I'll never forget the first time that I hopped into an AH-1, heard the rotors whirr and felt the Huey shudder, as the radio sparked to life and began to blare out Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son". I couldn't fly the damn thing at that point, of course, and I ended up crash landing in the jungle miles away from any of the capture points after a rocket zipped out of the dense jungle and smoke began to billow out everywhere. As I went down though, I saw two other helicopters start a bombing run...
'It ain't me...it ain't me-eee...'
To many, Battlefield: Vietnam is the forgotten child in the Battlefield series. It didn't kick on mechanically from its acclaimed predecessor, the singleplayer AI was utterly awful (to the extent that they'd actually sometimes not react even when you were shooting their knees off), and at times it felt more like a mod or an add-on pack than a new game. But I loved it, and I found that it grabbed me significantly more than Battlefield 1942.
I know it's a little late, but happy tenth birthday, Battlefield: Vietnam.
DICE kind of skipped the upgrades in terms of fundamental gameplay when it came to creating a sequel to BF 1942, but that did give them a lot of time to create a plethora of maps that felt true to the image of the War painted by hundreds of songs and classic films. More so than World War II, the Vietnam War is one immortalised in pop culture. I remember we'd been studying the Vietnam War in school, and I'd reached the age where I'd started to look back through the past few decades for great films to watch. Films like Platoon and Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter.
Here was a vast first-person shooter that rooted you in an environment that was fresh in my mind from textbooks and re-runs, full of dense, thick jungles, riddled with enemy combatants, and skies filled with buzzing machines that brought fiery death. There's an authenticity to the vehicles and the weapons that clicked -- DICE have long been masters of sound design and excellent production quality, and that was certainly true of Battlefield: Vietnam.
"Our so called ‘X’ for the game was ‘The Hollywood Vietnam experience in Battlefield’ – something we believe we managed to meet very well," recalled Mikael Rudberg, one of the game's producers, in an anniversary retrospective over on the Battlefield Blog last month. There were many things that made Battlefield Vietnam stand out; the chance to play 70’s music in vehicles, the tunnels, the procedural under- and overgrowth, and of course the asymmetric factions – e.g. napalm versus punji sticks."
Those asymmetric factions were key, further allowing for blockbuster roleplaying, and strikingly different gameplay potential depending on the side that you chose. Few multiplayer shooters have come close to replicating that same sense of location and purpose since. It's one of the few games out there that really manages to situate you fully in a time and a place, giving context to the battles that play out through detailed environmental world building. But even for the developers, being able to tap into the counter-cultural music of the sixties and seventies is what really raised the game to become something a bit special.
“The iconic music really set the tone for me,” said DICE veteran Roland Smedberg, director/editor on Battlefield Vietnam. “Getting to show off the game to those awesome tracks was a great feeling, having grown up watching all those Vietnam movies like Apocalypse Now and Platoon. There is actually a nod to Platoon and the death of Elias in one of the trailers. And of course, we loved using ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ with tons of choppers, like in Apocalypse Now.”
It seems incredible that Battlefield: Vietnam was built by thirty-five developers across the space of just eleven months, and it rather puts its ultimate successor -- Battlefield 4 -- and its problems into stark perspective. DICE is now a studio boasting over three hundred, and the series is beginning to lose its soul a little. Vietnam was not without its bugs, but at least it was playable.
I enjoyed my time in Battlefield 1942, but I fell in love with the series with Vietnam. DICE set a fine stage for a different kind of experience, one that eschewed trenches for the jungle. It was superbly balanced, with maps catering towards a war waged by land, air, and sea, never knowing where the threat would come from next, and framed by visual design and outstanding audio. It's still to this day my favourite entry in the series.