Now this is a game that was severely misunderstood. Shellshock Nam ’67 came out in 2004 for PC, Playstation 2, and Xbox. It was the first game to be developed by the Netherlands-based Guerilla Games, preceding the release of their better-known Killzone series by a few months.
Critics at the time disliked Shellshock; citing its mediocre gameplay and tasteless presentation of the Vietnam war. And while the game could absolutely have used an extra layer of gameplay polish, I feel that its take on the Vietnam War shouldn’t be so casually dismissed.
Players step in the boots of a rookie soldier freshly deployed to Vietnam in 1967. Your CO selects you and your “friend” Kowalski to partake in an emergency mission, where it quickly turns out that the two of you are a step above the usual recruits. More special missions follow as you rise through the ranks, with the ultimate objective of your campaign being defeating the notoriously cruel Warlord “King Kong”.
While it initially appears like a standard military shooter, what sets it apart is that Shellshock Nam ’67 is a deeply-unpleasant game to play through.
Missions will see you venture into jungles and ruined cities to root out the Vietcong, rescue POWs, and achieve tactical objectives. However, any notion of you being a hero here to liberate the people and defend democracy quickly fall by the wayside as the story of Shellshock develops.
You are frequently confronted with the horrific realities of war. Weapons of mass destruction, civilian casualties, corruption and incompetence, torture and war crimes, all of it is addressed throughout this game. Not just as passing details, but in ways that force you to engage with these unpleasant topics directly through gameplay and story. Contemporary critics panned Shellshock for turning the Vietnam War into a playground for gamers, but those allegations only work if you presume that this game is trying to be cathartic.
One mission sees you investigating a village accused of aiding the Vietcong, which eventually concludes with a minor disturbance forcing you to massacre the entire community. It’s a tragic turn of events, which isn’t fun or challenging to play through in the slightest. The violence is utterly senseless, as it should be within this context. Compare that to something like No Russian from Modern Warfare 2, where any commentary on the futility of violence is lost as players are given a GIANT GUN and encouraged to unload it on a thick horde of digital people.
After the village massacre, the game only becomes more and more uncomfortable. You’ll have to fight your way past mass graves and mangled corpses, you’ll help your fellow soldiers torture or even execute prisoners, and you’ll witness those very same friends dying in cruel ways. Not as heroes or defenders of justice, but as pawns sacrificed for some nebulous, geopolitical goal. Young men fed to a meatgrinder thousands of miles from their homes.
Shellshock reminded me of Spec Ops: The Line in a lot of ways, though its characters are admittedly less-developed and its gameplay more archaic. Still, those looking for a solemn war game with tragic characters will definitely find an interesting game in Shellshock.
Its gameplay is a real issue though. Medal of Honor: Frontline and Call of Duty: Finest Hour had set a high standard for war shooters that Shellshock plainly doesn’t meet. One could argue that this a third-person shooter and therefore entirely different, but some months later Gearbox would release the first Brothers in Arms; a game that comparatively blows Shellshock out of the water.
Its gunplay is simply too unrefined to be particularly engaging. The guns all feel basic and you only get to hold one of your choosing, so you may as well take whatever the game is currently dropping ammo for. You’ll rarely have a use for side-arms and the various grenades take too long to throw, making it hard to capitalize on any opportunities where they could be useful.
The AI is unremarkable. Vietcong soldiers have a habit of announcing their ambushes with battlecries, after which they pour into the battlefield in single file. In fact, the AI’s tendency to follow such rigid paths made some turret sequences and ambushes particularly easy. Things don’t get tricky until you let the AI get into position, after which the dodgy aim and unsatisfying gunplay make the pop-up shooting galleries annoying to deal with.
At times Shellshock will give you a stealth section or turret segment to deal with, which aren’t very good or surprising at all. If anything, I appreciate that the game lets you switch back to going guns blazing at any time you want without punishment.
The presentation also wavers in quality. Environments look nice for the PS2 and offer more variety than you’d expect from the Vietnam war, but to balance this out the enemy variety and performances are lackluster. You fight the same Vietcong soldiers throughout the entire game who all spam the exact same voice lines, conspicuously all in English. The performances for your team mates and the directing in cutscenes are also underwhelming, which made it difficult to connect with these fellow soldiers.
Shellshock is worth looking back on if you’re interested in games as a storytelling device, but as a game it’s little more than a footnote. The sixth generation of consoles had no shortage of war-themed shooters and Shellshock simply didn’t have the polish necessary to stand alongside the top contenders in that field. Still, a mere footnote is at least better than what befell Rebellion’s attempted revival of the Shellshock license. When’s the last time that anyone spared a thought for Shellshock 2: Blood Trails?