Out with the Old Navy, in with the new.
It's hard to believe that a full year has passed since the original SOCOM hit the shelves, effectively ushering in a new era of online console gaming. The game was a runaway hit, partly because it was " and until right now, is " the only real online military shooter for the biggest system in the world. Though SOCOM had its share of problems, it managed to do enough things right to convince prince and pauper alike to drop the hefty 100 bucks it took to get up and running, network adapter, headset and all.
Since then, though, online gameplay has become expected of most console games. SOCOM is no longer the only PS2 game that lets you play online. It's just the oldest.
So how does the newly redesigned SOCOM II stand up? In several ways it's much better than its predecessor, but it still has some rust on the barrel.
SOCOM II will be instantly familiar to vets of the last mission. The single-player places you as the head of a 4-man SEAL team out to rid the world of evil foreign bad guys intent on performing evil foreign bad guy deeds with very sinister evil foreign bad guys accents. The story isn't exactly engaging since you don't carry over items or equipment from mission to mission (12 in all), but it gets the job done.
The gameplay remains largely unchanged. You and your squad make your way through each mission by going from checkpoint to checkpoint and eliminating threats along the way while trying to nail your main and secondary objectives. Without fail, stealth is rewarded over brute force, though you can survive with modest success by just going in like gangbusters. The difficulty ramps up pretty quickly; by the third mission or so, you'll probably lose on your first few attempts.
But that's not due to brilliant AI. While enemies will hear and react to loud, brash movement and will notice fallen comrades, they also tend to stand around staring in your direction while you waste them. Your teammates, however, make Annie Oakley look like Little Orphan Annie. They're often pinpoint accurate and will take down guys you didn't even know existed.
Should you find your teammates either too useful or totally inept, you can command them by using either the headset or a button-driven tactical command interface if you're without the gear. Both ways work well, though it takes some time to figure out the right way to say certain commands. Occasionally your squad will interpret "Breach" as "Regroup" or something, so for the really specific commands it tends to pay off if you just use the less ambiguous button interface.
Most of the weapons are the same with a few extra of each type, the most notable additions being the RPG launcher, shotguns and brutal anti-personnel mines. The mines are absolutely deadly and hard to spot, a great addition.
Running and gunning isn't any better or worse than before, which is either a good or bad thing depending on your opinion of the original. I still find it too loose at times, though the hit detection seems to have improved.
The graphics and sound have also been tweaked for the better. The textures are noticeably better and the effects more polished. Foliage is now actually handy for keeping you hidden. The animations look good, though the framerate tends to jerk a little. Grenade explosions, weapon effects and the sweet teammate chatter in the headset suck you into the experience well.
The single-player is adequate, but it's not where the meat of this game lies. The real point of SOCOM II is its online gameplay, and within hours you'll likely hop onto your broadband-only connection and frag the night away.
Some good changes have occurred in the online component. There are a ton of maps " 12 new ones and 10 updated ones from the original game. The design is very good, requiring a few plays to figure out the nuances, but straightforward enough for the newbie to actually nab a kill or two before getting sniped. Some of the new ones are really big, too, which at times gives the game an almost Battlefield feel. Too bad you can't drive anything.
In addition to the standard Demolition, Suppression and Extraction types are Breach and Escort. The former is essentially a SEAL bomb map with the added objectives to blow down some barricades, while the latter is the typical VIP escort like you'd find in Counterstrike. Both work well and offer different ways to play. For instance, you're rewarded for accomplishing objectives as much as killing enemies, so you can score points on the leader board by taking out barricades or planting bombs. It isn't always about the death count, you know.
But usually it is, and twitch fiends will dig the new respawning maps, which play like most Deathmatch shooters. Respawn servers are mainly frequented by newbies and spawn killing can get a little out of hand, but for the most part it works fine and offers a good quick fix.
Also new is the much-needed ability to mute annoying players rather than the whole team like in the original, so that if StAiNd666 is calling your mom a whore too often, you can finally shut him up. A new burly ranking system is also here, complete with clan ladders, friend and ignore lists, you name it. The individual player rankings only allow you to play against others of your rank type. It works well at first since you won't get wailed on by the top 100 players, but there's a dark underbelly to this beast that in some ways cripples the whole damn thing.
In most online games, quitting mid-game is frowned upon and is usually accompanied by some sort of penalty, a slap on the wrist. Here, it's an Ike Turner backhand. Out of about 15 hours of online gameplay, I was inadvertently disconnected " through no fault of my own, just a server or network glitch " about 5 times. Each time, I logged back on to find that I had dropped in status from Lieutenant to Ensign (the lowest rank), despite playing well enough to get promoted in the first place. I did not Abort any mission; rather, the game would just stall loading a new map or, once, in the middle of a fight. I don't really know why because there are no error messages. Someone forgot to differentiate between a server screw up and a chicken who turns off the game when they're losing.
Ask around a bit and you'll find that apparently it's an excruciatingly common problem. It's "supposed' to be fixed but currently is not, which makes me want to jam my controller into a grenade launcher and shoot it at Zipper Interactive's HQ.
The other problem with SOCOM II lies again in its loose control, which seems to result in plenty of firefights that look more like Ring Around The Rosie than an actual melee. Guys run around in circles shooting at each other, often from about 10 feet, which isn't exactly what you want out of a game rooted in complex tactical assaults.
When you stay connected for a while, however, SOCOM II can be tons of fun. Good teammates who communicate well can turn what would normally be a seen-it-before game into an engaging, intricate fragfest. Finding cover, ambushing an enemy or two and hurling a grenade into a manned bunker can be supremely rewarding.
Just don't expect to get much practice by playing the single-player. The difference between single- and multi-player is huge, almost like two entirely different games. You have to sneak and order and inch forward in the single-player, then suddenly you frag and run and holler at teammates in the multi-player. Some sort of practice mode would have been terrific, some bots, a Quick play mode, really anything to bridge the enormous gap between the two game styles. You simply don't tackle a multi-player map at anywhere near the snail's pace of the single-player.
But don't let that stop you from checking it out, particularly if you dug the first game. SOCOM II improves many of the niggling flaws of the original while updating the maps and graphics along the way, leading to a genuinely fun and at times, addictive game. Unfortunately, the disconnect ranking issue still need some ironing; this just isn't as polished as what you'd find over on Xbox Live. For PS2 owners, though, SOCOM II is about as good as it gets. Provided they fix those server flaws, it might even have enough gameplay to outlast the "real" war against terrorism.