Zipper Interactive spent a lot of time working on SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALs, and it’s clear some of the devoted fans of the series will feel disenfranchised, as if the third-person shooter has evolved beyond recognition. SOCOM is one of the many flagship franchises for Sony’s home consoles, and is noted for introducing some of the best online functionality available on PlayStation 2 with the 2002 inaugural entry in the series. With so much time put into SOCOM 4, it’s inevitable the game would make some significant changes to the strategic shooter formula. If you are one of those long-time fans, you may very well feel insulted by things like health regeneration and slower character movement, but many of these new changes can be turned off in classic multiplayer. The good news about SOCOM 4 — that is, depending on who you ask — is that the game will likely attract an even larger audience thanks to its accessible gameplay, expansive multiplayer, and terrific graphics and audio.
Before we delve into the single player campaign and story, I think it’s best to start with SOCOM 4’s greatest strength, at least in my experience. The series is known for strategic gameplay, of course, but it really made a name for itself with its extensive online functions. Some of the best gaming I’ve had in the past year was playing through missions cooperatively online with four other people (hypothetically fellow reviewers).
Strong leadership and communication are crucial to survive as you fight through the six different missions. Game modes include Takedown, which tasks your team with locating and eliminating an enemy officer, while Espionage focuses on counter-intelligence with players locating enemy Intel and sabotaging communications. Co-op is completely lag-free (which is way more than can be said about competitive multiplayer), enemies and objectives are random, and missions are customizable — from the volume and difficulty of your opponents. You can string a series of missions together to create mini-campaigns and as you progress in personal abilities, you can easily take on more responsibilities like flagging enemy snipers or barking orders to flank or fall back. No matter the skill level of your team, you must work together on harder difficulties.
I mentioned earlier in this review that some devote fans may feel left out. Some may go as far as saying the SOCOM franchise has sold out to appeal to the Call of Duty-infused generation. That’s an argument I’m not interested in, but I strongly believe you can’t make everyone happy. This level of difficulty that requires teamwork is something you won’t find in any COD game; period. The competitive multiplayer side of SOCOM requires some teamwork, but nowhere near the amount needed in co-op. To put it simply: If you are not willing to take orders or give orders, you are going to suffer.
The same principle is not entirely accurate for the single-player campaign. At harder difficulties, and in the later levels, you will need to take charge, but you can go through most of the game using your team as just extra guns. In many ways, the game is quite accessible and easy to learn. If you are new to strategy shooters, you may feel overwhelmed by giving orders to your gold and blue teams, both comprised of two soldiers. Your blue team focuses on heavy weapons, while your gold team is more distance and assassin-based. Again, you can choose to bypass the strategy portion of the game and opt for a run, cover, and shoot approach, but the harder the levels become the more time you will have to take planning your next moves.
The development team said it worked hard to create a compelling and interesting narrative, something Zipper felt was lacking in some previous entries. The story is pretty good, but not as competent as some other recent shooters. There is one noticeable difference with just about every SOCOM game — the story follows a more traditional military tale without any zombies, aliens, or mutant cowboys. And that’s a good thing.
You play most of the game in the boots of Cullen Gray, a NATO operations commander caught in a rebel uprising in Southeast Asia. As the country’s government is overthrown, the intelligence operative, James Gorman, goes missing and is presumed dead. Gray and his two-man team escape the city thanks to the help of a naval intelligence officer named Oracle, and soon they join up with a South Korean Special Forces team. The newly formed five-person team decides to follow through with their mission to stop the revolt despite being vastly outnumbered and underpowered. It should be noted that the forces are region specific, meaning the Australian and European versions are different than the North American release.
The story is relatively interesting but it quickly becomes convoluted if you don’t focus on character names and timing. That may sound like an odd complaint, but the problem doesn’t have to do so much with the content of the story so much as the storytelling style. There are small cut-scenes that push the special forces operation forward, and the start of each level features a communication with Oracle to layout the mission. But about halfway into the campaign, I was left scratching my head. I knew the main character pretty well. He’s portrayed as a loyal leader, albeit crazy and emotional, and I was pretty familiar with your female team member. She goes by the alias Forty-Five and is seeking revenge on the rebels that shot down her cargo plane, killing all but her and Chung, your other South Korean teammate. I don’t know anything about Chung or my two other allies, and that’s a bit upsetting since it’s clear the game has a strong emphasis on character and story. I also didn’t quite understand or care about the local revolution and the game’s big bad guy. By the time the credits rolled, I figured out what happened, but I wasn’t overly taken in by the story at any point.
Your A.I. controlled allies do a great job following your orders or taking it upon themselves to revive fallen comrades. This again plays into the idea that SOCOM 4 lets you play however you want. The A.I. doesn’t hold you back and you need their help through the bulk of the game. There are few instances where I found myself frustrated with my team, either not getting out of my way when running to cover or pulling enemies by getting unnecessarily close. Overall, these issues rarely presented an obstacle and I was quite impressed with both enemy and ally A.I. On harder settings the enemy will work well to surprise you or flank your team, presenting an even greater challenge that requires careful strategy and good aim.
The game is spread out over six days and includes 14 missions with varying objectives and styles. Some missions include epic gun battles, while others include defending fellow teammates while they hack enemy intelligence. To provide a substantial break in the action, Zipper included several stealth levels that put you in the shoes of Forty-Five. Here, you’ll deftly sneak through rebel bases and bunkers, eliminating enemies by twisting their necks or sniping them deep from cover. As in most espionage games, you get a stealth meter that shows how easily enemies can see or hear you. You can play through most of these levels without killing too many opponents, but when you do, make sure you move their body so a patrol doesn’t notice they are dead. These missions offer a great break from regular gameplay, which can get a little repetitive over time. There are a few minor issues with the stealth missions, however. For instance, if someone does notice a dead body you left behind, you are spotted instantly even if there is no one near you. A minor niggle, but still fairly annoying.
Elsewhere in the gameplay department, you will find a relatively effective cover system, the ability to jump and vault over objects, melee attacks, and a first-person zoom function. The game is third-person and when you zoom you see over your right shoulder. If you click R3 while zoomed in, you’ll look through your scope in a first-person perspective. This only works on some weapons, though. All of your guns can be upgraded (this is done separately in multiplayer and single-player/co-op) and at the start of each mission you are given the opportunity to change your loadout. There are no pistols and I was pretty disappointed with melee combat compared some other games like Killzone 3. The controls are tight, but I found it difficult to find the perfect balance with camera and movement sensitivity.
This is especially true when using the PlayStation Move controller. I could probably write an entire review of the game from the perspective of playing it with Move and the Sharpshooter. It works extremely well in most situations, but for really frantic gun battles where you have to run from cover to cover, I found it difficult to move my character fast enough. However, there is tremendous precision in shooting and aiming while using the Move with the Sharpshooter. If you don’t own either Move or its Sharpshooter peripheral, SOCOM 4 is another great reason to invest in both peripherals to see what you’ve been missing out on.
All of these changes and new features roll over into the competitive multiplayer portion of the game. For the most part, it works quite well, but I hesitate to really boast about SOCOM 4’s competitive multiplayer seeing as much of my time was spent stuck in sessions filled with lag and glitches. The one place I didn’t experience any problems was in the new Bomb Squad mode. In this mode, The SpecOps team gets a bomb technician to defuse various explosive devices scattered through the map. The technician carries heavy weapons and armor, and therefore moves slower than his allies. The team must work together to escort the technician and defend him while he defuses the bombs. It’s a great way to highlight the game’s focus on strategy.
Other game modes include the standard Suppression with map control objectives, and Last Defense, which is a take on the classic Demolition and Control game modes from previous entries. There are 10 maps that are relatively large and varied. Some of the game modes and maps lose that strategic gameplay that made SOCOM so popular. There are also some weapon balancing issues that will need to be addressed in future patches, and while there is a patch slated for release day, the competitive multiplayer will likely require some additional fixes in the coming weeks and months.
The graphics are fairly impressive overall. There is a fair amount of visual effects like lens flares and the character models look fantastic. Meanwhile, the soundtrack, born from the talents of veteran sci-fi composer Bear McCreary, is top-notch and will likely be on some “best of” lists for 2011. From a presentation standpoint, SOCOM 4 seems to really utilize the PS3’s power. While SOCOM 4 is not as visually polished as Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, it’s still highly impressive throughout most of the game and, at times, simply stunning.
SOCOM 4 offers an assortment of gameplay that makes this one of the most enjoyable shooters on the market. But its simplification doesn’t bode well to make it really stand out and convince fans that this is the best in the series. Then again, simplification doesn’t always mean a less engaging experience, and SOCOM 4 does a terrific job of providing that “just one more mission” addiction. While the story isn’t all that impressive and the competitive multiplayer needs some substantial work, it’s a terrific game overall and worthy of adding to your collection.