By John Walker on August 17th, 2009 at 11:30 am.
It’s all too easy to mock Uwe Boll. But I’m not afraid of a lack of challenge. The long-time film director, famous for his tax-loophole-advantage-taking reinventions of game licenses, has become one of the more celebrated anti-heroes of the internet. Equally known for his vociferous and sometimes violent responses to criticism as he is for churning out unutterably awful films, he and his movies are a lot of fun to loathe. And then came Tunnel Rats. Apparently renamed 1968 Tunnel Rats for its cinematic release (I confess I have not seen the improvised Vietnam film), it was not based on any game license. However, Boll planned to reverse the process, and hired Replay Studios – they responsible for the terrible Velvet Assassin – to convert it into shooty-pixels. Bravely, like a brave soldier, I bravely played it.
I’d not read any reviews of it before starting, and while I’d heard lots of people suggest it was rubbish, I wasn’t sure whether any of these claims were based on fact rather than assumption. First-person shooters are pretty tricky to get wrong – they can easily be mediocre, but a mediocre shooter tends to offer an amiable enough afternoon of target practise, if nothing else. Perhaps it would offer some of those classic Boll motifs – hilariously hammy dialogue, improbable scenarios, and an obsession with caves.
It has all three, I’m pleased to report. However, it manages something else I wasn’t expecting: to be one of the most stunningly awful games I’ve ever experienced. Which, bearing in mind my earlier comments, deserves some kudos. Tunnel Rats: 1968 (as the game is called) is excruciatingly, bewilderingly bad, such that the predominant thought while playing was: How? How is it possible to make a game this egregiously bad, one that so fundamentally doesn’t understand even the basics of what a game is meant to be.
I should say at this point that I’ve not completed the second level. How dare I? It’s a very short game, at around five hours, and I’d hoped to complete it before writing anything. However, this wasn’t to prove possible. But we’ll get to that.
You play Brooks, a young US soldier in ‘Nam, charged with clearing out the Vietnamese tunnels – hence the title. Right at the start your entire platoon is wiped out, leaving only you alive to wander the corridor-shaped jungles in search of claustrophobically underground tunnel corridors, shooting any enemies you may be lucky enough to find. On repeat. Brooks isn’t entirely delightful, foul-mouthed and racist, and apparently haunted by confused memories of his own childhood. It’s clearly an attempt to create an edgy, shocking soldier character, who gradually unravels as the game progresses. The result, thanks to some of the most awful writing and acting outside of a daytime soap, is a petulant and hateful little idiot. This is the only game I’ve ever played where the one-hit-kill traps that so frequently bug out left me thinking, “Well, at least I suffered.”
There’s not an original idea to be found. So as you might expect, right mouse does iron sights, left mouse fires. Shoot at enemies. Move on until you find more enemies. The only obstacle on your path (beyond catastrophic bugs) are traps, which consist of either trapdoors in the floor, or tripwire-triggered grenades. These can be disarmed in two ways: trapdoors by pressing “use”, and tripwires via a QTE thing that asks you to press either the left or right mouse button in a vast gap. Aim for a slightly smaller (and equally unmissable) gap and you’ll collect the grenade that goes with it. And that would be it. Well, it would be it if you really could just press “use” on them. Instead there’s the additional challenge of finding the arbitrarily assigned pixel with which you can interact, forcing you to aimlessly wave your reticule all over until you get lucky. This is especially fun with the trapdoors, covered by some sort of dust texture that mysteriously vanishes at the same time as you deactivate them. However, click away from the mystery pixel and the dust will clear anyway, but leave the trap live. Oh boy, it’s so much fun to fall for that trick over and over! Especially when the last randomly placed checkpoint was the other end of the tedious tunnel network! So much fun!
Brooks must be quite a sickly child. Falling from the bottom rung of a ladder (obviously no game gets ladders right, but Tunnel Rats takes getting them wrong to impressive new depths of incapability) will lose him a fifth of his total health. Equally jumping down a couple of feet from a rock can be near fatal. I’m not sure they should let young men with brittle bone disorders into the army in the first place.
Fortunately, he takes out his inadequacies on the corpses of everyone he finds. There’s a deeply peculiar feature where health is increased by collecting trophies from dead bodies. From the men on your side it’s their dogtags. From the Vietnamese, it’s… their ears. How lovely. Once again this requires a pixel hunt, which is made ever-so-slightly more difficult when searching American soldiers, what with their not wearing a dogtag. Ears you might imagine would be easier to spot, but little logic is applied. In fact, so gloriously illogical is this that you can chop the ears off soldiers who don’t have heads! Isn’t that your favourite thing you’ve heard about a game ever? It is mine. So much so that I found a despicable source of entertainment from deliberately killing everyone by blowing up their noggin, just so I could enjoy watching the ear-being-chopped-off spurt of blood appear from where there might otherwise have been a head.
I say blood. Despite the game’s gore content being high enough to feature beheaded corpses and collecting severed ears, the blood in the game looks more like old rust. Shoot an enemy and if you’re particularly lucky you’ll get the visual register of a puff of dull brown somewhere near them. They won’t physically react, of course. Mostly they just stand stock-still, firing with utter perfection toward you. Here an earlier decision comes into play: did you choose to play on Easy or Hard. No Normal is available here, giving the impression that the developers intended to make the game either too easy or too hard for the average player. Play on Easy and you don’t need to much worry about getting hit. Despite your fragility jumping, bullets sticking in you is a minor complaint. Although there’s quite so many health kits around that even if you do take too much of a pounding, you’ll not worry. At one point in the second level I was carting around sixteen of them, which is impressive for a man who can only carry two guns. The guns, by the way, are mostly fine. There’s no reaction from those you hit, but they fire fine and all. The only issue would be the iron sights. If you want to aim accurately, stick to the regular crosshair, which stands a far greater chance of hitting the target than the ambiguous and unhelpful zoomed in version.
There’s some spectacular bugs. Walking through walls is a dull example of how it goes wrong, but far more intriguing is the inability to throw grenades. Die at one point in a level (which you will thanks to one of the other bugs) and Brooks will only mime throwing them. Nothing is released, your grenade count stays the same, and despite seeing him pull the pin, sadly he fails to blow himself up. However, the best bug has to be the ability to jump up vertical surfaces.
This would be how I was unable to progress past the end of level 2. Here you’re tasked with reaching a helicopter that has a radio, and releasing a smoke grenade to signal for help. Near the beginning of the level you can see the helicopter balanced precariously at the top of a cliff above you. “I’d better get to the helicopter to see if the radio still works,” said Brooks. Remembering something I’d been taught at the start of the game, where I’d been able to climb a rocky thing by jumping onto a crack, I wondered if the same rule would apply to this cliff face. It did. Although I strongly suspect it wasn’t meant to. I impossibly and amusingly jumped my way to the top, and used the helicopter radio, spoke to someone, and then went off on my journey to find a smoke grenade. “I’d better get to the helicopter to see if the radio still works,” said Brooks as I walked him down a slope.
A collection of more insufferably awful tunnels later, and I’d at last stumbled upon the smoke grenades. Finding an exit ladder Brooks told himself, “I’d better get to the helicopter to see if the radio still works.” Oooookay then. I emerged right where it had fallen anyway, so headed over just in case. But the helicopter, lying on its side on the bank of a 1mm deep river, was now immaterial. Walking through it, there was no longer a radio with which to interact, and nothing else to be doing. The smoke grenades sat tantalisingly as a graphic on the screen, three of them, impossible to use. There’s no key for them. There’s no way to assign one. And all Brooks will tell me, between insane flurries of foul racist gibberish, is that he’d really like to pop by the helicopter to see if the radio still works.
Restarting the level… that’s not an option. The game saves for you, and there’s no option to even convert a checkpoint save into something permanent. Perhaps the developers were aware that no one would ever, in a billion years, want to go through anything in the game twice. But indeed no, because completing a level shows you your various scores for particular aspects in one column, alongside the astonishingly optimistic second column for an all-time high score. I cannot imagine there is a copy of Tunnel Rats anywhere in the world that has different numbers in either column. But my point: Only completed levels can be replayed from the opening menus – menus that, to divert once again, can only be navigated with a keyboard and completely random set of keys. (Alt to reassign, Alt Gr to set to default!) – and since it’s not possible to finish level two, I’d be forced to start the whole game over again. And you know what? No.
While Uwe Boll clearly had nothing to do with coding the game, his name is proudly displayed as it loads (and loads and loads and loads), and it seems very in keeping with the shambolic, almost mystifyingly awful ways of his movies. German developers Replay Studios (link currently doesn’t work, and perhaps never will again) have recently been rumoured to have collapsed after going bankrupt. However, they never even admitted to making the game on their website when it was up. This was one of their smarter decisions.
It’s, um, on Steam for £16. If you’re at all tempted I recommend you take the money and shove it up your nostrils until your brain haemorrhages.