from reality and allows you to carry unrealistic amounts of ammo for all your weapons. Admittedly, this game isnít pretending to be a simulation and considering the sheer number of enemies you will be facing, itís a liberty I can tolerate.
For those looking for some authenticity, you will certainly appreciate the vintage photos, movie footage, and quotes from generals, presidents, and other noteworthy historic figures. Itís a trend that is growing increasingly popular with games like Call of Duty and just about every other war game made in the past 2-3 years.
Men of Valor delivers a sizable single-player campaign that takes Dean on numerous adventures with a variety of objectives and missions types. Youíll storm villages, creep across rice fields, explore tunnels, dive into fox holes, and call in air strikes to roast the jungle with napalm. Itís a very exciting and realistic presentation of the more dramatic aspects of live combat, even if it has been enhanced a bit for better gameplay.
Control is excellent with some of the best aiming and shooting I have seen in a console game since TimeSplitters 2. You can run around and shoot from the hip or you can pull in the left trigger to aim the weapon. This stops all character movement and allows you to fine-tune your aim between multiple targets or go for a precise headshot. The reticle changes to red indicating a successful hit on your target making it a bit too easy at times to hit enemies you canít really see hiding in bushes.
As with any game that has you working alongside computer-controlled characters, AI dictates a huge portion of the gameplay. Men of Valor has some spotty AI, both for your men and the enemy. Your men have a tendency to rush into battle, not surprising since they are much more resistant to damage than you are. Like most games of this type, your men are merely a diversion allowing you to flank and attack the enemy with relative ease.
The enemy AI is even more straightforward. Soldiers will rush at you screaming profanities and you can easily cut them down with machinegun fire. Sometimes they will run right by you, perhaps distracted by another one of your team, or perhaps your camouflage is just ďthat goodĒ. None of these AI issues really affect the outcome of the game, but merely give it an unpolished and unfinished feel.
Youíll be treated to a full arsenal of authentic weapons starting with your generic knife and moving on to the bigger stuff like your SKS with bayonet, M-1911, M-14, M-16, M-60, Ak-47, PPSH41, M-79 grenade launcher, and hand grenades, not to mention air strikes. And then youíll get to fight from turrets or vehicles like the APC and a thrilling river run hanging out the side of an attack chopper.
The Xbox, with its nVidia chipset, is more than adequate to handle the Unreal engine, which drives the visuals for Men of Valor. This powerful software cranks out complex environments with staggering amounts of detail that rival some PC games. Trees, bushes, and even tall grass are thick enough to totally conceal yourself or the enemy. This is the most complex and densely populated jungle in any of the console Vietnam games.
Unfortunately this leads to some framerate inconsistencies, mainly when riding in or on vehicles and the landscape is moving quicker than the engine can update. You can also trip up the display if you rotate your view too quickly or walk forward too quickly. If you stay crouched or prone the entire game the movement is silky smooth, but that is hardly a solution. Since you are seldom aiming and shooting while on the move these hiccups in the framerate seldom affect the gameplay.
There are all sorts of excellent special effects but nothing could prepare me for the spectacular explosions in this game. One mission had incoming mortar fire blowing up huts and bunkers and the resulting explosions sent real 3D debris flying in all directions including directly into the camera causing me to instinctively duck. It was a fantastic effect that never got old. Just as impressive was the napalm strike effect that had every bit as much heat and intensity as the similar scene in Mel Gibsonís, When We Were Soldiers.
Oddly enough, the character design, while well crafted and painstakingly detailed with solid textures, is so poorly animated itís often laughable. Weapons are perfectly modeled right down to the bayonet extension with authentic reload and recoil animations. Top off the entire presentation with HDTV 480p support and you have one of the best looking war games of 2004.
Men of Valor will blow you away and not just because of the outstanding Dolby Digital presentation. Each and every weapon has been meticulously recorded so whether you are firing or reloading you hear the exact sounds you would if that weapon were in your hand. Explosions are deafening and gunfire whizzes through the room in a surround sound setup.
The original score is a wonderful mix of stirring orchestra music by renowned composer, Inon Zur, combined with authentic 60ís flavor rock and roll from James Brown, Mamas and the Papas, and many other rockers from the era. With so many Vietnam games floating around I was sure I would get burned out on 60ís rock, but Men of Valor managed to offer a few musical surprises.
The story-driven, single-player campaign clocks in at a hefty 20 hours for most gamers of moderate skill level. The checkpoint save system didnít always save where I would have liked but I seldom had to repeat too much of any one level if I did meet an untimely demise.
2015 has created an impressive set of modes for online play using a System Link cable or online with Xbox Live! There is a two-player split-screen for versus and cooperative modes for those with only a single Xbox, but link up to 12 systems together or head online for 12-player action in solo or team matches.
There are five types of multiplayer games including mission specific battles based on historic events, Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Recover the Documents (aka CTF), and Search and Destroy. The levels are large and complex enough to host a full load of players and the human factor makes up for the quirky AI of the single-player game.
Is Men of Valor the best military action game you can play? Probably not. Is it the best Vietnam game you can play? Absolutely. Men of Valor tells the best story and delivers the best action of any of the Vietnam games currently available. Telling the story from the minority perspective of an African-American was a bold and inspired choice that adds to the overall flavor of the game.
There are a good variety of mission types, which translates directly into varied gameplay. The visual presentation recreates an authentic Vietnam experience down to the last leaf and foxhole while the audio component brings the powerful sounds of war to room-shaking life.
The single-player campaign will get you hooked and the online and multiplayer modes will keep you enlisted for a long time to come. If you want to play any Vietnam game this year make it Men of Valor.