AKA, the Post-PSN Outage Apocalyptic Killing Squad.
As impatient, annoyed, upset, and utterly devastated as many of us may have been during the Great PSN Outage of 2011, few have suffered as much as Zipper Interactive, the development team behind SOCOM 4. The title launched just one day before Sony pulled the plug on their servers, an event that sent all of us PS3 owners back to the pre-internet dark ages of 1980s-era gaming. Sitting in our dark caves, we tried futilely to reconnect to the Playstation Network using some flint and steel, hoping finally to use our SOCOM 4 discs as more than just uncooperative kindling.
[image1]So when Sony’s servers came back to life, so did SOCOM’s multiplayer suite. The wait is over, and we can finally get back to defusing bombs and protecting VIPs. The problem is, despite all the anticipation, the wait wasn’t especially worth it.
As it turns out, the single-player campaign is far more polished, fleshed out, and just plain fun than any of the multiplayer modes. Like the proverbial true love who was staring you square in the face all along, SOCOM 4’s single-player game is the real reason to play. In that respect, the network outage may have had the fortuitous effect of getting people to spend time with an excellent campaign that might otherwise have been ignored.
Going toe-to-toe with the squad-based Tom Clancy shooter titles Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon, SOCOM 4 outshines these two genre stalwarts in terms of its moment-to-moment gunplay. While the story and characters are a forgettable mishmash of genre clichés, there are some stellar action set-pieces and the easy-to-use squad controls keep the pace rolling at a healthy clip. SOCOM 4 doesn’t redefine the genre, but it does give it a much-needed shot of adrenaline.
The game takes place in the cities and jungles of an unnamed South Asian country. You take command of a small squad of American operatives, and early on you join up with a pair of Korean special forces members. You control each pair separately using a basic set of commands mapped to the d-pad, and you simply point to places on the map that you want them to hole up.
[image2]The squads (mostly) do well at finding proper cover and defending themselves. The AI isn’t perfect, but considering just how much heavy lifting the AI does, it’s impressive. These aren’t cannon fodder idiots from a Call of Duty title. They know how to shoot, how to find cover, and how to retreat when necessary. They’ll still make plenty of dumb decisions from time to time—like hiding on the wrong side of cover—but for every asinine lapse in judgment, there are a dozen more problem-free choices.
For all the elegance of the squad commands, there are a few other less-elegant control choices. For example, the square button is used for both healing squad members and for picking up weapons. More than a few times during some heavy action sequences, I’d be trying to heal a fallen squadmate, only to pick up a nearby weapon. And the reverse happens, as well. And if you happen to be close to more than a single weapon, it can be a real test of patience.
And as pretty as they might be, the environments start to get repetitive. One might call the look of the game more “realistic”, but realism doesn’t have to be predictable. The forests, villages, and cities all eventually blend together. Additionally, in a handful of missions, you’ll see the same environment twice in a row: once as part of a nighttime stealth mission to gather intelligence, and another as a guns-blazing shootout during the day. It varies the play-styles, but it adds to the already monotonous environment and level design. And besides, this one-two combo of stealth and action doesn’t make much logical sense; if I was just going to run in there shooting everyone, there probably wasn’t much point to being stealthy the first time around, right?
The load-out screen—in both single and multiplayer—is painfully clunky. Your choices are limited until you find and unlock other weapons, but even those aren’t all that different. Again, one might claim this is for the sake of “realism”, and again I would counter that realism doesn’t have to be predictable. Worse, the game doesn’t remember your prior choices, so you constantly have to scroll through and re-select the same choices at the beginning of every level or round.
[image3]Both single-player and multiplayer have weapon leveling systems based on usage, and additional enhancements and modifications unlock as individual weapons increase in level. These don’t carry over between single-player and multiplayer, so there’s little incentive to bother with every weapon in the campaign mode.
I’ve held off talking about the multiplayer this long mostly because there’s really not much to say other than that it’s a letdown. What has always set the SOCOM series apart from other online shooters has been its devotion to a slower-paced, more strategic play-style. SOCOM players don’t want endless respawns or people who whine endlessly about campers. They play to win, and they play patiently.
The biggest sign that the series has taken a major turn—for the worse—is “Standard” mode, which is a derivative array of typical CoD-style modes. The play types that have long been associated with the series are now relegated to a separate “Classic” set of modes. It’s clear that the emphasis in design has shifted to try to tap into the KDR-obsessed market, but it’s not something that the series handles very well.
And there are some basic mechanical issues, as well. For one, grenade spam abounds. Hop into nearly any game, and you can expect a constant rain of grenades from every direction. And because SOCOM 4 doesn’t always consistently keep you appraised of where grenades are or where they’re coming from, death happens mysteriously and often.
[image4]And just as egregious, the third-person camera can do some dizzyingly acrobatic things in some maps. It’s just not up to the task of fast action. When it was used for the old style of more strategic play, the camera didn’t have to do so much work. But in following Call of Duty’s footsteps, the camera simply can’t keep up.
Zipper has tried to do something new by introducing custom co-op maps. It’s an excellent idea, and if the community takes to it, these could be a great new direction for the series. But as it stands, there’s just not enough reason to bother. The network outage may have taken the wind out of the co-op sails before it could ever get going. But if you have a dedicated group of SOCOM buddies, these could help fill out the overall content package.
Taken as a whole, there’s a lot of content in SOCOM 4. But as you spend more time with some of its parts, you’ll find yourself gravitating to just a small portion of what it has to offer. And the outage may ultimately have been good for the game, giving folks time to play through a worthwhile campaign while they waited for the multiplayer gates to open. It’s just too bad that once those gates were lifted there wasn’t anything special sitting on the other side.