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This is the thirty-fifth 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.

From the scenarios I’ve been playing so far, it seems like the 1st Cavalry and the 3rd Marines are fighting the whole of the Vietnam War. However, the area just north of Saigon was also the scene of heavy U.S. activity in that early deployment and ramp-up phase that characterized late 1965 and early 1966.

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Fortified position at the top of the mountain.

The Battle for Nui Bad Den is explicitly a hypothetical encounter available in Squad Battles: Tour of Duty. It’s not only hypothetical, it is pretty much impossible.

Nui Bad Den is a lone mountain in otherwise flat terrain near Tay Ninh. With its commanding views and height, it was established as a radio relay station in 1964 by U.S. Special Forces (Mobile Strike, or MIKE). It was strategically located near the communist stronghold that the U.S. called the “Iron Triangle.” While the U.S. controlled and defended the top of the mountain, the Viet Cong (VC) were dug into the lower slopes and the surrounding area. In some places, literally dug in, with tunnels dug through the mountain to provide shelter, storage, and concealment.

This scenario supposes a VC ambush on the U.S. units. As far as that goes, it may be something that happened many times to the American units atop the mountain. The setup in this scenario, however, is that it starts with the U.S. having three different company-strength patrols moving back up the mountain towards their home base. The VC attackers simultaneously strike the base at the top and each of the three companies on the mountain’s slopes. As a result, the player must fight four all-but-unconnected battles, one on the defensive with the other three being semi-offensive. It all seems more than a stretch.

One could imagine, naturally, that the four engagements are taking place, simultaneously, within a single hour. The problem, from the gaming standpoint, is what you’ve done is create a mini-campaign, of sorts, with four company-sized engagements which all kind-of, sort-of depend on each other. Thus the advantage of a battalion-level battle (I spoke of this earlier) is mostly negated.

While I am at it, I’ll resume the play of Men of Valor, which starts its next set of scenarios (Operation) only a few days later and not far from the Squad Battles scenario. In order to give the player a nice overview of the whole war, our Marine from the first operation gets assigned to accompany U.S. Army units in an a different area of operation. I can’t imagine the military swapping privates around between branches like this, but then I can’t imagine much of what I see in Men of Valor actually happening.

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Red smoke marks the airstrike location. Also, check out those termite hills.

I do find this game frustrating and often not in a good way. The biggest issue is that you cannot save. The game is saved at checkpoints, a hold-over from the genre’s console roots. A checkpoint is generally followed by a cut-scene which, while not too terribly long, starts to seem so after the 20th time being forced to watch it. You are also treated, with each character death, to a dramatic reading of the letter to your parents as well as a summary of the number of rounds you’ve fired and such. It seems like the point of it all is to punish you for having died before allowing you to hop back to your last checkpoint.

Even worse, though, the checkpoints are not actually saves. If you quit the game and come back to it later, you have to start at the beginning of whatever mission you were on. To put it another way, you are required to survive all the way through each mission in a single sitting. Already been at it for two hours and have something better to do? Too bad, because if you stop now you’ve got to start all over again.

It’s not that the game is too difficult, but it is set up in a way that (unless you’ve read a walkthrough ahead of time) you must discover some of the tricks of the game by trial and error. An example from the first mission in this operation* may illustrate. In one of the sequences, toward the end bit between two checkpoints, a particularly nasty machine gun nest opens fire upon you. With it blasting away, it becomes very difficult to move about the playing area. Trying to think strategically, I decided that taking out that machine gun had to take priority over my stated goal, because otherwise I’d probably get killed before I could finish what I was supposed to do. What I didn’t realize is that, once I complete my goals, the machine gun nest will be “automatically” taken out by one of my teammates. I probably lost more than an hour before I got that figured out. Top top it all off, it was an hour that got thrown away because I ended up quitting before I finished the remainder of that mission.

Plus, as I said before, it is neither realistic nor particularly enlightening regarding the real experiences of a Vietnam soldier. Despite the historical-looking trappings, this is still about running from medikit to medikit, hoping you can replace your health faster than the enemy’s bullets are taking it away.

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The kitchen facilities of a VC tunnel complex.

What Men of Valor does bring to the table, though, is the visuals. I don’t mean the graphics, of course, this is a 2004 release on a 2002 graphics engine (Unreal 2.0, for what that’s worth). What I mean is that the tactical games for Vietnam simply fail to capture some aspects of the war adequately.

For example, in one of the newsreel videos I was watching from 1966, the news crew was accompanying a patrol that was pinned down by a sniper. The unit called in airstrikes on the sniper position. An airstrike to take out a single shooter! In another, Stemming the Tide describes battles where 80% of the communist casualties are due to close air support and close artillery support. Generals repeatedly acknowledge that their victories are due to the effectiveness of this “off board,” to use game terminology, units. This doesn’t really come through in the tactical games.

In Men of Valor, it is pre-programmed in of course, but we get get to see small groups of soldiers calling in air support and marking the targets with smoke (see the middle screen shot). Then we are treated to a rather spectacular air strike.

Note also the details, the kind of details I’ve read in the narratives of the battles, rarely come through in any other medium, be the games or Hollywood movies. The giant termite mounds, which provide battlefield cover. The extent of the tunnels, including perhaps a kitchen intended to support a regiment. Men of Valor is one game that, at least, shows you what they look like.

As far afield as this game takes me from the informative simulations in some of my other posts, there does still remain some value in its depictions of the battlefield from the ground level.

*In case it wasn’t clear in any earlier posts, I’ll try to clarify. In the terminology of this game, the “Operation” is the major chapter, each one separated by the passage of many months. “Da Nang,” “Starlite,” and “Iron Triangle” are the first three. Missions are the subset chapters, if you will, and might be days apart. Within the mission, various goals are separated by cuts-cenes, all meant to be within a single day.

Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles. The next article moves on to the Marine Corps sector and Operation Utah.