There’s a reason why there are very little games based on the Vietnam conflict. How does one tastefully depict one of the most controversial military engagements in history? World War II had a clear enemy. Everyone hated the Nazis, no doubt about that. With the War on Terror (a controversial conflict in its own right), the enemy was the Taliban for their attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. With Vietnam, the conflict was mired in controversy that painted a rather bleak picture of America. There are studios that have certainly tried to make a game from Vietnam. Shellshock: ‘Nam 67 comes to mind, though it focused on the horror of the conflict and the damage it caused to both soldier and civilian.
Eschewing the first person shooter format, Air Conflicts: Vietnam takes the high road by putting the player in the sky, piloting America’s arsenal of jet planes and attack helicopters. Taking the player away from the rifle and into the sky seems like a good way to lessen the unease of depicting Vietnam in a video game but make no mistake, you’re still killing people just from the relative safety of 3,000 miles in the air.
Air Conflicts is an arcade flight simulator set during the Vietnam campaign, from America’s role as “advisors” to the full blown war. The player’s task is to engage in sorties intended to aid the military’s effort to stop the spread of Communism in the region. Air Conflicts would be interesting - and possibly entertaining - if it weren’t for clunky controls, glitches, an annoyingly derivative soundtrack and a narrative that throws so much vitriol at the United States and, by extension the player, for their actions.
There’s very little story to the game apart from the conflict itself. Missions fall within the limited scope of “Clear this/that area” and “Go here and kill X number of Y.” The thing is, Air Conflicts: Vietnam just isn’t very exciting. The game’s only thrilling element comes are the dogfighting missions. I enjoy flight combat games and there’s nothing more awesome than going toe-to-toe against other pilots, waiting for the lock-on tone before firing a missile or shredding their craft with a volley of bullets. For the most part, the enemy AI is pretty good in the air-to-air missions. They’ll dodge and maneuver away from your crosshairs, try to pull you away from escort targets and acquire their own missile locks. If Air Conflicts: Vietnam were just dogfights, I’d be happier with it.
Where the game suffers are the air-to-ground stages. Helicopter-based stages are dull and frustrating because the controls are so uncomfortable. Where the jets handle like a dream, trying to get a chopper moving around and attacking ground targets is so counterintuitive and awkward that it really drags the game down. What makes flying these craft so infuriating is setting the climb and descend functions to the face buttons (when playing on a 360 controller) and using the right stick to control forward and backwards movement. Unless you’ve got two thumbs, you cannot perform both actions at the same time. Aiming and firing isn’t very comfortable either, given the craft will snap back to a level position if your thumb releases the analog stick. For me, trying to perform run and gun tactics were incredibly difficult and it was easier to just hover a few yards away and pick off targets at a distance while soaking up their attacks. I really would have loved to plug in my trusty Microsoft Sidewinder to play though it doesn’t appear to be a control option. What makes the bad controls even more noticeable are the missions that have you switching between helicopters and jets. The game tries to make the helicopter-based sorties more interesting by introducing rescue missions should your pilots be shot down. Time based, these rescue missions become more trouble than they're worth. My first and only attempt ended in failure because a stupid glitch didn't recognize my helicopter as being in the pickup zone despite being in the dead center of it.
Outside of the bad control scheme, the air to ground missions come off as a little perverse. I could help feeling a little uncomfortable swooping in towards fishing villages and hamlets, gunning down Viet Cong as they scurry through forests and across rice paddies. I’m pretty conflicted here. I mean, I have no problem strafing targets in games like Medal of Honor, Battlefield, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Perhaps it is because those games make it a point to vilify the enemy whereas Air Conflicts doesn’t. This brings up one of the most bizarre elements of the game. Cutscenes bookend each stage, providing the player with mission’s setup. After the stage is over, the narrator often goes into a vitriolic tirade over the American military’s actions, decrying the carnage and devastation (all coming from a place of hindsight). Furthermore, not only is the narrator putting down the United States, he’s effectively yelling at the player. Your actions in the mission are the focus of his tirades and lamentations. If I want to be yelled at in a video game, I’ll play Halo on Xbox Live.
The nice thing I can say about Air Conflicts is that a great deal of effort was put into rendering the military aircraft of the era. Each jet and helicopter are packed with enough detail to make them their near duplicates of the real thing. A neat effect comes from the condition of the craft after a battle with sections of the craft blown off or riddled with bullet holes. The game’s fire and particle effects look good, with smoke billowing from destroyed homes and vehicles. It tends to get in the way of the action, as the yellow-tinged brackets that indicate objective targets are easily covered up by the special effects. Complimenting each stage is an odd soundtrack comprised of music apparently inspired by the 1960s. They couldn’t get licensed music, which would have been way more fitting, and in its place is a incredibly short playlist of not very good 1960s faux rock. For a better experience, turn off the music and listen to your own instead.
Air Conflicts: Vietnam had the potential to be a great game. There are effectively two halves to the game, jets and helicopters. The jet plane sections are great and well put together while the helicopter sequences are terrible and not at all fun. Some missions are made difficult by glitches and poor direction. I rage quit one mission because I kept failing it for no apparent reason. There's a multiplayer component to the game if you'd prefer to skip the campaign (not a bad idea) and play against human opponents. It’s hard to recommend the game, especially since there are better action flight sims out there (Ace Combat, IL Sturmovik). Unless you’re dying for a game set in Vietnam, there’s no great need to play this.
Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.