SOCOM 4 Hands-on Preview: A Bloody Good Time

When I went hands-on with Zipper Interactive’s SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy Seals earlier today, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the game works brilliantly with motion control. I played through two missions of the game armed with Sony’s ‘Sharpshooter’ peripheral for the PlayStation Move, which incorporates both the Move and sub-controller into a replication of a sub-machine gun.

Built by Sony with Killzone 3 and SOCOM 4 in mind, the Sharpshooter is light but sturdy. It acts as a ‘dock’ for the Move and sub-controller, re-mapping some of those peripherals’ buttons into various elements of the faux-gun. In SOCOM 4, you pump the front of the gun or slam the bottom of the magazine to reload. If you jab it forward, you’ll perform a melee attack. Twisting a switch on the side of the Sharpshooter controls your gun’s rate of fire. Other actions are slightly more standard: clicking in sub-controller stick sprints (or changes from third to first-person while aiming), circle takes cover, the X button jumps and so on. You can use the sharpshooter while standing up, holding the gun like a real soldier, or while reclining on the couch. The latter is less tiring, but also less accurate.

There are a number of camera control options for SOCOM 4 motion control, but I found the most functional to be ‘modal’ control. In this setting, looking at the edge of the screen turns your character just like ‘focal’ control — another camera setting — but you’re also able to click L2 to perform more subtle turns while aiming closer to the center of the screen. Aiming with the Sharpshooter was a blast — I was easily able to pick off enemies way in the distance with the gun peripheral. I was surprised by how quickly I adjusted to the radically different control layout; within minutes, I transformed from complete and total noob to a half-decent squad commander. Not everyone will love the Sharpshooter, but it’s definitely not a watered down control scheme — all of the gameplay elements controlled on a regular DualShock work well with the peripheral. Zipper is so confident in this new control mechanism, in fact, that it’s allowing motion control gamers to play in online matches with regular DualShockers.

But enough about Sharpshooter — how is SOCOM 4 itself? The answer is an easy one: it’s a blast. I started on ‘Rendezvous,’ which is the second mission of the game. After your carrier explodes in the first mission, you and your squadmates link up with a group of South Korean troops on a fictitious island near Southeast Asia. Since SOCOM 4 recognizes which region you’re playing in, North American gamers helm a group of U.S. Navy Seals, but gamers from other regions control other armed forces, complete with different characters and voice actors. British gamers, for example, play as S.A.S. fighters. It wasn’t clear if those settings are locked in, or are simply the default and can be changed. The U.S. Navy Seals squad commander is more or less a Nathan Drake replica, so I’d imagine that some gamers outside North America might want to use the Navy Seals for that reason.

The artificial intelligence in SOCOM 4 is top-notch; enemies are highly intelligent, as are your squadmates. Enemies advance on your position and attempt to flank you, but your teammates work just as hard to hold them back. As in past SOCOM games, you’re able to give ‘direct’ or ‘hold’ orders to your two squads, gold squad and blue squad, by using the D-pad. Direct orders are immediate, whereas hold order can be stacked on top of each other then executed all at once. Your squadmates typically obey your orders, firing at targets, holding back, or following you as you see fit, but occasionally they’ll disobey. This isn’t an issue with the game; in fact, it’s a feature. When I accidently ordered my allies into the middle of a firefight where they would undoubtedly reach an untimely death, one of the soldiers shouted, “That’s ridiculous!” They didn’t listen to their foolish commander, saving their lives in the process.

After I breezed through ‘Rendezvous’ (mission #2), I hopped into a mission much later in the game, ‘Onslaught’ (mission #8). In this mission, your squad meets up with NATO forces and battles its way through a marina. Since ‘Onslaught’ is further on in the game, I was able to customize my weapons with new scopes and add-ons. Full disclosure: I didn’t fully complete this mission. I took a barrage of bullets to the belly my first playthrough, one of the NATO soldiers I had to protect died on my second try, and the demo (an early alpha build running on a debug) froze up on my final attempt. Still, I played through the bulk of it, and it was quite a challenge. Thankfully, SOCOM 4 allows for flexible play styles. You can place yourself on the front lines and do the bulk the dirty work yourself, or hold back and direct your squadmates to attack before joining the fight. The latter is a bit less exciting, sure, but it’s a smarter strategy with a higher rate of success.

SOCOM 4 looks pretty good, but it doesn’t go toe to toe with the best the PS3 has to offer. Characters have a great sense of solidity and animate quite fluidly, but some environment textures are a bit bland, while visual effects like fire look downright strange. Still, the game looks way better in motion than it does in screenshots. The cutscenes are great, too, hosting cinematic camera angles and dramatic writing. The venerable Bear McCreary composed the soundtrack, his sweeping score brilliantly complementing the tense atmosphere of war.

Like more and more Sony games nowadays, SOCOM 4 boasts 3D support. I played ‘Rendezvous’ in 3D, but the screen appeared a bit blurry; the 3D actually detracted from the overall game experience. Apparently, this was because the PR rep had fiddled with the TV’s depth settings a bit earlier, so perhaps it looks better when it’s properly configured. Either way, I switched to regular old 2D for the next mission.

I came away from SOCOM 4 impressed, eager to see more of the game. The Sharpshooter works surprisingly well; I still don’t know if it’s a competitive option for multiplayer, but I look forward to playing the single-player campaign with motion control. Luckily, I won’t have to wait too much longer: SOCOM 4 deploys for PS3 on April 19, 2011 in North America and April 22, 2011 in the U.K.