SOCOM all ye faithful.
When it comes to online PS2 shooters, there is only one gunman on the grassy knoll - the SOCOM series. Unfortunately for PS2 frag-thusiasts, the series has been as silent as a killer mime for the last two years. While some bad ports of Ubisoft games came and went, nothing has compared favorably to SOCOM II...until now. SOCOM 3: U.S. Navy SEALs usurps its older brother's throne by doubling the player-cap and adding vehicular warfare to the mix.
The point of the SOCOM series is to provide online fragging, so I'll assume you already know this and didn't buy the game for its anemic single-player. Unfortunately, getting online is a slightly bigger pain in the butt than it used to be. Basic registration is no big deal, but if you want access to ranked games, friends lists and automatches as well as all the amenities youí¢â‚¬â„¢re used to in modern online games, youí¢â‚¬â„¢ll have to í¢â‚¬Å“Verify Account,"? which means entering a credit card number and the personal information attached to it. You woní¢â‚¬â„¢t be billed for anything and we believe this is simply meant to deter people from cheating in ranked matches, but it still seems a bit excessive.
Even if you doní¢â‚¬â„¢t validate, youí¢â‚¬â„¢ll be able to surf a list of servers and join one of seven types of matches. The ways SOCOM 3 can be played online are impressive. Breach (SEALs set terrorists up the bomb), Demolition (steal the bacon), Suppression (Team Deathmatch), Escort (Escort), and Extraction (Hostage Rescue) all return from SOCOM II, while Control (think Battlefield) and Convoy (Escort with vehicles) provide even more angles to an already robust online package, and for that we are thankful.
The biggest improvement, though, is that 32 players can now compete in the same game. While graphical sacrifices obviously had to be made, they were well worth it. Battles in SOCOM 3 reach levels of insanity previously only seen on the Xbox and PC; this game effectively evens the playing field.
However, you'll still be forced to come to grips with the gameí¢â‚¬â„¢s complicated control scheme. Every single button on the PS2 controller is used up by SOCOMí¢â‚¬â„¢s complex mechanics, letting you do everything you might want to do in a shooter, assuming you can wrap your head and your hands around the control scheme. Once you do, you'll be able to stand, crouch, lie prone, lean around corners, switch between view modes, jump, climb, swim, dive, victory dance, quickly swap between main and secondary weapons, zoom in, zoom out, reload and change fire-modes, all on the fly.
Figuring out how this stuff works takes time, patience and the instruction booklet, but after a bit of a learning curve, the control scheme proves solid and provides the depth needed in a solid online shooter. The only ripple on this slick surface is the fact that you throw grenades like a four year-old. Instead of quickly flinging one between bursts from your gat, youí¢â‚¬â„¢ll have to stop, bust out the grenade, and then manipulate the wonky aiming arc while charging a throw.
Instead of dealing with this, youí¢â‚¬â„¢ll want to modify your arsenal at the load-out screen. SOCOM 3 features an almost perverse amount of guns, far more than in its predecessor. You can modify your main weapons and side-arms with things like grenade-launchers, scopes, laser pointers, tripods and silencers, as well as pick from a bevy of grenades, mines, and rockets.
But you caní¢â‚¬â„¢t have it all. Each object increases your burden, and if you take on too much stuff youí¢â‚¬â„¢ll become encumbered. You can trick-out your assault rifle with a grenade launcher, but you woní¢â‚¬â„¢t be able to also carry the pimpest pistol and two rocket launchers without being forced to virtually crawl across the battlefield.
The M16A2 with an M203 frag grenade attachment was our favorite combo, allowing us to pepper nearby foes with lead and rain hell on enemies in the distance. Our preference seemed shared by lots of SOCOM 3 players, leading to many long-range, parabolic shoot-outs that were equally cool-looking and fun to play.
If such long-distance grenade fests doní¢â‚¬â„¢t sound like your cup of tea, doní¢â‚¬â„¢t worry. Every map in SOCOM 3 is big and dynamic, providing both open areas for tense sniper battles and tight, labyrinthine spots for the SMG enthusiasts. The trick is finding your way to your preferred battleground, since the maps are colossal and you run like molasses.
Ideally, the answer to the locomotion question should be the newly-added vehicles. However, these always seem in short supply, so expect to spend a lot of time running from place to place. Availability issues aside, the vehicles are great. Theyí¢â‚¬â„¢re easy to handle with simple controls and forgiving physics. Comprised of pickup trucks, jeeps, tanks and boats - all of which have mounted guns - the vehicles get you where you need to go and you can shoot or run people over on the way.
They sure doní¢â‚¬â„¢t look good doing it, though. Most models in the game, from characters to cars, are blocky and suffer from muddled textures. This can be fatal when you incorrectly think that blurry, tan-colored guy next to you is a friend. This is probably why most hosts seem to turn friendly fire off, so that you can always ask í¢â‚¬Å“Friend or foe?"? with a couple quick rifle bursts.
SOCOM 3 is a curious graphical beast. The environments, while huge, all use the most basic textures possible. It never looks sloppy or shoddy, just plain and utilitarian. This keeps things running smoothly and some excellent graphical seasoning can almost make you forget how good this game doesní¢â‚¬â„¢t look. The explosions, in particular, are conspicuously kick ass, and since there are so many in every single round it makes up for the dull character models and drab backgrounds. The death animations and gun-shot wounds are also extremely dramatic, adding some real hot-sauce that effectively masks the gameí¢â‚¬â„¢s overall lack of visual flavor.
Nobody did the gameí¢â‚¬â„¢s sound effects the same service, though. The gunfire effects are wretched to the point of sounding broken, and the footsteps are always too loud and digitized. At least the voice chat works fine, granting players clearance to talk instead of letting everyone garble up the channel, while a clever little circle appears over the head of any speaking character so you can tell who just yelled í¢â‚¬Å“Grenade."?
While the online game is a very good one, there are also three new single-player campaigns here, best served...never. Each of these takes place in a somewhat unlikely war theater (North Africa, South Asia, Poland), putting you in charge of a four-man squad with orders to do things like blow up convoys and kill enemies. Each mission takes place on a large map with nav points that direct you to objectives and checkpoints that periodically restock and heal your troops while automatically saving your game.
These features make humping your way through the various locales a breeze, as do the incredibly stupid enemies. Since SOCOM 3 is mainly an online game, A.I. development clearly wasn't a huge priority. If terrorists can't see you, they won't react to anything, even if you methodically kill everyone standing around them. If they do manage to spot you, they'll take a couple shots before they run, screaming, in your general direction.
A squad of three idiot SEALs has your back, and it's a good thing you won't need them. These guys are as air-headed as your enemies and can't be counted on for much of anything. They're averse to violence, generally electing not to shoot at things, and they don't like riding in vehicles, either. Loading them into a boat for a trip across a river, for example, requires a lot of insistence on your part, and frankly isn't worth the trouble when you can just go online and roll with the homies.
So let me be perfectly clear: if you do not have online access, SOCOM 3 is not worth buying. Sure, all the weapons and new vehicles are present in the single-player game and running over mentally challenged terrorists or blowing them to smithereens with a grenade launcher is, literally, a blast, but it won't last.
SOCOM 3 will, though. Like its predecessors, it offers little in the way of offline content, but who cares? There are a million good single-player games available for the PS2, but SOCOM 3 has the distinction of being the best online offering the system has ever seen. Those without a PS2 network adapter need not enlist, but for the rest this game is practically a tour of duty.