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And in ’65 I’m on my seventeenth in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post.

Men of Valor is a First Person Shooter set in Vietnam. It was released in 2004, two years after the wildly-successful Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. Men of Valor is an adaption of that game (which had, itself, already released two expansion packs and one follow-on: Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault) and, perhaps, a bit of an upgrade*.

Medal of Valor begins its story (once you progress through the obstacle course/training sessions of the tutorial) shortly after the initial deployment of Marines to Da Nang. I played through, so far, the first “Operation”, which takes you up to the start of Operation Starlite.

Just like the Medal of Honor titles, each Operation is broken down into several Missions, separated by cut scenes and (usually) some down time. Within a Mission, progress is saved a number of check points.

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Déjà vu. I am about to take out a heavy machine gun position with a difficult SKS shot, although I feel like I’ve done this before.

With this, I am reminded of what I don’t like about this genre. The check points are there as the place you will return to when you are inevitably gunned down. The checkpoint system was original forced upon games by the console world, where “saving to a file” wasn’t an option. It persisted in the PC world in a large part to provide more of a “challenge” to the player, who might otherwise beat a game by saving seconds before a difficult part and then retrying rapidly until you succeed. Because playing typically consists of getting killed, figuring out what killed you, and then figuring out how to get past what killed you, when reloading from the last checkpoint you are punished with the added tedium of working your way back up to where you were. Besides playing to the masochistic instincts of the player base, such a format is necessary to increase the amount of gameplay that you’ll get from the game.

Although the player is meant to feel like he is in an open, three-dimensional world, the game itself is pretty much linear. You are working your way along a pre-determined path and the obstacles you face along the way are fixed, reacting to certain triggers. If it were reasonably doable to make it through the game without being killed, that would severely restrict the amount of play that the game provides. Or to put it another way, once you can successfully complete a portion of the game, there is no reply value. Much of that time-in-game comes from reloading and retrying a difficult portion over and over.

Which then brings to me another source of frustration. I’m sure I’ve encountered this when playing Medal of Honor, but I had mercifully forgotten it. The checkpoints are only “saves” within the context of restarting after being killed. If you decide to wrap it up for the night and play from your save point some other day, you must load from the beginning of the “map” or “mission.” In the screenshot above, I had finally finished the section of the game where I had to clear this village and, as I was thoroughly sick of it, I had no desire to come back to it later. However, right after that, I got myself stuck in another trap. Feeling like I’d already wasted enough time on this for one night, I shut down. Imagine my horror when I was placed back at the beginning of the section that I had finally gotten myself through, only to do it all over again.

Once I calmed down, I could think a little more rationally about the pros and cons of this game. Here and there, I actually feel like I’m playing Medal of Honor with slightly different graphics. For example, in the screenshot above, I find myself using scavenged commie weapons. For whatever reason, I went out on this mission without an M-14 and lacking sufficient ammo for my M-1 Carbine. When the ammo ran out, I had to choose between a wildly inaccurate PPSh submachine gun and the accurate-but-ammo-limited SKS. With the SKS, I had flashbacks to Medal of Honor‘s M-1 Garand with its tormentingly-slow stripper-clip reload. So much so, it really felt like some kind of cosmetic upgrade of the previous model. Likewise, there are places in the game where I feel sure I’ve already done this exact “mission,” but set in Europe, 1944.

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Does this look like the bridge in Apocalypse Now? A little?

Another similarity is the reliance on the existing cultural reference points to create familiarity. A bridge looks straight out of Apocalypse Now. Other scenes reference Platoon and Full Metal Jacket.

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I was somewhat pleased to see snipers in the treetops, having read about this tactic in We Were Soldiers Once… and Young. But only somewhat, as they kept killing me.

A somewhat strange choice (or artistically interesting choice, depending on how you take it) is to include a strong current of racial conflict throughout. Perhaps evident from the screenshots above, I am a black man. This is emphasized in the cut scenes. My unit is also mostly black and some of the casual dialog in-game has the black soldiers harassing one of the white soldiers in the unit. Perhaps the statement it is trying to make will become clearer to me as I progress further. Or perhaps someone is just trying to be astute, clever, and politically correct all at the same time. Let’s include racism, but let’s make it reverse racism! That way, white players can see what it’s like to be… oh I don’t know.

I noticed, in particular, two “upgrades” over the Medal of Honor play. For the first, I draw your attention to the medical icon in the bottom-left corner of the screenshots. Like Medal of Honor, each bullet hit you receive will knock a percentage off of your health unit, upon hitting zero, you are dead and the game halts. The difference this time around is that some hits will result in “bleeding” damage, where your health level continues to drop until you give it attention. If bleeding, you have to bandage yourself by holding down the ‘F’ key until the health loss stops. Bandaging is most effective when you are still and not doing anything else and, of course, it makes it that much harder to shoot at the charging enemies when you are trying to stop the bleeding. Ignore it completely and even a small injury could, fairly quickly, wind up killing you.

The second difference is in the way the “permanent” injuries are repaired. Maybe I’m misremembering Medal of Honor, but I recall that all injuries were repaired by medical kits, either scattered around a map or “dropped” when an enemy went down. In Men of Valor, the random smattering of medical kits is still a part of the game, but most of the healing (and ammo resupply, for that matter) comes from “searching” downed enemies. Finding that an enemy was carrying canteen can give you a small boost in health and finding a medikit on a fallen foe gives you a large one. As I said, maybe its bad memory, but it changes the feel when you have stop and deliberately search the enemies rather than just charging through a room sucking up “loot” as you go.

Also one shout-out of appreciation. The mouse-button issue is, while not quite non-existent, very easily configurable. My current version of Medal of Honor also works in this regard, but you never know with some of the aughts titles. I was really happy not to have to fight with this particular problem before I could get started playing.

So overall, is this game a waste of time or not?

It is a frustrating game. There are certainly places where, over and over, you have to go back to the check point and try again, only to do even worse on the retry. However, at least so far, the obstacles can be overcome – the game is not impossible. It is also, of course, not realistic. Even a successful run through a village may have shot and injured, almost to the point of death, three or four times but, courtesy of your enemies and their unused medikits, you can completely patch yourself to full health. All this in a matter of a few minutes.

On the other hand, and focusing on the time frame of this Operation, it illuminates a part of the war that, so far, no other game has captured. In the early months after the invasion, “nothing happened” at least from the standpoint of significant operations. That didn’t mean that Marines were idle. They went on patrols, engaged in firefights, and men were injured and killed. This may not be the best representation of this period of the war that I could come up with, but its just about the only one I’ve got.

Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles. For another first-person view of the war, this time from the cockpit of an airplane, you man want to read on to the next article.

*I’ve not played Pacific Assault, so I can’t really compare features between the two titles. What looks to me like a new feature in Men of Valor may be old hat.