When I first heard that Zipper Interactive was working on a new Socom title I had very high expectations. I remember the Socom franchise from back in the days when I had more time to play tactical shooters and war simulations. They were truly innovative, taking the standard concepts of first and third person shooters and adding realism and player immersion that had never been seen or felt before, such as headsets and voice commands as well as squad based missions and detailed well thought out environments. True to form, my reviewers copy arrived in a cool package designed to look like a NAVY SEALS airdrop and from the moment i put the disc in the PS3 i was confronted with a variety of tactical team based warfare coupled with just the right amount of stealth missions thrown in to the mix.
Somewhere deep within an unnamed Southeast Asian Country, an evil nutcase revolutionary is trying to take over authority, by crippling a major part of the countries waterway. Enter “Ops Commander” of a 5 man NATO team Cullen Gray. Originally only accompanied by 2 fellow Marines, they are joined early on in the campaign by 2 South Korean NATO soldiers including the battle hardened, super stealthy and somewhat sexy (if you like that erotic combat uniform look) First Lieutenant Park Yoon-Hee. Known as forty five, she forms the basis for the majority of any character development and provides the only real source of character emotion. She was a welcome addition to an otherwise bland group, providing foul mouthed quips and showing the tenacity usually reserved for male lead characters. It was a welcome change to see a female character being portrayed in this type of role. The other 3 members of the team are more like ghosts in the background that simply react to commands and say a few words here and there but don’t have much of a bearing on the storyline or campaign. The single player campaign stretches over a 6 day period and features the Naga and ClawHammer mercenary groups, the same enemies who trained military soldiers in Combined Assault and Fireteam Bravo.
The single player campaign is split into 2 totally different styles of game play. In the first, you take direct control of Cullen Gray and indirectly control the actions of the 2 NATO teams accompanying you. For those of you expecting a full range of commands to give to your team you might be a little disappointed as the controls are relatively simplistic with the commands limited to placing your team in position for ambushes and sniping, ordering them to fire, cancelling orders and returning to you. For those of us like myself, who want to experience something different to the usual bullet spraying and less than realistic (but oh so enjoyable shooters), Socom 4 is perfect. It gives players more of an insight into the importance of team based tactical warfare (however limited it may be) and the consequences of what happens when you actually go blindly into a room spraying bullets everywhere, all delivered through a very simple control system. I’d have to say, being a console gamer that if it had required more complex controls to guide your teams around I would have lost interest in it very quickly.
The Blue team who you start off the campaign with are your “Heavy Artillery” gunners, while the yellow team that joins the group early on highly trained snipers. While the missions are quite linear and follow a specific route, the way in which you progress through the game is entirely up to your individual tastes. You could go most of the game hardly firing a bullet at all by simply ordering your team to take out the enemy by clicking on them, and while this maybe true to life in real life battle, and does start out being a lot of fun, quickly becomes a very boring way to progress through the missions. I found the most enjoyable way to play was to set up the teams in an advantageous position and then allow them to do their own thing in the heat of battle. By being able to simply click on an enemy to direct team fire at them allows players to get out of some tense situations especially considering the limited amount of damage players can endure. It is also worth mentioning that check points are well placed so when you do die you don’t have to trudge back through half a level a dozen times in some of the harder areas, (battleship scene-damn those things are accurate). There were some intense and cool moments presenting the player with varying challenges, of particular mention are the sections where you have to protect team members while they hack computers and also controlling and calling in an air strike.
Intermittently placed between the group based levels are what I found to be the real highlight of the game, getting to take control of character forty five for stealth based missions. Unlike other games where players aren’t meant to be seen but are given the opportunity to hide while enemies conveniently forget you were there, the AI in Socom 4 is not so easily fooled. In these missions you have to stay completely undetectable or risk either failure or being left bullet riddled on the ground. It was intense and nerve racking slinking through shallow black water under the noses of enemies. To distract enemies 45 can throw bullet casings but due to the large amount of hidey holes within the environments even situations that look impossible can be completed with relative ease. On normal mode I found it a little too easy to simply stick to the ample shadows and make my way around enemies without even having to look up and see where they are.
Zipper interactive Game Director Seth Luisi explains of the hardships involved with fine tuning difficulty levels on games and from reading through his interview I would say that Zipper have succeeded in making Socom 4 available to a wider target audience by incorporating simple group controls and the right level of enemy resistance, making sure players can’t simply gun their way through enemies nor will they be bogged down with limited amounts of ammunition or options.
The Artificial Intelligence in Socom is very responsive to your movements but is limited by always being in the same place every time you replay a level. This is somewhat made up for by the varying ways players move through the levels but somewhat reduces the replay value. Even on normal mode the AI is excessively aggressive which is to be expected and adds a sense of realism to the game. The snipers are an excellent shot and very rarely miss the mark meaning you really have to stay covered only popping your head up long enough to implement a kill order. Saying that, the AI can also be very erratic and inconsistent not requiring much manipulation to outsmart, especially in the stealth missions where throwing the shell casings was rarely required to provide enemy distraction for forty five. Enemies move in a sequenced pattern and their patrols are predictable. The cover system is very basic requiring a prompt for players to press O button anytime they are near potential cover. Squad members can also revive each other but have a limited time to do so. There were a few glitches in this regard and I can remember one instance during the battleship scene when forty five was injured and as much as I tried to call them the other group members stood around and watched, doing nothing. I actually didn’t realise I could heal the group until late in the game and found it difficult to find the correct angle to get the heal prompt, as I did also when picking up bodies.
The arsenal available to players is made up of 5 categories including shotguns, assault rifles, machine guns, sub-machine guns and sniper rifles all if which can be modded with upgrades like scopes, silencers and other attachments earned during campaign and online play. Alongside these at your disposal, are a variety of grenades such as flash and smoke bombs. Before each mission players have to choose a primary and secondary weapon plus grenades. There is also a huge array of enemy weapons that have been relinquished that can be used. During the stealth missions its best to stick to the gun that’s provided as I learnt the hard way. Any gun without a suppressor alerts enemies and then it’s basically game over from there.
I only had a few complaints with the overall gameplay, that being in regard to the lack of interaction and change within the environment, coupled with the ease of the stealth missions and overall length of the single player mode. I felt like I was just getting into the game and plot and then it was over. Of course there was basic structural damage caused from giant mortars launched form ships but the only other parts of the environments that responded to battle were the standard explosive barrels and the vehicles that ignited when there petrol tanks were ruptured, which were both nice additions nonetheless. When crawling through underbrush or swamps, the environment didn’t give the feel that it was responding to my movements. Palm like fronds stayed in place when trampled or crawled on and characters simply cut through most of the environments. While I understand that the online component of games these days is very important to their success there are many gamers who either prefer to or simply don’t have the time to get online and participate in multiplayer arenas. Developers should keep this in mind and gear the single player modes to encompass the same level of interaction and immersion found in online play and pre-online titles as it’s getting harder and harder to shell out so much money for such short single player modes.
Online play, which wasn’t available to me due to the PSN outage, creates a whole new environment for players to team up and explore. Teams of up to 5 players can play alongside each other in co-op online missions involving the retrieval of intel or the assassination of important enemy figures. There are 6 maps available in this mode with players being able to directly communicate via headsets. Players can also choose to play through these missions independent of a team but this is only for the very dedicated and presents a new and exciting challenge to diehard tactical fans. Socom 4 online also offers a huge multiplayer component where up to 32 players can compete across 4 different game modes. Suppression is like any team deathmatch, Last Defence involves capturing points and keeping them, Bomb Squad centres around defusing bombs and Uplink is a classic capture the flag scenario.
For me, the graphics and visuals within Socom 4 are some of the best I’ve ever seen and compelled me to keep on playing through the missions. This is especially evident in the stealth missions which are set mostly in complete darkness with sometimes only spotlights in the distance to shed a bit of light on the surroundings. Water looked texturally superb and I actually felt sorry for forty five as I made her crawl through the black murkiness. In cut scenes it was hard to tell the backgrounds from a movie the only thing giving it away being the slightly animated look of the characters. I was particularly impressed by the blurred backgrounds to many of the cut scenes which looked like they were taken with a HD Handycam and gave a real sense of the steaminess of the jungle coupled with the dust rising when the helicopters took off. It also accentuated what the characters were doing in the foreground, allowing players to focus on what was going on. When the cut scenes and camera angles changed the backgrounds changed and the blurriness disappeared revealing a crisp sharp rendition of the jungle.
The soundtrack to Socom 4 comes courtesy of Bear McCreary, best known for his work on Battlestar Galatica. According to the official Playstation blog, McCreary’s work is largely influenced by Asian instrumentation which fits in perfectly with the setting of the game through the use of ethnic soloists and orchestration. Sounds effects were also very realistic, especially hearing an enemies head explode from a sniper bullet amplified even if at a long distance away. The voices were superb and clear, and it was easy to tell where the enemies were located from their constant talking.
While Socom 4 delivers the goods on most fronts it is let down by a thin plot, slightly repetitive single player missions and of most concern was WAY TOO SHORT!!! Seriously i was thoroughly enjoying the game and was surprised to see it was almost over.While gameplay was enjoyable on many levels from the superbly rendered characters and amazing realism of the jungle environment, it’s almost like Zipper got 70% through the game and decided they had had enough, doing away with much of the fine tuning and player/environment development or interaction that could have turned a very good game into a truly memorable experience. It is a fantastic experience for gamers looking for something different to the mostly indistinguishable FPS that have hit the market lately, and the online play is fierce and competitive with an emphasis on co-operative play. Socom 4 supports 3D play for those with 3D tv’s and also has full move support.