Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: Slant Six Games
Release Date: October 2007
At a press event outside Los Angeles last week, the folks at Sony Computer Entertainment America put two distinctly different items into the hands of assembled journalists. The first — an airsoft rifle — can be exceedingly dangerous at close range, especially in the hands of (mostly) untrained twentysomethings who make their living spinning words about entertainment. The other — a PSP dev kit — can also be detrimental to one's health, depending on the game in question, and its proximity to completion. Luckily, Sony opted to put in a near-beta build of SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Tactical Strike, its new portable take on the long-running SOCOM franchise.
While not the first such title to grace the PSP, Tactical Strike paints itself as a real-time strategy title (as opposed to a shooter), giving the game a methodical, hands-off feel. Tactical Strike is the first of a two-pronged assault (along with SOCOM: Confrontation for PlayStation 3) on what it means to be a SOCOM game, and while the switch to strategic gameplay is bound to provide temporary discomfort for those accustomed to an annual, traditional SOCOM fix, all of the pieces appear to be in place for Tactical Strike to be a handheld hit.
It is first worth mentioning that Tactical Strike doesn't bow to the whims of what is typically considered to be a strategic experience. It doesn't feature dozens of units viewed from an overhead perspective or any kind of grid-based setup. Tactical Strike is meant to be a fully organic strategy title, putting the player in charge of a squad of four Navy SEALs (or special forces from one of eight other countries) that have the ability to move freely as a whole group, two-man units, or individually. And while not a shooter in any traditional sense, players can command their crew to attack in one of several ways or perform context-sensitive actions.
This is accomplished through Tactical Strike's two main gameplay systems: the movement skimmer and the action reticle. Because the game functions without any type of forced traversal system (and from a third-person perspective), players can move the squad anywhere, but knowing how they'll position themselves in a new location would be a total crapshoot without the movement skimmer.
Pressing the Circle button will bring up a triangular icon, which can be positioned anywhere within view (and behind some walls and structures, as well). When the skimmer comes to rest, the screen will display ghost versions of the soldiers in their expected positions, which is especially helpful when moving from cover to cover in battle. Once satisfied with the eventual location, the player can press the Circle button again to stealthily move to the position, or hold the Circle button to bring up additional options, such as moving at full speed or deploying the entire fireteam.
The action reticle is displayed at all times as a box in the center of the display, and any enemies or other opportunities that come into view will bring up the option for a command. When enemies are within range, players will be able to attack with the X button, but holding it will bring up additional options, such as Suppression Fire, Stealth Kill, and Field of Fire, which allows the player to designate a squad as something of a human turret that will attack any enemies that approach its field of vision. Doors, windows, and computers may bring up specific context-sensitive actions, such as breaking into a locked gate or hacking a security device. Such actions can be upgraded over the course of the campaign to lessen the time spent staring at a meter.
As revealed back at Sony's Gamers Day event in May, Tactical Strike will feature nine lengthy missions, bringing the campaign length to roughly eight to 10 hours. Dan McBride, director of development at Slant Six Games, suspects that expert players will be able to smash through the campaign in four to five hours, but doubts that the existing skills of SOCOM veterans will get them beyond the first few missions without significant adjustments. As the campaign stretches into the later portions, players will have to make simultaneous use of the Able and Bravo squads (along with individual units at times) to launch a successful assault on the terroristic masses.
While Sony was unwilling to discuss the overarching storyline last week, we picked up a couple of narrative cues from the presentation and the missions we played. Tactical Strike doesn't appear to diverge too significantly from the kinds of plot points typically seen in such military titles, with captured ambassadors, night-vision assisted assaults in Colombia (presumably against drug lords), and meetings with informants who may or may not be trustworthy. However, we did hear some rumblings about a mission in which an injured VIP must be escorted out of a hotel packed with waves of mercenaries, so there may still be some variety held within the game's nine missions.
Once a mission has been completed in the campaign, it will be opened up for Instant Action mini-missions via the single-player menu. After rescuing the ambassador from the Docks in the tutorial mission, we found a pair of Instant Action events that tossed us into different mid-map locales with distinct, albeit simplistic, objectives. In one case, we had to protect a warehouse setting for five minutes until reinforcements arrived (which, at one point, was as simple as placing two Fields of Fire near the most common spawn points), while the other found us patrolling a city segment and eliminating resistance forces. There was nothing significant on either end, but it certainly serves the purpose of immediately getting players into the fray without the hassle of a structured mission or extensive movement.
Tactical Strike packs four-player online support via both Ad Hoc and Infrastructure, but with each player controlling a squad of four, it may bear more of a resemblance to a 16-player firefight. All of the popular play modes from previous SOCOM titles will reappear, including Extraction, Suppression, and Breach, along with a single new game type: Collateral Damage. In Collateral Damage, the mercenaries must detonate every single car in a designated area of the map, while the SEALs or Special Forces are tasked with preventing such actions. Despite the otherwise serious nature of the game, we spotted amusingly self-descriptive multiplayer teams like the Maid Squad and Hard-Hat Squad, so there's a bit of silliness to be found within.
When asked about the prospect of downloadable content, McBride admitted that the idea had been bandied about around the offices at Slant Six Games, but business will ultimately determine the availability of such content. Tactical Strike has been designed to accommodate patches, so the prospect of DLC is there, but it may only come if the game proves to be a hit with consumers.
That probably won't be an issue, considering the pedigree of the brand. Since its 2002 debut, the SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs series has largely expanded on the original formula, creating an online favorite that still captivates last-gen gamers for hours at a time. With both the PSP and PlayStation 3 struggling against their respective competitors, Sony is looking to make this a full-on franchise (a la the Tom Clancy brand) with variations for each piece of hardware. Thankfully, SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Tactical Strike looks to be a smart extension of the brand, with solid strategic execution and implementation of familiar series aspects. Whether you find it to be slow or rewarding may depend largely on your existing tastes, but for both series veterans and new recruits, Tactical Strike should be a smart fit for the portable platform.
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