There was some debate around GameCritics.com recently (generated by Scott's score for Manhunt) about whether numeric scores should address the game as a whole, or whether they should just cover how good a game it is. In the case of Manhunt, Scott felt that despite the fact that the game was a perfectly acceptable stealth game, its material was so objectionable that it deserved to be factored into the review. I didn't really have a stance on that issue until recently. A few months back I gave Roadkill (a game whose content I found loathsome) a five, explaining that was the score I would have given it had it been a series of untextured blocks driving around a wireframe world. At the time, I didn't think content existed that was so bad it couldn't be overlooked. Everyone has a line, I suppose, that must be crossed before they're willing to stand up and scream "Abomination!"
Shellshock is the game that vaulted across that line.
The game may seem familiar to some, as it is essentially the same game as last year's Freedom Fighters, only set in Vietnam, and a whole lot more offensive. It's a third-person shooter (minus the team controls of FF) with obscene amounts of violence, swearing and sexual content. At first I wondered why the teamplay aspects have been left out, but eventually the cause of that became apparent (unpleasantly so, as I discuss below). The game handles smoothly enough, with a standard control set used for moving around, shooting, and aiming. The one notable addition to the controls is button mapped to "switch to grenade and back"—a "throw grenade without switching off weapons" button a la Halo might have been appreciated, but this was functional and a nice touch.
The level design is also up to par with expectations. The rubble-strewn bombed out cities are especially well constructed; as are the large, open battlefields that the game frequently takes place in. The tunnels that appear in every Vietnam game aren't as well represented, feeling entirely too spacious and roomy to instill the kind of claustrophobia they should. Filter effects are the real standout in the graphics departments—they do a great job of giving the game a gritty, unpleasant look that ties in well with the subject matter.
The game opens with a dramatic voice speaking over real low-quality black and white Vietnam War footage. I found the very use of this footage troubling and unpleasant, but this has become a standard feature in historical war games, so it might be too late for me to start complaining now. The bigger problem, though, is the voiceover, which attempts to give players too young to have seen the movie Platoon a Coles notes version of the lead-up to major combat operations in Vietnam. It's a decidedly skewed version of the events, which basically states that the Commies in the North wanted to take over South Vietnam, and the U.S. sent in troops to stop them. The overall message of the speech is that Americans who went in with good intent weren't prepared for how horrible a situation they were getting themselves into. It leaves out such salient points as the cancelled elections, political assassinations, and other American attempts to undermine Vietnamese self-determination and prevent the dreaded domino effect. Now, obviously the speech couldn't drag on too long, or the developers would have ended up producing Ken Burns' Shellshock: Vietnam '67 , but what makes this so disturbing is that it follows the very specific "footage + simplistic narration" formula of the Medal of Honor games. This wouldn't be so bad if it didn't seem like the game was trying to draw a parallel between the government of North Vietnam and the Nazis, and suggest that Vietnam was a war of Communist aggression, which has so much wrong with it I don't even know where to start.
And those are just my problems with the opening movie.
A good thirty seconds into starting a new game I knew I was going to hate it. What tipped me off? Right there on my profile there was a line for keeping track of the number how many headshots I've scored*. There's a sign that I'm going to be playing a brutally realistic war simulator right there. Once I started actually playing, it didn't get any better. As far as I could tell, only three real additions have been made to turn this into a more gritty war game: heads now explode when shot and limbs fly off; there are female VietCong troops to kill, and there are whores to service the main character in between missions, provided that the player has earned enough "chits." The chits are earned by collecting souvenirs off of enemy soldiers, beating levels within a certiain time, and meeting certain kill and headshot requirements.
Let me recap that, just so we're clear: the game rewards corpse-robbing and extra-brutal killing with sex.
Despite all these attempts at realism, the game still feels incredibly videogame-artificial. While many of the levels are admirably open-concept in their design, the developers couldn't come up with any better way of setting boundaries than by placing walls of widely-spaced bamboo stalks. Really widely spaced. As wide as the player character spaced. That's lucky because in a jungle war situation I wouldn't want to do anything crazy like use dense jungle foliage for cover, would I? I mean, what good could that possibly do?
Now I digress from the review proper for story time. Here's the story of how I was able to commit my first ever war atrocity: My squad was dispatched to a village to search for weapon stockpiles. Wandering around the village, I decided to see if the game would let me kill chickens. It did, and unlike the universal video game symbol for "dead chicken," a cloud of feathers and blood, I was treated to a chicken corpse lying around. So I tried to kill a pig. Similar effect. And the ox? Yuh-huh. So I went over to the circle of civillians and shot one of them in the back of the head. Yup, that worked fine, and other than a stern warning that I'd just hit a civilian, absolutely no repercussion. So I shot a marine. But luckily marines are bulletproof, so no matter how many times I shot my pal in the head at point blank range, it had absolutely no effect. Remembering the warning I'd been issued, I decided to see if the game would actually reprimand me for shooting a second civilian. It didn't, but the rest of the civilians in the village were certainly upset by it. Rather than wait around to see if I'd just execute them one by one, the pulled out their bamboo-harvesting machetes and ran at me. Had they hacked me to death I wouldn't have minded at all, as I clearly had it coming. The rest of my squad wasn't having any of it, though, and one of them screamed "the villagers have armed themselves!" Ten seconds of automatic weapons fire followed, at the end of which the village's entire population (another six people above and beyond the ones I'd executed) lay dead on the ground. Here's the kicker—the villagers were all isolated so that we could search their villages for weapons caches in peace. After the massacre is over, the game tells me that I've accomplished an objective. What's that objective? Stopping a villager from getting away. So apparently one of them was actually hiding weapons for the VC, and gunning down the whole lot of them saved me the trouble of actually searching the village to discover which one. It's rare you hear about the positive side of a massacre, isn't it? Yet I'm sure at least a dozen child molesters were burned alive when Dresden was firebombed—how come no one ever talks about them? Oh, and at the end of the mission, there was no reprimand of any kind. No taking me off active duty, no court martial, no stockade time—yet when in the next mission someone executes a prisoner of war (a less morally objectionable act), everyone acts like he's "gone psycho."
I'm all for freedom in gaming, but again, I think there has to be a line. So while I can't say that the game shouldn't allow people to slaughter innocent villagers in a murderous frenzy, I feel there should really be some ramifications for it afterwards. Not just for realism, but for the sake of basic human decency.
Hidden somewhere in the above tirade was my other biggest problem with the game's design: American troops can never be killed. Well, that's not entirely accurate: the members of the player's squad can be killed at certain specific scripted and dramatic points in the game's storyline, but at no other time. So while my team and I waded through levels, gunning down wave after wave of VC troops, we didn't take a single casualty. Sure, my buddies would get shot, but they'd just lay on the ground for a moment to take a breather before hopping back to their feet, ready to do some more fighting. Now, if misused, this could, in almost every mission, allow the player to let their immortal squad to slaughter all the enemies in a level while they sat back and watched. It seems that the developers noticed this, and to compensate for this they made the American troops the worst shots in the history of the earth. So, to recap, Americans can't be killed by enemy gunfire, but they also can't hit the broadside of a barn.
This might seem like a minor detail, and while the reasons for its inclusion are understandable (to keep characters alive so that they can further the plot between missions, then die at a 'dramatically significant' point), its effect on the credibility of the game is devastating. It's not unusual for levels in the game to have enemy body counts of one to two hundred (sixty percent of which will generally be scored by the main character), and it's frankly disturbing to see a group of Americans wading through the piles of corpses of the people they kill, totally unscathed by the dozens of bullets they take.
Now, it's true that Freedom Fighters used this exact same mechanic (although slightly more realistically—teammates had to be healed with a med pack, and if the player didn't have any, they couldn't be revived, and remained dead), but that time it was acceptable, as the game was little more than a cartoon version of Red Dawn. Seeing that same system used in a depiction of a real war where real people were killed is just disgusting.
I said that the game crossed a line with me, and here it is: it portrays the killing of specific, theoretically real (in that they're virtual stand-ins for the actual soldiers that fought in the war) people as nothing more than a gruesome shooting gallery. For me, it didn't matter that the game's design was perfectly acceptable, or even that the game's morality was interestingly muddied, with American troops being portrayed as every bit as vicious and bloodthirsty as the enemies they faced. I found the whole idea of trying to use this conflict as a setting for a mindless action game reprehensible. At some point everyone has to decide when enough is enough. And now I have.
(* By the end of the game, I'd killed 540 people. 324 with headshots—roughly one two-thousandth of all North Vietnamese military casualties in the twenty-odd years of the war.)
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PC version of the game.