For twenty years, from November of 1955 to April of 1975, the jungles of Southeast Asia echoed with the sounds of war. The Vietnam War, once America’s longest war was a divisive and costly conflict, where the constant sounds and images of war made their way half a world away back to American television sets. The Vietnam War is considered the darkest time in American history. It was a time where the United States was ripping itself apart from both at home and abroad. Regardless of beliefs and political affiliations, the stories of those who fought in Vietnam are immeasurable and invaluable, perhaps more important now than they ever have been before. People choose to forget the parts of history they do not wish to visit, but history places the important lessons for the present to shape the future. The Vietnam War hasn’t had a big appearance in the world of video games, most especially in today’s gaming climate. Most military-themed titles focus on World War II or the modern era of military conflict. Studio Serious Sim is looking to change that with a brand new and revolutionary take on tactical strategy and military video games with the simply named, Radio Commander. This tactical game places players as a field commander in the Vietnam War operating exclusively from a nearby firebase, while American military units engage the enemy in the jungle. With the inability to directly see what is happening in the field, players maintain constant communication with soldiers in the field, using the information provided to them to make the best possible decision on the battlefield. I had the opportunity to check the game out for myself at PAX WEST, and the results are most profound.
My first impression of Radio Commander began with the controller. The team at Serious Sim got together, discovered an old-fashioned military radio and configured it to work with the PC demo of the game. The radio featured a handset, and a dial to select specific orders. The controller was tied to the PC, meaning players would use both the numeric dial and the headset to give commands. To see this at the show was unique and made a strong impression on me as I prepared to play the game.
Radio Commander puts you as a boots-on-the-ground commander operating out of a firebase deep in the jungles of Vietnam. In an era with no drones and no satellite reconnaissance, the outcome of the mission relies entirely on military radio. This connection and the radio is absolutely everything to the mission. Battlefield conditions, troop movements, and any engagement with the enemy is entirely dependent on what is spoken through the radio, and the map at the Firebase. Where in modern warfare, a commander can visually see what is happening during a battle, a commander in Vietnam can only hear what is happening, and use tools, such as maps, to make the best judgment. Radio Commander is a game that encourages the player not just to listen to the conditions of the mission, but also to visualize and think about the next turn.
My demo of Radio Commander lasted approximately 30 minutes, with me using the special controller to coordinate my men in the field. The demo involved searching a village, discovering any evidence of nearby NVA forces. During the mission, I had the authority to command my troops to move at specific locations and at particular speeds. The locations were mapped out and hovering the mouse over a specific area displayed coordinates to follow which made it pretty simple. As part of the first objective, I instructed my men to walk towards the village. The troops on the ground reported their position and when they arrived. Radio Commander is voice acted which further immerses the player into the game. I got a sense of the tough effort of trekking through the thick jungle brush, with soldiers reporting their conditions under a grueling sun and the rot of jungle humidity. The soldiers reported that there may have been an NVA camp nearby, and I proceeded to coordinate my soldiers to approach the camp slowly. In Radio Commander, orders are carried out in real time, and if it takes more than ten minutes for an allied unit to reach a destination, then so be it. Fortunately, there is a fast-forward button to expedite the time.
Over the course of the demo, the troops would engage in dialogue not just in relation to their current battlefield situation, but also, in relation to how they were feeling. The discussion of politics and condition back at home came up during the demo, with some parts of the dialogue directly interacting with the player. In those moments, there are dialogue options to help keep the conservation going. Conversations such as this bring a sense of authenticity and realism to the overall setting of Radio Commander. The game doesn’t feel like a video game but more of a glimpse into this violent and divisive conflict. As we approached the NVA camp, it appeared to the troops that the camp had been abandoned and there was not much more information to go on. After giving the order to return to base, I instructed the two groups of soldiers to head to the landing zone at normal speed. The two troops were some distance apart from each other. at the time, I didn’t think much of it, but looking back on how I played Radio Commander, this was a terrible idea.
On the way to the landing zone, in an instant, all hell broke loose. The NVA opened up on Alpha team with gunfire and explosions erupting from the trees. I immediately ordered Bravo team to double-time to the gun battle, as well as to engage and fire at will. Alpha was already reporting casualties but no fatalities. I ordered Bravo to approach the enemy from the side, versus head-on, to flank and defeat the enemy. The soldiers erupted through the radio the condition of the engagement and the snaps of gunfire pierced through the radio. There was a strong sense of helplessness as I awaited the outcome of the gun battle. After a few moments, Bravo team had reported the enemy had been eliminated, and Alpha team reported that despite injuries, they were still operational. I ordered both to double-time to the landing zone, where choppers were waiting. Once they made it, the mission was completed.
Radio Commander demonstrated a surprising amount of freshness and authenticity to war games that I hadn’t seen before. The unique depiction brings the player the grim reality of fighting in Vietnam over decades ago, and it’s clear the team at Serious Sim has done heir homework in researching the combat scenarios and technology used in the war. I came away from Radio Commander impressed and more than satisfied, but also with a degree of respect. I feel video games have the means to remind us of our history in interesting ways, and in today’s time of divisiveness, it’s easy to want to forget about the darker times of American history. It’s easy to dismiss the Vietnam War but what cannot be dismissed is the service in which American forces fought in the conflict. In a way, Radio Commander preserves the history and sets a reminder to players that this war, and everything involved in it, indeed happened and should be remembered.
Radio Commander is currently available on Steam for the price of $14.99.