After a brief dalliance with the FPS genre for the 256 players and 5 minutes of fun MAG, Zipper Interactive return to their long-running third-person military shooter series.
Thanks to the recent PSN crisis I was afforded more time to play the single-player side of the game. It was a great surprise to find that there's a great campaign to be played through along with some addictive stand-alone solo levels.
The last game, which barely made it to UK PS3s, was online only and was the sort of game you were relieved you only rented. Back on the PS2 the first game had too many squad commands, with dodgy voice-commands if you were foolish enough to trust the headset and was a very dry experience for only the most patient gamers. But respect where it's due, SOCOM was an early success on the PS2's babysteps into online gaming.
Well now it has the single-player game to back up its online side. The setting is the first surprise as we get to play through some Pacific island and far-east Asian locales. We're just happy it's not another game set in the sand-coloured hell of gaming Generistan. Enjoy travelling through jungles, Asian cities and a brief trip to a dockyard of course, but then back to more tropical settings. The graphics are packing some serious punch this time around too with lots of fine detail, long draw-distances and plenty of atmosphere.
The plot involves terrorists/rebels trying to cause a disaster near through the world's shipping lanes. The overall location is often vague, but it's somewhere in the Far East. A potentially familiar plot, but it's nevertheless well-told and populated with some strong characters.
Your team is mainly made up of a UN-like taskforce, with the addition of a South Korean woman sniper/stealth operative. While she might be rocking the typical hard-attitude of her Korean film/game forbearers, she shows quite a lot of good humour and comes out as the most likeable character in the end.
The voices for your main character and the other males of your team don't fit their characters at all. Some cheap British voices have been dubbed in over the original American ones. Presumably that's where the lip-sync went awry too. The African-American guy with a thick Yorkshire accent has to be heard to be believed. It's a shame because the dialogue isn't too bad and the character's visual detail is of a high standard.
So how does your squad handle when put into action? Pretty well to be honest. Commands are very simple as you dish out orders to your two teams of two. Gold team have a silenced-sniper and quieter SMG while the blue team have louder assault rifles and shotguns. A directional press on the d-pad (left for blue, right for gold) sets down a waypoint for them to move to. You can lay down a whole path of them; this enables you to move the teams into position via the safest route. Great for stopping them wandering past unalerted enemies.
Individual enemies can be targeted and fired upon on your mark. Using your silencer-fitted sniper team can be very useful here to take out lone guards. Your squad will automatically return fire once discovered and move to cover if possible. Just be careful a sniper doesn't pin them down. At least they can be revived, it's just a shame they won't return the favour.
Although, given half a chance they'll kill every bad guy in sight, including the one you've been patiently lining up a long-range headshot on. If only there was a 'this one's mine' command. Overall though, it's great to have such a reliable bunch around you for a change. Good job Zipper Interactive.
There are a few minor bugs with your AI team. For instance, every now and then a lone soldier's feet seem to get stuck to the ground. They'll just stand there, like the toils of war have finally broken their mind. Just let them be and they'll catch up as soon as you reach the next checkpoint. Everyone likes a bit of alone time after all.
A wide range of weapons is available to choose from to carry into the field at the start of each mission for yourself, but not the whole team. Two guns and two types of grenade. Any new weapons you pick up on your travels and keep until the end of the stage will be unlocked for selection in future missions. Every gun can also be levelled up with kills to unlock extra sights and barrels. It becomes an obsession and encourages you to change weapon types throughout. With assault, SMG, LMG, shotguns and sniper rifles available you're bound to find a few favourites.
The shooting is over the shoulder or down the sights and is well-supported with the cover system. My only complaint is that you can't manually change which shoulder you aim over which can be a complete pain in the arse thanks to the close proximity of the trailing camera.
The missions aren't going to win any awards for originality, but the dialogue from your team, the steady supply of goons to shoot and the ebb and flow of the firefights between stealthy approach and full-on assault will keep you playing all day. While the paths are generally A-B, you can often choose from high or low vantage points to prepare your assault.
The stealth missions where you're sent in alone as Park (the Korean woman) are amongst the best missions in the game where you sabotage vehicles or steal intelligence to make the following day's mission easier. You'll crawl through the grass, keeping an eye on your visibility metre amongst the patches of shadow at night, either taking out guards to make your objective or play it super cool by doing the whole thing without getting spotted or causing alerts by leaving stabbed-up guards in plain view. Very few missions inflict instant failure when spotted, but you'll crave perfection once you begin.
Move it soldier!
The optional PlayStation Move functionality works well enough (you'll need the nav controller too), but unlike Killzone 3, you're unlikely to want to play through the whole game with it. Probably because the third-person perspective isn't as immersive as the Helghan shooter. It does work quite well if you want to take a back-seat and rely on squad commands to get them to do all the shooting. A proper arm-waving armchair general.
The campaign and its 14 missions only last about 6 hours, but they are at least supported by some extra missions in the custom campaign. Here you choose from one of six maps and one of two modes. Takedown has you and your team advancing through a gauntlet of enemies to kill a few leaders, whereas the Espionage mode requires you to secure three pieces of intelligence.
You only get one life to do this so you really need to get your act together with squad commands and keeping them alive. The various difficulties and variable enemy numbers available to choose from means that this mode is great for quick games. It can even be played co-op online (more on that in our separate online review).
Well, I can't wait to get stuck into the game's online modes, but for now I'm seriously impressed with how SOCOM: Special Forces had turned the series around from something I always perceived to be an online shooter first and a single-player experience very much second.
- Single-player experience greatly improved
- Simple, yet effective squad commands
- Neat levelling up for your weapons
- Some minor AI glitches
- No split screen co-op
- Terrible region-specific voice acting
The Short Version: Effective squad commands, reliable AI team-mates, good looking levels, yes it's SOCOM but not as you know it. Worth a look for the single-player game alone. We'll have an online review for you soon. (Edit: click here for online review)