SOCOM 2 wasn’t only just one of the best shooters for the PlayStation 2, but many would likely even call it the best on the system. These are big boots for SOCOM: Special Forces (aka SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALs in North America) to fill, and now that the online war is back in action from the PlayStation Network outage, we’ve taken to the battlefield with Move in hand and returned to give our full mission debriefing. Does SOCOM 4 outshine its predecessor and become one of the best shooters on the PlayStation 3 with its HD graphics, PlayStation Move and Sharp Shooter support?
PS3 has already received one SOCOM release so far with the online multiplayer only SOCOM: Confrontation. Developed by Six Slant Games the game was not well received by fans of the series because of the lack of features and buggy gameplay that is better off left forgotten. Now that Zipper Interactive has returned to command the series, SOCOM is back in action, but there are still several issues that ultimately keep SOCOM 4 from being the top online shooter on the PS3.
Starting up the single player campaign and taking control of Cullen Gray — known as "OpsComm" — deep inside South-East Asia, it’s quickly clear that this isn’t the same SOCOM game as the previous PS2 titles. Instead of relying mainly upon stealth tactics to penetrate behind enemy lines, OpsComm commands two sets of AI teammates into position with quick commands via the D-Pad to gain a tactical advantage over the enemy forces. Giving the orders to ‘move’ and ‘attack’ is as easy as aiming and tapping the appropriate button, as your comrades' AI does the rest. While utilising your brothers in arms isn’t entirely necessary at first, a few missions in and they become a necessity as the enemy AI significantly ramps up. Enemies will rush your position fiercely and land shots with deadly accuracy, and using cover and proper tactics becomes paramount to survival. This new approach to the gameplay at first may seem a bit lacking, but it soon becomes vital to learn from your deaths: setting up your teammates properly prior to engaging will drastically turn the tides of the skirmish.
To bring the game's roots back into play a second female stealth-based operative known as “Forty-Five” is playable in a handful of levels. Using silenced weapons, shadows and melee takedowns to infiltrate the enemy’s strongholds brings back the classic SOCOM feel, and having both of these different gameplay styles in the game keeps the gameplay fresh, and is cleverly tied into the storyline as well. Once Gray teams up with Forty-Five, her stealth tactics let her sneak into enemy bases the night prior to the infiltration, gaining vital intelligence to weaken the enemy's defences in the process.
So we’ve met the main characters already, but how does the story play out? Well, it’s no Hollywood sales-shattering hit, but it gets the job done nicely. OpsComm finds himself cut-off from support in the barren jungles of South-East Asia, and facing heavy opposition from a fierce local clan of rebels known simply as Naga. Upon teaming up with Forty-Five things get interesting as OpsComm decides to finish what he started and take on these rebels head-on – a literal suicide mission – and Forty-Five lets it be known that she doesn’t want to die for his insane idea to finish the mission without reinforcements. SOCOM has always brought a realistic approach to the shooter genre and this iteration portrays one thing very well: this campaign could plausibly happen.
Before starting our review of the online multiplayer in SOCOM 4 let’s get one thing straight right off the bat; SOCOM 4 is not a run-and-gun shooter. SOCOM has always been known as PlayStation's ‘hard-core’ shooter and SOCOM 4 lives up to that reputation very well. The realism found in the campaign carries over into the online battlefields, as it only takes a few shots to kill you or your opponents here. Sticking to cover and making quick, accurate shots is the only way to stand a fighting chance here but the difficulty increases significantly when it's 15 human opponents shooting at you instead of the computer AI. The maps are huge and perfectly designed to include close-quarters strongholds and lots of sniping range to take down opponents trying to get into them. Many times instant headshot deaths seem to come from nowhere, and a well bunkered-down objective point against a good team can seem to be near impossible, but this is what SOCOM fans live for, because when you do take that objective down there is a huge sense of accomplishment, especially in clan wars.
The amount of options for the online modes are fantastic, and too many to mention them all in detail. Suppression (Team Deathmatch) and Uplink (Capture the Flag) are recognisable to most players with experience in online shooters, but Last Defence and Bomb Squad are two modes worth discussing in detail. Last Defence is another take on Capture the Flag, but here multiple neutral objectives take 12 seconds to activate fully. Think of this as a tug-of-war; if a soldier is killed while activating the objective, the counter remains in place until a teammate restarts it, or an enemy gets to the objective and starts decreasing the counter, meaning another 12 seconds to activate completely. If one team can manage to capture all of the objectives the enemy's Headquarters are revealed, with the ultimate aim being to detonate a bomb and win the match.
Bomb Squad finds activated bombs scattered across the map, with one lucky person as the Bomb Technician – a heavily armed and armoured soldier who is the only one who can deactivate the bombs, similar to The Hurt Locker. The opposing team must do everything possible to defend their bombs, and it takes teamwork and communication to be successful here for both sides.
Lots of little extras have been thrown in on top of all of this such as the Custom Campaigns that eliminate the story elements, using stand-alone missions based in the environments of the standard campaign. Custom campaigns can be played offline with AI soldiers or online with friends, and not only is this a great new addition to the series, but one that can be extremely challenging on the hardest difficulty, with our only complaint being a lack of local co-op play.
Character levelling is standard for today’s online shooters, but here it's taken one extra step further with weapons levelling as well, improving their performance. While it isn’t entirely new for online shooters, the fact that the weapons level in the offline game is, and gives the Custom Campaigns even more replay value in the process. Move and Sharp Shooter support bring a new way to play the series and both work great in the offline campaigns, bringing the speed and precision we’ve come to expect, particularly if you follow our Move and Sharp Shooter Guide to SOCOM 4 to find that perfect setup.
Even though all this sounds absolutely perfect to fans of the series, there are many problems that need addressing. The main one is the character AI: sometimes teammates stand in the open while under heavy fire, run on top of grenades and get stuck on immovable objects. The enemies are significantly worse, some running straight into the line of fire like they have a death wish. Most enemies use cover and are deadly shots, and for the most part the teammate AI gets the job done, it’s just unexpected to find AI issues in such a big budget title.
The graphics don’t impress either, at times shining in brilliant HD and at others looking bland and uninspiring, though stereoscopic 3D support helps. Waypoints are far too close to each other, making the game feel linear despite the large environments, and one memorable stealth mission towards the end is a true test of patience that sent our Move controller hurtling across the room like a glowing grenade.
Using Move and Sharp Shooter offline is great, but online the controls don’t hold up quite as well. Though still usable by all means, the realistic recoil of the guns against the constantly moving opponents makes it frustratingly hard to land a kill. Also, when using the Move the cursor doesn’t signify when the bullet path to an enemy is blocked, and many times kills will be lost spraying bullets into objects instead of enemies. Also, many times the camera gets clumsily panned behind the on-screen soldier when quickly moving the cursor around the screen. Months ago a similar issue like this was rectified in The Fight: Lights Out by utilising a transparent character when the view becomes obstructed, and there is no excuse for this issue to happen here. The online competition is just too intense, and these small issues keep Move from being a competent alternative control scheme for multiplayer. The possibility of these issues being ironed out via patches does exist, but a title of this calibre simply shouldn’t be released with these niggles.
SOCOM 4 is a huge game with tonnes of game options to keep soldiers on the battlefield for a long time to come. Releasing hot on the heels of Killzone 3, the problems here are disappointing in comparison and keep the title from scoring as well as it could. Even with its shortcomings, SOCOM 4 gives fans an entry they'll enjoy, but unlike its PS2 predecessor it's unlikely to be considered a classic in years to come.