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SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALs

Put aside the fact that SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALs launched during the PSN outage, that it was extremely buggy when it came back online, that it has the likes of Dead Space 2, Gears of War 3, and Uncharted 3 to contend with on the third person shooter front this year, that it’s a follow-up to the widely lambasted third entry, and consider the most significant thing the game must contend with. The most significant thing is the return of Zipper Interactive, re-assuming their rightful place as series developer. The expectation is they would finally create the successor to SOCOM 2 – that tactical wunderkind that necessitated the existence of the PlayStation 2 Network Adapter – and they need to create the very follow-up fans have been clamoring for year after embittered year.

They haven’t.

In fact, they’ve gone full swing in the other direction, creating a much more accessible shooter that sheds depth in favor of mass appeal. Taking into account that this is a game which can be played either with a standard controller, the Move controller, or the Sharp Shooter peripheral (which Zipper Interactive helped design) and it’s readily apparent things have moved on in the absence of worthwhile new franchise entries. This is a different SOCOM and a different Zipper Interactive in a new age of shooters.

And so they’ve done the sensible (read “business”) thing and have gotten with the times.

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SOCOM 4 is a modern third-person shooter in nearly every respect, favoring large set pieces and focus-tested clarity over the gritty tactical approach taken in the original games. It might sound like the only inevitable end result is the game appeals to nobody in particular in its attempt to capture everyone’s interest, and while there’s certainly some element of truth to that, there’s plenty of good here, too.

Multiplayer remains the central attraction. True to franchise tradition, what few maps are available are intelligently designed and varied. Each map is ripe for 32 player havoc and is well-oriented with an eye for balance. A multiplayer-focused shooter is only as good as its maps and SOCOM 4’s dingy shipyard of Port Authority and vertically-designed jungle ruins of Sacrifice are damn good. It’s only unfortunate that the rest of the design isn’t always there to match it.

Nearly bearing more in common with the likes of Medal of Honor and Modern Warfare, much of the multiplayer is comprised of simplistic running and gunning. There’s little tactical merit to most of the modes, besides perhaps Bomb Squad. This generally keeps things moving and ensures there aren’t full teams of 16 seated safely behind cover in each match, but comes at the cost of any real depth.

Suppression is perhaps the most active mode in the game; where virtually the entire player base remains situated. There’s an option of playing with SOCOM 4’s default settings or classic ones, which refuse respawns and are drawn out into a series of ‘best of ten’. There’s a nice, rapid feeling to the online play – at least at the time of this writing – as matches proceed in fast succession and the Quick Match feature is aptly named; one of the welcome departures from the older games’ more cumbersome lobby system.

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There are still some shortsighted moments – like the game announcing the objective every single time you respawn (we get it; team death match), or a bit of jank, as you’ll occasionally spawn inside level geometry. As well as it runs, sometimes the controls are inadequate for keeping up with such a pace. Overpowered grenades and easy headshots do occasionally make for problematic easy kills, so both are spammed to excess, but these types of exploits are found and abused in any shooter and doesn’t create any unfair advantage one way or the other.

SOCOM 2 fans will find solace in the well-conceived victory dances over a fallen enemy corpse and extensive clan features. These are essential components of the early games that still hold plenty of merit here, as you’re able to arrange challenges with rivaling clans and there’s a good sense that this component’s built to last. Between dancing and joining clans, it’s clear Zipper Interactive understand the best things about their original games and have more-or-less delivered on everything but the preoccupation with tactic-based multiplayer.

And single-player starts out at least as promising. Early on, you’re calling in air strikes from a battle cruiser that hangs just off the coast of the peninsula and once signaled, it sends rockets skyward, until they come spiraling back down on enemy tanks. It’s a cool, passing moment that highlights the newfound emphasis on set pieces, doing so in an effective way. There’s really not enough of that continued throughout the campaign, although there’ll still be a handful of airstrikes and some less achieving set pieces.

The weirdest thing about single-player is that despite the game’s title, you never play as Navy SEALs, not from the United States, or otherwise. Instead, most the game’s spent from the backside of NATO commander Cullen Gray, who’s about as interesting as his name suggests. You’ll be joining him as leads a troop of two slightly-more-interesting soldiers who are in fact Navy SEALs. A weird way of handling things, but perhaps the idea is the group’s the important thing and Gray’s meant to be expendable. Either way, the story doesn’t hold up to much analysis.

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The plot details some hokey battle against the Naga and Clawhammer forces, but it never really feels essential. Briefings are presented by a woman named the Oracle who seems to have a hard time placing her Eurocentric accent and sort of drones on about nothing in-between missions. Otherwise, the voice acting’s surprisingly decent, only detracted by the writers’ lost sense for brevity and the occasional loose-ends used for dynamic-shifting plot devices.

There’s a nice mixture of militant hymns and fitting compositions which suit the motifs of each level and they add a kind of charm or sense of character to each environment. One audio oddity is the emphasis of the headshot noise, which sounds like exploding fruit, or something, and is so exaggerated it becomes distracting. What this also brings out is how weak sounding weapons are in contrast. It sounds like a wisp of air as you fire off a large assault rifle and then there’s that odd, echoing plopping noise from forty feet in the distance, carrying out and broadcasting the victory of a head-shot, reverberating across the mountains for all to hear.

Early in, Gray’s troop crosses paths with a two-unit Korean Special Operations battalion, whom join the fight when Korea decides it’s OK to send women to war, or something. With that, we’re introduced to Forty-Five, Gray’s strong female counterpart who acts as a secondary main character and is featured in stealth missions woven haphazardly throughout the campaign.

Perhaps Forty-Five’s stealth sections serve the purpose of playing with perspective. You’ll be prowling through an encampment of enemies in the dark in one mission, and then parading through the same location during the day, guns blazing, as Gray & Co. in the next. It’s unclear if this is an artistic and beautiful experiment or if Zipper Interactive simply couldn’t be bothered to design more levels. The stealth segments themselves feel awfully rushed. Enemy detection is inconsistent and you’ll often need to rely on pure trial-and-error just to force your way through these segments.

There’s about six hours of single-player content in total. It’s all a quick rush from one checkpoint to the next and feels like it might’ve been on the verge of some sweeping, even cohesive-feeling end goal but never quite develops into anything worth seeing through. It’s an all right, if not by-the-numbers campaign, yet feels mostly ancillary.

Some of the best things that have been done are in the way of making simple commands more accessible. Tactical control is handily assigned to the D-pad and it’s fairly easy to point out paths for your teammates. They generally end up about where you sent them and are proficient at popping in and out of cover. You’re not as lucky; however, as the cover system’s a bit wonky – it can be indecisive about what it actually considers cover and whether it wants to let you stick to it.

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There’s still a kind of moderate tactical approach to the gameplay, as your squads each specialize in specific weapon types, with the SEALs taking the cake at close-quarters combat while the Koreans are pretty good at long range. Utilizing this tidbit, you’ll be able to direct them advantageously about the map and on occasion create tactical ambushes or have them take defensive positions. It all works but it’s kind of unnecessary to do any of this unless you’re playing on Elite difficulty. Your teammates just seem to take care of themselves otherwise, healing one another and potentially fighting nearly every battle for you if you were to just nudge them forward every few minutes.

There’s further problems with trying to revive teammates, as you’ll have to get right down next to them to activate the heal prompt and will often be taken down in the process. Worse yet, for some unknown reason, your character can’t be healed in single-player and instead crumples into a lousy heap of bad animation.

Apart from some flawed textures, things generally look fine, if not fully generic and a bit too similar to every other third-person shooter. It all comes across as a little ‘last gen’. It’s only a shame it couldn’t play that way, also.

These complaints all take a backseat once you enter the co-op mode, however. These are essentially truncated versions of the single-player missions where you and a posse of up to four other players blast – or sneak – through each scenario without concern for contrived storylines or any other nonsense. This mode’s simple, straight-forward fun and may be the best new feature in the game.

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SOCOM 4 is a light and breezy third-person shooter that’s pretty good by genre standards, but perhaps a bit lacking in comparison to SOCOM 2. Even then, this signifies that Zipper Interactive are still interested in doing good work on the series, even if they’re now following a more traditional path that sets its sights on the masses.

6 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @Calvin_Kemph.

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