If you have read our good preview of the game written by Carlito, you should know what to expect from SOCOM. It's not a mindless action game where the only thing you have to do is to shoot and kill the bad guys. Well, actually this is the final goal, but the means you have to use to reach it are what make the core of the gaming experience.
SOCOM puts itself into the genre of stealth-action games; a genre that started with the first Metal Gear but that had its success after the release of the first Metal Gear Solid for Playstation. After Kojima's game, hordes of clones invaded the line-up of any gaming system, always introducing new variables and elements that eventually leaded to completely new gaming experiences.
SOCOM offline mode is not what can be called a story-based game. Actually, there is a story - a team of Russian terrorists (...) is doing bad things throughout the globe and you and your team of skilled SEALs have to face them - but that's absolutely the less important point of the game. What the developers want to do here, also thanks to the cooperation of SEAL consultants, is to give the players a realistic military simulation.
The mission briefing screen helps you creating your own strategy before you come into action; together with useful details like a description of the environment and weather, a map of the mission area is shown, and all the most relevant zones are clearly highlighted. Here you can also change the equipment of each member of your team, even if the key weapons necessary to complete a particular mission - for example, the explosives you may need to destroy enemy's supplies - can't be removed. In this way, there is no possibility you make some big error before entering the actual mission. The weapons available include assault rifles, pistols, sniper rifles, every possible kind of grenade, C4 plus all the weapons that you can steal from your dead opponents.
The first thing that impressed me in SOCOM was the great diversity among the 12 missions. Each mission puts you in an environment with unique characteristics and weather conditions, and asks you to complete tasks that are extremely varied. In SOCOM you may have to defuse bombs on board of an oil platform, clear buildings, rescue hostages, avoid ambushes, destroy enemy supplies, take prisoners, infiltrate the enemy camp and spy terrorists talking about their plans, sink ships, and much more things that you'll discover playing the game.
The free structure of the missions is the other strong point of the game. While the mission briefing screen always shows you just one best path to complete your objectives in the given order, you really don't have to follow it. You can create a completely alternative plan, exploring any little spot of the huge levels. In the same way, each objective can be completed in various ways that really depend on the way you prefer to play.
I'll make a little example. In one of the first missions, a group of terrorists has taken over an oil platform, and they menace to destroy the platform if their requests are not granted. Of course, the only real solution is to infiltrate the platform, rescue the survivors, defuse the bombs and get rid of the terrorists. While I was trying to move stealthily in the base, I had to kill silently the many terrorists along my path. Anyhow, that was not enough to remain undetected; their chief started to suspect something, as his men were not responding to his radio messages. In a matter of few minutes, he was undoubtedly going to let the bombs explode, pressing the button in his control room. I had two choices: to run as fast as I could, firing at any moving target until I had found and neutralized the terrorist in the control room, or to run stealthily from one bomb to the other, leaving along the road one men per bomb with the order to defuse it, before the Chief terrorist had the certainty of our presence on the platform.
Speaking of controls, let me quote Carlito's description. "SOCOM makes use of all the buttons of the Dual Shock. In the default configuration, the left analog stick is used to strafe left/right and to go forward and backward. The right stick is used to look up/down and to turn your character. Square is jump, Triangle is crouch, R1 is the fire button, while L1 and L2 are used to quick select primary and secondary weapon. The other objects in the equipment can be selected opening a pop up window with the R2 button. X is a classic multi purpose button; its function varies according to the situation: when your character is in a situation where a certain action is suitable, an icon is displayed on screen. For example, if you are facing a large crate, the "climb action" icon appears, while if there is an Uzi on the ground, a "pick up the weapon" icon is displayed. The Circle button opens a simple and effective menu system that is used to give commands to your A.I. team mates."
And here the other fundamental element of SOCOM comes into play: teamwork. Even in the offline mode, teamwork is the key of your success in the game. While you have full control over your main character, you can only give orders to control the other three soldiers in your team. You can do this by clicking the circle button, which opens an intuitive menu system, but you can also use the Headset included into the package and issue commands with your voice.
The Headset is a cool looking and good quality peripheral, developed by Logitech expressly for the Playstation 2. You just have to plug it into the USB port on the front of your Playstation 2 and you're ready to go. Then, while in-game, you can issue your commands while holding the circle button; of course, you have to choose among the commands available in the menu system, and you have to use a decent American English pronounce, but overall the software seems to recognize easily great part of the commands. Even if the Headset doesn't add that much to the actual gameplay - the menu system works magnificently with the Dual Shock - it adds atmosphere to the experience.
Obviously, in a game like SOCOM, the A.I. is of primary importance. Not only it should control all the enemies so that they can interact the one with the others creating the best strategies to kill you, but it should also control your teammates so that they can give you a true, constant support in very different situations. Unfortunately, we found that the faults we had noticed in the A.I. in the demo are still here, and affect negatively the overall offline experience.
As we wrote in the hands-on preview, your opponents are relatively good when it comes to ampler strategic movements, for example when they decide to gather in one point to give support to their comrades, but they seem lobotomised when it comes to close combat. When they spot you, for example, they usually wait three or four seconds instead of reacting immediately to your presence; in the same way, especially indoors, they seem scared of using their rifles, because they often decide to run trying to kick you with the butt of their rifles instead of simply pressing the trigger.
Your teammates are the same kind of half stupid, half not too stupid guys. When it comes to give you generic support, they're pretty good. For example, they spot enemies for you, and if you give them the order to fire at will, they'll kill any moving target when it represents a menace for your mission. They are good when they must help you with covering fire, and it's a pleasure to look at them while they move stealthily from one location to another. I found the support of my team invaluable also when I had to clear buildings; you just have to look at the door of the building you want to be cleared, and then ask your soldiers to do it for you - while occasionally they can die in this operation, if you give them also your support, you should have no problem in neutralizing any sentry before he has the time to attack you or call for support.
Unfortunately, your teammates are incredibly stupid when you start asking them more basic things. In one of the first missions, I asked two of my men to deploy a smoke grenade into a warehouse to drive the terrorists out. For some reason, instead of launching it through the window I was highlighting, my soldiers gently opened the door of the warehouse to throw their grenade inside; at least, they didn't knocked at the door. Well, two headshots from the inside killed them both. Terrorists 2, SEALs 0. The game offers plenty of examples like this, that while extremely funny to look at, on the long run they are a good source of frustration, to the point that you may start using not ordinary means to command your soldiers - for example, calling for an intervention of your patron saint.
The offline experience offered by SOCOM is undoubtedly enjoyable and deep, but it's sometimes stained by a funnily stupid A.I. that may add an unwanted dose of frustration and comedy to the game. Anyhow, considering the overall complexity of the game, SOCOM is easily one of the best team-based action games around.
If you have your Network Adapter correctly configured, jumping into an online game is as easy as starting an offline game. The first time you connect to SOCOM servers you have to choose a player name and a password that will identify you throughout your virtual Navy Seal career.
The SOCOM Online Screen welcomes you every time you connect to SCEA servers; here are displayed news concerning the game or your clan and you can see your online ranking; creation and management of your clan and of your characters are also handled through this screen.
First of all, you can change various settings to customize your online experience. You can enter a description for your player, write a few text messages that you can send to your teammates during the online game, and select a series of filters that help you searching for the kind of game you prefer to play every time you connect to the SOCOM server.
The possibility to create and manage your own clan of online players is well developed. The menu system is extremely intuitive, and as a Clan Leader you can invite new players to join your team, ban certain members from your clan, and insert news and useful information that your friends will read when they connect to the SOCOM servers.
SOCOM supports games with up to 16 players, divided in two teams of 8 terrorists and 8 SEALs; the game is only playable if you have a broadband connection, so if you are on a dial-up there are no chances you can access the online game. Unlike many other PC online games, SOCOM doesn't offer tons of online game modes. There are just three ways to play the game online, and all are pretty common. Suppression is the one to choose if the member of your team are in a hurry and can't stay online for a long time; within a time limit of five minutes, you have to kill as many members of the opposing team as you can. Demolition and Extraction are much more interesting, and they are supposed to be played with a good dose of strategy and brain. In Demolition, your team has to find a bomb in the environment and plant it into the opposing team's base; in Extraction, the SEAL team has to rescue the hostages in the hands of the terrorists.
After a few minutes into an online game, you'll understand that SOCOM is not designed to be played like Quake or other all-action online games. In fact, the realism that characterizes the offline experience becomes even more evident when playing online. In SOCOM you can be killed with just one good shot at your head, and you can't re-enter a game if you have been killed. You understood, there is no respawning in SOCOM, and this is a choice of the developers that I appreciated, because it forces you and your friends to move always with great care, and it forces a good clan leader to create a strategy before entering the match. Sadly, great part of the players playing the game online doesn't seem to understand this point.
The first time I played SOCOM online, for lack of time, I entered a game with "casual" teammates, people I didn't know and masked behind fancy, macho or sexually-oriented nicknames. "Ok" I said, "Let's see what we can do". Once the game started, in a matter of a minute, listening to the voices of my teammates speaking through their headset - that works magnificently online - I had the confirmation that nobody cares about ESRB ratings printed on the boxes of videogames. The average age in my team was probably 12-13, and while I recognize that younger players can be even more skilled than a old-style 20-30 years old gamer like me, I was sincerely disappointed, or maybe I should say impressed, by the way they acted on the field. The Headset was a mean to communicate the strangest things. I remember the distant voice of someone speaking of how he wanted to kill the terrorists with his bare hands and that we should all have done the same using only the butt of our rifles; a supposedly young guy with one of those Dragon Ball nicknames you just can't remember gave us his apologies after he had fired "for accident" on our shoulders, since this was the first time he was playing SOCOM - thankfully he left the game soon after, because his Mom called him to say dinner was ready; the only over-30 guy in our team, with a voice that I could swear was Robert De Niro's, insulted all the others because they should have followed his orders. The worst thing is that great part of these people played the game exactly like if they were playing a classic first person shooter; they didn't even consider the possibility to cooperate with their comrades, nor they seemed to understand that firing all of your grenades at the beginning of the game is not only senseless, but also stupid, since it's a nice way to say the opposing team "hey, we are here". Throughout my online experience, I had the strong sensation that great part of the players didn't even care to play the offline game mode.
That's why the Clan creation feature is of fundamental importance. It lets you create a team made of people that you actually know, or at least with players that have the intelligence to follow plans and strategies. You can also set a password for your game, so that only people you want to join can play with you. Played with good players, and with good I don't necessarily mean skilled, SOCOM is an incredible online experience that can keep you hooked for hours and hours and also to make some good friend over the Net.
Finally, the limited number of game types is not a big problem, mainly thanks to the excellent work done in the design and realization of the huge and realistic levels that gives an uncommon variety and richness to each match you play.
Overall, Zipper Interactive created an online experience that's at the same refined and addictive, and that can be enjoyed by all the players with the intelligence - and first of all, the will - of thinking before they press the trigger.