Half the battle.
Pardon me, but I was at first taken aback when I found SOCOM: US Navy SEALs Tactical Strike covered in advertisements for the Navy. I understand the connection and I definitely support our boys abroad, but I’m not yet comfortable with the military recruiting through games. People get upset about it. Something about “the impressionable youth”, I imagine, but of course, I'm too busy playing video games to really care.
As if to get away from the avalanche of shooters and PSP strategy games, Tactical Strike is a PSP strategy shooter. Go figure. Still, though it looks like your typical, bland military sim, it's an enjoyable first pass at squad-based combat.
Tactical Assault’s squad-based gameplay resembles Pandemic’s Full Spectrum Warrior. You take command of a four-man special forces unit from the U.S. and abroad, directing them where to stand, where to point the gun, and where to drop bombs. You never get directly behind the trigger of a gun, so you’ll have to consider where to hide your troops carefully before letting them start a firefight.
It's a much more deliberate and addictive SOCOM experience, where every kill comes after a bit of built-up satisfaction. You’ll scour large jungles and villages with caution and circle your troops around the next cluster of enemies, until you signal all four SEALs to pop out from cover and execute the suckers.
Your team will comb ten large levels to rescue a missing American ambassador. Each mission is split into subgoals like planting bombs on enemy escape vehicles or disabling defense equipment, and are packed with ambush scenes and optional (sometimes hidden) missions like rescuing hostages.
The levels are very linear, but there are usually three or more different routes to take through every hillside and building. A speedy player can probably tackle each in a half hour each, but a thorough player like me can take a full hour-long romp to explore the whole map. It sounds tedious, but I’ve been obsessed all weekend just to move forward another yard, take another shot, and clear another objective. Some shootouts are rather difficult, but the squad command dynamic remains solid.
SOCOM’s basic move-and-shoot gameplay is fun for a while, but simplistic enemies and clunky control issues drag the experience to a screeching halt. Except for the occassional "challenge" showdown between your squad a dozen vengeful guerillas, the dumb AI are unaware of your snipers as they clear a path through abandoned streets and power plants.
As if to compensate for this, you can't equip your men with better armor, though you can give them sniper rifles and rocket launchers. There are times when enemies outnumber, outgun, and simply overwhelm your four-person squad. You might think your firepower can turn into your best defense, but your squad usually gets eliminated before you can send two commands from the contextual control scheme.
RPG-style character advancement adds a mostly superficial element of customization and improvement. You can pretend that the characters are unique - give one man a bunch of health packs and call him a medic. But you’ll snap back to reality, especially when your “medic” dies first. Besides, by mid-game, you will probably have so many experience points that each of your men has developed from Identically Pathetic to Identically Perfect in every category.
After learning from a few rough mistakes, it takes two or three levels to get the hang of equipping your men and commanding them well, but once you shape up, you can test your tactical mettle against three other players in a few different online game types. At first, you will watch your whole squad fall dead like a terrible round of Counterstrike (remember that no armor thing), but your more experienced teammates will duck behind cover and get into fascinating stand-offs.
The multiplayer interface is fairly easy and robust. You can find games, get Tactical Strike news (none have been posted yet) or maintain a friends list for your favorite allies and enemies. After ten missions of carefully tailoring your equipment, however, be prepared to spend a few extra minutes in the lobby each round as everyone sets up.
Overall, the presentation is not flashy but pretty solid. Tactical Strike has a nice musical score, plus every playable nation is narrated in their native language. The graphics are a little flat but they move fine with billowing smoke grenades and spare gunfire streaming around.
Unfortunately, Tactical Strike's story isn't that immersive. Your soldiers have tough-guy call signs like “Wraith” and “Cypher”, but they have nothing to say about the situation at hand, and missions go by without any major surprise or spectacle. There’s just no character, no excitement or commentary to it. I might as well be Allies in World War II, or knights under a Fleur-de-Lis placeholder, or wooden checkers on a chessboard.
There are plenty of moments, however, when all four of your men stand and open fire, sniping and bombing enemies in a few seconds of controlled chaos. These are the high points in SOCOM: Tactical Strike, and they’ve kept me on my PSP all weekend long. I won’t be joining the real Navy for some time, but I was glad I enlisted my PSP.