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This is the fifty-sixth in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. Go back to the previous post in the series and here to return to the master post.

A while back, I was wondering about what make the ideal interface for small-unit action in Vietnam. One of my thoughts is that the player, as a commander, should have a first-person interface and have his communications restricted to what he can send and receive over radio.

Well, somebody’s gone and done it.

In Radio Commander you take the role of a company commander controlling your subordinates in the field. Unlike my imagined version you, the player, are not actually on the battlefield with your men. You have a first person view, yes, but it is of the inside of your command tent back at headquarters. In front of you is a table with a map of the battlefield. It is (mostly) up to you to populate that map with the information that you obtain through radio contact with your units.

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The enemy has me coming and going. I, on the other hand, have air support.

It’s the ultimate in fog of war. You have zero information about the location of anyone – your own forces as well as the enemy. The unit counters on the map only move if you reach down and move them, The map’s annotations are what you have decided to add. As I said, mostly. Some notes are added automatically (for example, the arrow pointing to the “L” in LZ), but mostly its your job to create the visuals that will assist you as you command.

Interfacing with your forces is done through a simple dialog tree. You can ask for information (position, contacts, status, and outlook for the current combat situation) and you can give commands (move-to, engage, retreat, plus a few situation specific options). On top of that, there are some scenario-specific conversations, in addition to providing some historical color, present to you some major decision points. For example, a radio call might come in asking for reinforcements and giving you the choice to send them or deny them. The decision, made through the conversation, triggers future events.

The scenario I’m playing today has you commanding two platoons which are trying to discover a VC tunnel complex near Củ Chi. Its the third scenario in a campaign that doubles as the tutorial. The first scenario, taking place shortly after your parent 173rd Airborne Brigade has begun combat operations, is mostly about following the directions as suggested by the tips. Each subsequent scenario add, incrementally, more challenge and more choices.

In between missions, there is a backstory told via letters between a soldier and his family back home. It is similar to what was done with the old FPS Men of Valor. In fact, it is really, really similar. Maybe I little too similar, at that. Like in Men of Valor, the cut scene narrator is a “simple grunt.” Or is he? He says he is, but “Marlon” is also “Coleman,” who commands Bravo* Platoon. That would make him a Lieutenant or, at least, senior non-com. Not the “grunt” of Men of Valor, but maybe a grunt is as a grunt does. Just like Men of Valor, this allows issues of racial integration and anti-war sentiment to be brought into the story. In some ways, it is less awkward than the last attempt – because I’m not “Marlon”, I don’t have to participate in the racial banter), but I’m not Marlon! Why am I reading his mail?

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Bantering with Coleman. Does he know I read his mail?

Execution of the missions is a combination of open-ended commands and the decision-presenting dialog trees. In the screenshot above, my men have located the underground tunnel complex. I’m having a non-branching conversation about what they found. Momentarily, I’m about to be asked to make a decision – whether to gas the tunnels before entering them in force. Obviously the results of that decision is scripted into the scenario. Shortly thereafter, I take another decision. When my platoons locate a sizable enemy force, I hit them using my air support. That turns out to be a terrible mistake. I misunderstood the relationship between my own forces and the enemy and I ended up blasting my own guys. That second decision was taken completely outside of the scenario scripting.

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The consequences of my decisions.

I feel fortunate that I didn’t lose any of my men to my friendly fire incident. Or to the enemy, for that matter. The victory narrative has been generated from the decisions that I took while I played. Reading them, it seems that I’m taking a big morale hit for the combination of things I did. I can’t know without replaying the scenario,  but I’m assuming there were both pluses and minus to these decisions. This suggests that one’s choices need to be managed “strategically.” That is, if I continue to make decisions that always decrease unit morale, I’m probably going to run into some serious trouble down the road.

What’s also hard to tell, without some trial and error fiddling, is how much of my result comes from non-scripted parts of the scenario. That is to say, what is the dominant mechanic in this game? Is it primarily an “interactive story” with RTS (real-time strategy) elements? Or is it an RTS with scripted elements? What is the fidelity of the combat simulation? Obviously, the modeling need not (and probably shouldn’t) be at the detail of, for example, an ARMA 3. Still, if it isn’t factoring in the stuff that should matter – terrain, flanking positions, etc. – we really might be in the “interactive story” category, whatever the intent might be.

This game has had some good reviews and good buzz going for it. That mostly seems to be on the basis of its unique interface. Deservingly so, as far as I am concerned. At this point, I’m still in the “tutorial” part of the game and I have to suspect that many of the early reviewers were in the same boat. As I get deeper into this game I expect to see more about what’s behind the curtain. It appears (from the documentation – I haven’t tried it out) that the developers released a scenario editor along with the game. This would tend to hint at some wargaming meat mixed in with the user interface potatoes**.

After I finished writing this, I played the next scenario from the campaign. I had a few more thoughts, if you wish to read them. You also may want to advance ahead to the next full blog post on Vietnam, covering the Marines in Operation Tuscaloosa or return back to the master post.

*Labeling the platoons Alpha and Bravo instead of their unit designations might be to indicate that the platoons are from different companies. It may be to obscure any reference to a specific sub-unit. Hard to say.

**My metaphors seem to be particularly painful lately. I’ll chalk it up to a sugar imbalance caused by too many Christmas cookies.