SOCOM:-Special-Forces-Review SOCOM: Special Forces Review

   01/05/2011 at 13:16       Sillothian       5 COMMENTS. - Score 4/5
 - SOCOM 4, Special Forces, Sony, Zipper Interactive, Tactical shooter

The SOCOM series has a long and storied history on the PS2 (especially in North America), which is why the lacklustre SOCOM: Confrontation disappointed so many gamers when it arrived on the PS3. With development duties back in the hands of the series creators Zipper Interactive Sony will be hoping that SOCOM: Special Forces is the game that gets the franchise back on track.

Before we start things off I've got a confession to make, I've never played a SOCOM game! Now I know that fact will render my opinion worthless in the eyes of you hardcore SOCOM fans. What it does give me though is the ability to judge the game not as the standard bearer for a once great franchise, but on its merits purely as a tactical shooter. In this regard SOCOM definitely hits the spot and is a refreshing change from the COD clones that have dominated the shooter market as of late. In fact rather than aping Activision's behemoth the gameplay in SOCOM is about as close as you could get to the Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter (GRAW) titles without get lawyers involved! From the level design, squad controls, third person perspective and even diamond shaped waypoint markers, SOCOM will appeal to any gamer who enjoyed the two GRAW games.

SOCOM: Special Forces is a third person, squad based shooter set in Southeast Asia. The story is the usual generic fare where only you and your squad can stop a civil war that threatens to ignite a global conflict. The in-engine cutscenes are nicely done and show off the excellent character models. Voice acting is also top notch (including the ubiquitous Nolan North) and a nice touch in the UK version is localised accents for you and your two main squad mates. Your character is an upper class officer who is accompanied by a bloke from Yorkshire and a Geordie! I was also much impressed with the quality of the graphics. As I mentioned earlier the character models are excellent, the lighting is very atmospheric and there is plenty of texture detail in the environments. The framerate is rock solid at all times, with not a hint of slow down or tearing even during the most intense of fire fights. The game certainly looks and sounds the part, but is the gameplay up to standard?

It is quite obvious to see that this new SOCOM game has been designed with one eye on the GRAW franchise, which has become the only serious option for tactical shooter fans on the PS3. Not that this is a bad thing in my eyes as I love the GRAW games and it has been a long 4 years since the last title was released. From the third person perspective, cover system, level design (war torn urban, jungle, ancient ruins, military base) to even the diamond shaped waypoint markers, the similarities are startling. However Zipper Interactive have done more than just blindly copy the best bits from another title, but have used them as inspiration to create their own great game.

The third person controls are solid and are accompanied by an intuitive cover system. However you must put some thought into what you choose to hide behind as much of the cover is destructible. Also the enemy also has no qualms in taking advantage of any gaps in your cover, so you won't get away with hiding behind a set of railings in this game! The same holds true for the enemy though and it is up to you to take advantage of any weak points in their defences. At the start of each mission you have to pick your weapon load out where you have to choose a primary and secondary weapon, and two types of grenade. Surprisingly for the genre there are no pistols in SOCOM so you can have any combination of assault rifle, shotgun, machine gun and sniper rifle that you wish. Don't worry if you realised you picked the wrong gun as you can pick up any weapon dropped by the enemy and the level designers have made sure that the right gun for the job is always lying around just when you need it. Weapons mods are unlocked through use and provide the standard upgrades like extra ammo capacity, improved accuracy and a silencer.

Level design is very much out of the GRAW mould and is intended to compliment the squad based gameplay. Whilst you are always given a pretty linear set of objectives for each mission it is up to you to find the best path for your squad through each level. Most levels provide ample opportunity to flank, or be flanked by, the enemy and it is in these circumstances where the squad controls come into their own. Throughout the game you have two squads of two soldiers at your command. Left to their own devices they will identify targets, get into cover and generally get on with the business of taking out the enemy. In theory you need never fire a shot in anger (there is a trophy for having the ai kill all the enemies in a level), but that would just be boring.

As you progress through the campaign you are going to have to start directing the actions of your squads if you want to succeed. All squad commands are issued using the d-pad. To manoeuvre a squad you point your crosshairs at the location where you want them to move to and press left or right on the d-pad (left for squad 1, right for squad 2). The squad will automatically take advantage of cover if any is available, but will also retreat if you've sent them straight into the firing line. You also have the ability to mark targets for the squads to aim at, again using a combination of the crosshairs and left/right d-pad buttons. A quick tap of the button will have the squad fire at the target immediately, where as if you hold down the button the squad will only fire on the target on your mark (up on the d-pad). This is a great way to setup an ambush or co-ordinate attacks on both flanks of an enemy position. If a squad member is injured you can heal them with the square button. Squad mates will heal each other too, once the location of the injured soldier has been made safe. Overall the squad controls, while simple to use, provide you with quite a wide range of options on how you approach each battle.

The excellent squad controls would be wasted though if the enemy ai was not up to par, but they will definitely provide you with a stiff challenge even on the default difficulty setting. The enemy soldiers will always make good use of any cover the level provides and are always looking for the opportunity to flank your position. You really have to be aware of both the terrain and the location of your squads otherwise you can quite easily find your position being overrun. This is especially the case towards the end of the campaign when you push into the heart of enemy territory and the odds are stacked against you. So far you would be forgiven for thinking that SOCOM must be a total triumph for Sony, but there is a fly in the ointment. Dotted throughout the campaign are 4 stealth based missions. Now these aren't the Metal Gear Solid style of stealth where you can shoot your way out of trouble if you are detected. No these are the kind of stealth missions where if you are detected it is mission over. To me they are linear, frustrating, plagued by inconsistent ai and are at complete odds with the rest of the game. Luckily I only had trouble on the last stealth mission (which happens to be the longest), but I'll be honest I don't want or expect this style of mission anywhere near a tactical shooter.

The campaign itself consists of 14 missions and on the normal difficulty setting my play through clocked in at just over 6 hours. I was surprised at this at it had felt much longer, but I would advise any competent player to go straight for harder difficulty if they don't want to polish the game off too quickly. One thing you must be aware of is although the game employs a checkpoint system it only saves your overall progress when you finish a mission. If your mum calls you for tea half way through a level then you are going to have start from scratch the next time you boot up! For the trophy hunters you can replay the levels to find the 3 pieces of intel hidden on each, collect all the different type of guns and find some blood oranges too.

The single player action doesn't end there though as like the GRAW games you can also configure a series of one off missions, played over six locations from the main campaign. Before you start the mission you must pick the location, the difficulty and size of the enemy forces. Then you must choose one of the two objectives on offer; kill the enemy officers or steal the intel. These missions play out exactly like the main campaign except that here you get no mid mission checkpoints. If you get killed you have to go right back to the start which makes some of these instant action missions a far more tense affair than the campaign. I actually enjoyed this increase in difficulty as it puts far more emphasis on the tactical nature of the gameplay.

These missions come into their own though once you take SOCOM online. You can take on each mission with up to four other players and really take the fight to the ai. None of the players can die in this mode, but take too much damage and you will be incapacitated. Any team mate can come to your aid and heal you, but if all the players are downed then the mission is over. For me this is far and away the most enjoyable of SOCOM's online modes, but there is always team based modes if competitive multiplayer is more your thing. The online action takes place over nine maps which are modelled on locations from the single player campaign. While they certainly look the part some of the maps felt too small to have 32 players running around them, with a lot of matches descending into which team could pin the opposition down at their spawn points. On the larger maps this is less of a concern and you can focus on getting to grips with the 4 game modes on offer. First up is the fps staple of team deathmatch which is the best choice for you 'lone wolf' gamers as teamwork is slightly less important here. The remaining modes are all variations on a theme of attacking and defending 3 locations on the map. Last Defence has you trying to capture 3 satellite uplinks points on the map and then plant a beacon in the enemy base to call in an air strike. Uplink requires the attacking team to steal 3 pieces of data whilst the defenders try to stop them. This mode is very much in the style of capture the flag. Finally you can play Bomb Squad where the attacking team is trying to diffuse 3 bombs located on the map. Only the heavily armoured bomb technician (who is randomly chosen from the attacking team) can accomplish this and it is up to his team mates to protect him. All the defending team has to ensure is that at least one of the bombs is still intact when the timer runs out.

Any of the four mulitplayer modes can be played with standard rules (repawns on), classic rules (no repawns) or you are free to customise the matches as you see fit. All the multiplayer modes are fun to play, but it soon becomes apparent that teamwork is the key to being successful. Joining a public match can be an exercise in futility as half your team happily ignore the match objectives to improve their own kill/death ratio. This is definitely a game that is best enjoyed with a group of friends. The game has clan support, private matches and lets you jump straight into a game with any friend that is online. As of now no party system has been implemented so even if you join a group of friends you aren't guaranteed to end up on the same team. This is hopefully going to be rectified in a future patch. The actually network performance of SOCOM is excellent. I had no trouble joining games or had any hint of lag even with a full server of 32 players. Character progression is almost exclusively based on XP earned from each match which determines your overall rank. The higher the rank the more weapons are available to you, although you can also unlock some weapons with medals that are awarded for performing specific tasks in each game mode. Just like the single player campaign weapons are upgraded specifically through use, so the more kills you get with a gun the better it becomes. Your choice of weapons load out in online matches works the same as the single player campaign (two class of gun and two class of grenade) and can be altered before each respawn. The game tracks all the usual statistics on your multiplayer career with leaderboards to see just how well you compare to your mates and the rest of the world. 

Overall I absolutely loved my first step into the SOCOM universe most likely because of the numerous similarities to the GRAW games. The single player campaign is excellent fun, combining intuitive squad controls, challenging enemy ai and excellent level design. The presentation is top notch with excellent sound and graphics. The instant action missions add a decent chunk of extra gameplay over the shorter than expected campaign. Multiplayer is also well implemented (especially the co-op missions), but you really need a group of people playing as a team to get the best out of the online experience. The stealth missions are the only black mark on a game which can easily take its place as one the PS3s outstanding tactical shooters.

Note - I've not made any mention of the Playstation Move support in SOCOM: Special Forces simply because I don't own one the motion controllers.

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