For Sony, the SOCOM franchise is important for a few reasons, and not just the fact that it keeps them exclusive to the PlayStation family of products. It was not only one of the first titles in the PS2 library to go online, but it was also one of the first ones to do so with voice chat enabled. The series has become the marquee title for online play on Sony's console, expanding the maximum number of online players, introducing vehicles and new gameplay modes along the way. While the series flourished on the PS2 and gave those system owners a good alternative to Ghost Recon, it didn't have that strong of an impact on its PS3 debut when it went multiplayer-only and was done by a different developer. After their stint with MAG, Zipper Interactive is back at the helm of the franchise with SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALs. Is this what SOCOM fans were waiting for?
The plot is similar to what you'd experience from SOCOM: Combined Assault. You play the role of Cullen Gray, the commander of a three-man NATO squad sent into an area near the Strait of Malacca to do a little bit of recon and clear the area of a group of rebels known as the Naga. You may have thought that the group was small and could be easily overtaken, but you soon find that they are better armed than you had imagined. To top things off, you also find yourself pitted against a mercenary group by the name of ClawHammer. It's up to your squad, along with two other soldiers found after a plane wreck, to drive them away from the area before they take over the important supply channel.
From a story perspective, SOCOM 4 feels a bit by the numbers. Unlike the other numbered entries in the series, the game only takes place in one location. You get a change in environment from jungles to ruined cities to fishing villages, but unlike prior titles, you no longer get the feeling that multiple teams are working for the overall goal of world peace. The characters are the typical ones that you'd find in any action movie, and they feel like they've been recycled from other games: the strong and gruff female soldier, the mouthy soldier who's full of quips, and the mission-oriented leader of the pack. The cut scenes don't really delve much into the story, so there is no character evolution or growth along the way. It's a one-sided tale that tries to add some spin with the revelation of the mercenary group, but ultimately, the whole thing is easily forgettable.
The Campaign mode, which is the game's primary single-player component, takes place during a six-day mission across the Strait of Malacca through these various locales. Most of the 12 levels are comprised of squad-style combat. While you have one cohesive unit, you have two smaller teams within that unit to specialize in certain things. Gold team, for example, consists of expert marksmen while blue team deals with explosive ordnance. You can use both teams to your advantage by laying out tactics where they take out other enemies from afar while you concentrate on those up close. You can also set them up for flanking maneuvers or ambushes to gain the upper hand.
The series has always prided itself on squad combat and tactics instead of raw firepower to overcome the enemy. It's just too bad that you never get to see that in action because of what can be best described as questionable AI on both sides. There are a good number of enemies that try to hide and take cover while fighting, but there are also more than a few that simply stand out in the open waiting to be shot or try to rush you. Amazingly enough, your team does fine when you don't order them to do anything. They'll kill enemies on their own and heal fallen comrades without being told to do so. If you start telling them to do things, they become much less effective. Gold team can get the sniping shots done, but blue team often ends up rushing the enemy they've been directed to take out. They also do a bad job at taking proper cover and often leave themselves exposed to enemy gunfire. Because of this, setting up tactical ambushes becomes a chore, and you'll feel better letting everyone do their own thing and just taking care of yourself.
There are a few other things that don't exactly help make the single-player game as compelling as its predecessors. For some reason, while your AI teammates can heal each other, you're never given the chance to get yourself healed. Once you fall, the game immediately ends, making you wonder why the team healing mechanic is there in the first place. The ability to deliver voice commands to your troops is also gone, though with the way the AI is, it may not be that big of a deal. Weapon upgrades are nice for players who use specific guns often, but the only useful upgrades are limited to scopes. The cover system is also nice, but it feels only partially implemented. You can take cover, but don't expect more advanced things, like blind fire, to occur since your guy just pops up and shoots whenever you pull the trigger. Finally, zooming sometimes feels inaccurate because you won't see that your gun muzzle is behind an object, causing you to hit scenery instead of an enemy.
A few of the missions try to do something different and introduce the element of stealth. Here, you go it alone as Forty-Five on either a recon or sabotage mission in the heart of an enemy stronghold. She plays just like Gray, with a few key exceptions. During these missions, you have a light meter that you can use to learn the enemy's awareness of your presence. All of your weaponry is suppressed, and instead of grenades, you're given empty shells to throw to trick the enemy into going toward one direction instead of another. You can also sneak up on enemies for a kill and carry the bodies to darkened areas to avoid detection.
Unfortunately, the stealth portions also come with their share of issues that sap away some of the enjoyment. The same spotty AI that plagues the rest of the missions affects this as well. One minute, making the slightest noise alerts the enemy to your presence while, in the next minute, felling someone with a sniper shot to the head fails to alert the guy next to him. The same thing occurs when the enemy encounters dead bodies. They get suspicious once a body has been found, but a few moments later, they go back on patrol as if nothing had happened. The light meter works well to figure out who can see you, but it seems like the only criteria used when you aren't attacking. You can stand near plenty of light sources, for example, but the light meter doesn't go red until you get close to the dead center of the source, breaking any sense of stealth the game tries to convey. The stealth kill aspect is nice, but it isn't exactly stealthy the entire time. There are a few instances when you can go in for the kill, but the kill is noisy enough to alert people. Letting the victim scream during those times doesn't help convey Forty-Five as a master of stealth. Finally, while the game allows you to pick up bodies and place them in dark areas to hide them, don't expect to use any method other than the fireman's carry.
The second single-player mode in the game is Custom Campaign mode. The name is beguiling, though, as you don't get to create your own campaign so much as you get to play short, single-player missions that can be customized to a point. You can choose any one of the six environments, level of difficulty and relative size of the opposition army. You also get to choose the gameplay. Espionage has you and your team trying to find an important piece of intel or other documentation hidden in the level, while Takedown mode has you hunting down and taking out specific human targets. Unlike the regular campaign missions, these are shorter, so they're perfect for someone who wants to get some action without playing through the story again. Unfortunately, while you can customize a few things, the locations of the objectives in both modes are the same every time you play. Don't expect to play this too often after you exhaust all of the maps unless you want to get in some target practice.
SOCOM 4 is the latest game to support the use of the Move controller, and it works as well as expected. If you're familiar enough with first- or third-person shooters on the Wii, you'll know what to expect, as your default settings give you increased accuracy at the expense of camera speed. There are a good number of options you can use to tweak the experience to your liking, and while it may not be as extensive as those seen in the Wii-exclusive Conduit duo of games, there are enough to help you get the experience you want. What kills the controls, though, are the buttons on the controller and how they're used. The acts of zooming, throwing grenades and shooting are fine, and issuing commands is actually better because of the free-moving cursor, but everything else — jumping, going prone, etc. — feel awkward mostly due to the button layout on the Move. Doing anything other than attacking gives you enough trouble in the middle of a firefight that you'll most likely want to stick with the standard Dual Shock 3 controller for most of the game and save the Move for the custom campaign missions. Unfortunately, we don't have a Sharpshooter controller to try with the game, so we cannot report about whether that helps or hinders the game experience.
The big draw for the franchise has always been online multiplayer and the game tries it's best to put on a compelling online experience. The Custom Campaign mode can be played online with a squad of up to five players going through missions. The online version is still limited to the rules and restrictions set by the offline version, but having human players makes it more tolerable. There are four other different modes, all geared toward team-based adversarial combat. Suppression is your standard team deathmatch mode, where the winning team kills the other the most and has the higher score at the end. Bomb Squad takes place in rounds where one team leads its bomb technician to defuse the explosives while the other team tries to thwart their plans. Uplink is another round-based game where one team tries to steal valuable enemy data while the other prevents them from doing so. Finally, Last Defense has one team trying to capture control points to reveal the enemy hideout and plant a homing beacon before time runs out. All four of the modes can be played with either a Standard or Classic configuration. The major differences between both are the lack of blood splatter in Classic, fewer rounds of play with longer time periods in Standard mode, and the lack of respawning in Classic mode.
The multiplayer modes may be good on their own, but die-hard SOCOM fans will certainly feel that something is missing from the experience. Gone are the vehicles from SOCOM 3, so those who have become proficient with vehicles will have to be satisfied with being on foot. Also gone are just about every other game mode seen in the previous offerings in the series. Again, fans of certain modes, like Escort and Extraction, won't see them in SOCOM 4, and since they were unique to the SOCOM series, their omission makes the game lose some of its identity. The good news is that the online performance is rock solid and has not changed during release and now that PSN is back up and running. Another thing to keep in mind is that if Zipper's performance with MAG has been any indication, there is hope that older modes may return after all. With what's currently on the disc, SOCOM veterans will feel that the game is a shell of its former self.
Graphics have been a big part of the series since its inception, and SOCOM 4 (mostly) keeps that pedigree alive. The character models look fine, with good lip-synching and clean textures on their clothes. Their animations are also good, but not as fluid as one would hope; little details, such as keeping their eyes open during death sequences or having emotionless faces while injured, breaks the illusion of realism. The environments look great. There are large amounts of lush vegetation where needed, and buildings also look fine in their crumbled state, though you will see a few inconsistencies, like floating plants and grass that can only be knocked down by your feet — dependent on the path you take. Particle effects like rain and smoke are also fine, though one could argue that they have been done better in other titles. It may not be the best graphical package the PS3 has seen, but it is certainly above average.
The sound is very well done in a lot of areas. The effects come through well, with everything getting the right amount of care and volume. Little things, like shell casings hitting the ground with a sharp but small metal clang, ring through the air nicely while the explosions and gunfire come through with the loud boom you've come to expect. Body contact shots, such as a stealth knife kill and the sound of a bullet piercing the head, are gruesome yet satisfying enough that you don't mind hearing them again. The musical score headed up by Bear McCreary is similar to the quality of his other scores. With the exception of the stealth levels, you can expect a soundtrack full of action-packed tunes like any Hollywood movie. The voice work isn't that bad, and the story isn't exactly the series' best, but at least the delivery is good.
Your enjoyment of SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALs will depend heavily on what you're expecting from the game. Those looking for a great single-player experience won't find it here because of some bad AI and a focus on gunplay as opposed to tactics. Those looking for a strong multiplayer game will be disappointed to find that while the new modes are fun enough, the old modes that made SOCOM unique are gone, making the game stand out less in a rather crowded genre. New players may be fine with what's here, but for fans of the series, it is a disappointing entry that should be relegated to rental status.
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