Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Developer: Zipper Interactive
Release Date: November 7, 2006
The PlayStation 2's biggest weakness has always been its online play. Compared to Xbox Live, PlayStation 2 was lacking in both quality and quantity of titles; one of the few standout titles was Sony's own SOCOM franchise. Rather than focusing on a single-player experience with the online features thrown in at the last moment, SOCOM was built from the ground up as an online game. Even to this day, the SOCOM games make up a major part of the PlayStation 2's online service, with over 15,000 people playing daily. However, despite strong online play, SOCOM has always had weak campaign modes, something SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Combined Assault tries to fix, with mixed results.
Like its predecessors, Combined Assault is designed for online play, but it also offers a single-player campaign. Unfortunately, this campaign comes across far more as an afterthought than anything else. As Specter, you command a team of Navy SEALs as they battle terrorists, drug runners and other ne'er-do-wells. Combined Assault's gameplay continues to play out from a third-person perspective, taking full advantage of the PlayStation 2's controller and using every available button. Despite the number of different functions to remember, controls are smooth and easy to learn. Players can fire and switch weapons on the fly with the shoulder button, go into different views with the d-pad, duck or crouch with a press of the Triangle button and perform most other actions with X. Unusual actions, such as opening doors or planting explosives, are done via an action menu when your crosshairs are over the object. In general, controlling Specter is easy.
The same can't be said of your AI companions, and this is the first area where the game really begins to fail. While the AI can be commanded through a series of simple button presses, they're not very smart. They take no notice of the terrain and their locations, and they'll see no problem with walking off a cliff. It's not unreasonably bad, but in a title with such little room for error, it can be incredibly frustrating to hear that cry of, "Man down, man down!" Even when they get to a location correctly, they're still not the most helpful of allies, although they manage to perform their tasks successfully.
To make matters worse, the missions themselves are tiresome and linear. The stage design looks wide open, but you'll find countless unscalable cliffs, closed doors and other path-blockers that prevent you from accessing most of these areas. Mission objectives are similarly linear, forcing your SEALs to handle things in a specific order. While you try to move outside the path, it just means you'll end up backtracking later. Combined with the lackluster AI, completing the simplest of objectives becomes a chore. Much of the game appears to have been designed for co-op play, leaving the single-player aspect deeply wanting.
Combined Assault refers to the new online co-op features, which allow a team of players to take control of the Navy SEALs. Instead of relying on the shoddy AI, players can work together to complete objectives in the single-player campaign. Missions completed in co-op work the same as those completed in the single-player portion, and it's possible to go through the entire game that way. It's also significantly more fun. A team of online players in communication can complete objectives much faster and more efficiently than a single-player ever could, and not having to fear for the AI screwing up is most welcome. Of course, this is assuming you can find a team of online players who work well together. As anyone who's played online games knows, this can be a rare beast indeed, and one player can make things more difficult for the rest of the team.
Besides the co-op, Combined Assault features Classic mode, where players are put on one of two teams with up to 32 players each, and proceed to kill each other in any fashion possible. Rather than picking up weapons during a match, players customize their characters beforehand, and once in the match, the two teams compete to accomplish various objectives. Game modes are varied and keep things interesting, from hostage rescue to planting bombs to a simple deathmatch. Gameplay is fast and in a realistic style similar to Counter-Strike, where it only takes one or two shots to kill, and rounds can be finished in a matter of minutes. Unless the respawn option is turned on, death means you are out of the game for the rest of the match. Beyond the weapons a player takes in, various stage-specific tools are also available. Some stages feature vehicles like jeeps and hummers, which can be used to traverse the terrain quickly, and stationary machine guns can be used to defend key choke points.
Of course, not everything is hunky-dory online. While the game suffers from minimal lag, it can be notable with a large number of players. If you accidentally get killed early on in a match, it can be a long wait for the next match, especially when there are a number of campers. Worse than that is a match where the respawn option is turned on. SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Combined Assault does not have any kind of "spawn protection," and players can be easily killed while they're respawning, before they can even take an action. Also, a warning: Do not play Combined Assault without a headphone. Trying to coordinate actions using only the clunky in-game interface is nearly impossible and will severely degrade the quality of your experience.
Like last year's SOCOM 3, SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Combined Arms features crosstalk with the PlayStation Portable version of the game. Players who own both Combined Assault and the new SOCOM: Fireteam Bravo 2 for the PSP can link up their games to allow their two teams to work together. Many of the missions in Combined Assault's single-player campaign occur in the same locations as those in Fireteam Bravo 2, and by completing objectives in one game, the players can "sync" the two games together to make things easier in the other. If your team of SEALs in FB2 takes out guards during their mission, it can make an objective easier for the team in Combined Assault. While crosstalk isn't required to beat the game or complete all of the objectives, it makes a nice bonus for those who have both titles.
For a PlayStation 2 title, Combined Assault looks pretty good. While the graphics are not quite up to par with some of the fancier single-player games, they manage to look quite impressive for an online title. The various stages have a large open look to them, and despite the linear paths, still manage to give the feeling of space. While the locals are well-designed, the same can't be said of the character models, which are a bit basic and repetitive. It's not a major flaw, but it can be a bit noticeable in the single-player game.
SOCOM isn't going to win any awards for audio. What little music there is quickly becomes annoying and repetitive. The weapon sounds are solid, if a bit dull. Similarly, the voice acting is average at best, sounding a bit more like actors reading lines than SEALs in the middle of a tense firefight, and there is very little variety in the canned phrases. It isn't enough to make you hit mute, but it doesn't do much to improve the experience, either.
Of course, no matter what I say about SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Combined Assault, those who love the SOCOM franchise are going to purchase it anyway, and in the long run, they'll probably be happy. For those seeking good online play on the PlayStation 2, Combined Assault is the best there is, for better or worse. Anyone seeking a strong single-player game is strongly advised to look elsewhere.
More articles about SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Combined Assault