Like I said, SOCOM II is more like an expansion over the original than a completely new game. A well developed expansion, actually. Like in the first installment players can go through the game in single player offline mode or play online. If you have never played the original game, I strongly suggest reading our long, in-depth review and preview of the preceding installment.
Like any good expansion, SOCOM II features more weapons (including a rocket launcher and shotguns), new missions, two new game modes for the online game, and overall a more tuned-up gameplay.
Controls haven't changed from the preceding installment, and that's good; the default controls are the same, with the little welcome difference that to toggle weapon firing mode you must now hold or press twice the L3 button instead of just pressing it once - in SOCOM, it could happen to change firing mode by accident. At first, people who didn't play the original game will need a bit of practice to learn all the controls, since SOCOM II uses all of the buttons on the controller; at the same time, veterans will have no problem entering into action without giving the manual a look.
The game is also one of the first games to support the new HDD. With the hard disk, it will be possible to download unspecified "new content" - and patches - for the game in the next future.
Playing Offline - Improvements
Like in the original, you command one team of four SEALs. You have direct control over the commander, while your A.I. controlled teammates will cooperate for the success of the missions. You can issue commands using an on-screen menu or speaking through the USB headset, which is definitely still the best way to play SOCOM II U.S. Navy SEALs. The voice recognition system has been tuned up, so that it's more responsive this time around. You must issue your commands following the menu system - for example, to ask the Bravo team to fire at will you would say, in order, "Bravo" "Fire At Will"; to move to a point on the map, "Bravo" "Move To" "Charlie"; and so on. The game plays well also without the headset (I often play at night, and it was a necessity to use the on-screen menus), as it pauses while you issue your commands, but the voice-recognition system is so well-developed that it makes the experience much more immersive. The problem is that unless you still have the headset packaged inside the box of original game, you must purchase it separately, since the peripheral isn't included in SOCOM II. Of course, Sony released an official USB headset for the Playstation 2 developed by Logitech, at a suggested retail price of $29.99. A cool peripheral, supported by many present and future offline and online games (Rockstar's Manhunt, for example, makes good use of the headset).
12 brand new missions will be a pleasure for all those who loved the original game; perfect for online games, they are extremely enjoyable, also in single player mode, thanks to their variety and superb design.
The missions take place in Albania, Brazil, Algeria, and in Russia; you'll be playing in the most diverse environmental situations, through maps that strongly vary in size and structure. While the game reaches pure brilliance in the fourth mission, in which you must play through a vivid recreation of the slums in Brazil, it's sufficient to play the first mission, in Albania, to witness the size and the high level of realism that Zipper Interactive was able to achieve in this game. It's not that the graphics improved so much over the original game, it's just a matter of improved quality of level design and creativity. The new maps in SOCOM II seem built with the purpose of intriguing the player; you see the location in the mission briefing and you immediately want to go there, hide behind those trees, enter that castle, find an alternative route to avoid enemies patrolling the main road and the bridge. There is something captivating behind any map and mission, a bit like it happens with the best missions of Splinter Cell and Hitman 2.
And with Splinter Cell and Hitman 2, SOCOM II shares the same attention, the same focus on stealth action. The missions, for the most part of average difficulty, require that you carefully study the mission briefing before entering into action. SOCOM, like other stealth action games, can't be played running through the levels shooting at any living thing. It's a game made of waiting, hiding, and wit, a game made more of careful study of the terrain than of bloody firefights. And this is probably the one and only way to enjoy SOCOM II: if you start to play the game like you would play a shooter, you'll get only frustration. The true fun is in trying to always maintain a low profile, to complete your operation remaining almost undetected - and this is a primary objective in all of the missions. Each mission takes about 30 minutes to be completed, if you carefully study the tactical map in the mission briefing; while on a mission, you can always take a look at the map, and see positions of nearby enemies and teammates displayed on the radar in the upper right corner of the screen.
The complete lack of checkpoints and savepoints during the game may be extremely frustrating for many players; it's extremely easy to screw up a mission towards the end, when usually the action become more hectic, and not everyone will be happy to restart from scratch after 30 minutes of stealth infiltration. Anyhow, while this can strongly hamper the replay value in single player, it undeniably makes the missions more dramatic and tense. I sincerely like the overall difficulty and unforgiveness of SOCOM II, because it forces to think twice before moving a single step.
The A.I. has been substantially improved too. The "half stupid, half not too stupid" (still quoting myself) enemies and teammates of the original game have been replaced by nearly smart guys, which is a big achievement in a game that requires such complex behaviors like SOCOM. Teammates offer constantly a good support, and make of teamwork the most important element to successfully complete a mission; they no longer almost knock at the door of terrorists' hideouts before deploying a grenade, and they are excellent in offering good cover, shooting, clearing areas (of course, areas where they realistically could survive in real life). The only issues, still less frequent than in the preceding installment, happen in narrow spaces, where your A.I. controlled friends have occasionally the tedious tendency of blocking a door or a passage even in dramatic situations (for example, in the middle of a firefight) where they should just help you; another behavior that might be irritating for players who like to run through a level is that your teammates can't follow you if you run too fast: they will always stand way behind you, with the potential danger of leaving you alone in front of the enemy. Enemies also seem more reactive, but they still represent a threat only when in group; alone, they are too slow to be truly dangerous for your soldiers. I don't know if this is a sort of cap introduced by the developers, but games like Splinter Cell - not to mention the astounding A.I. of Metal Gear Solid 2 - proved that unforgiving enemy A.I. can make a game more interesting and challenging.
If you are new to SOCOM, the offline mode is a necessary step before entering into an online game. While there are "veterans" that try to help newcomers in many ways, other well-trained players just can't stand the possibility of having a bad player in their team, because, you know, they'd rather win than lose because you accidentally fired at their back. Adding to that, completion of the single player mode unlocks many extras that can be used in the online game.
The online universe behind SOCOM has really become more mature than it was in the first months following the release of the preceding game. Sure, cheaters plagued dozens of online games, but this didn't stop the growth of the SOCOM community. It's sufficient to type search phrases like "SOCOM clan" in a search engine to have a concrete idea of what being the top-selling console online game means. 42,000 players connected to play at least one online game in the first two days following the launch of SOCOM II.
In SOCOM II, one team plays as the SEALs, the other as the terrorists. SOCOM II supports games for up to 16 players that can be played online or on a LAN. To play SOCOM II online, you need a Network Adaptor and a broadband connection - like in the preceding installment, dial up connections aren't supported. The online features of SOCOM II make the previous installment almost obsolete; in fact, besides the entirely new 12 maps of this episode, SOCOM II features ten maps from the preceding installment. The old maps have been "updated" with gun turrets (included in all the missions of SOCOM II) and some additional hiding place. The old game modes (demolition, suppression, extraction) are back, with the addition of two new ones, Escort and Breach. In Escort mode, SEALs must guide a group of civilians, while terrorists must kill the civilians or all SEALs; in Breach mode, SEALs must penetrate into a terrorist base using explosives, while terrorists must stop the SEALs.
The game now includes also a spectator mode; since you are not member of any of the teams, you can look at the movements of any player in the game, and your name will appear in the lobby for that game as a spectator. With this mode, SOCOM tournaments can become much more fun, and new players can learn some basic and advanced strategy watching the games of veteran players.
Voice communication has vastly improved also when playing online. Voices come out sharper, clearer, probably because of a conjunction of improved quality of broadband services and a refined technique of sound compression.