Reviewed: May 29, 2011
Released: March 22, 2011
As a retired Army Special Forces sniper I love a good military action shooter as much as the next NRA card holder, even if that means taking a tour of duty in the Navy. Hey, Special Forces is Special Forces. Well, not really, but the lines seem to blur when it comes to video games these days, so I put any doubts on hold and fired up SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALs to see if Zipper could create something a bit more personal than their massive online shooter, MAG.|
The SOCOM franchise has been all over the place, both in design and quality since it first appeared on the PS2 in 2002. Back then I was only playing PC games, so it wasnít until 2005 and SOCOM 3 that I had my first chance to join the Navy, and I was pleasantly surprised at just how good the game was, not just for a console game, but as an actual military shooter. Then came SOCOM: Confrontation Ė a daring experiment by Sony to release an online-only installment in the SOCOM franchise. While bold in vision, even this diehard online multiplayer fan couldnít tolerate the horrible design and performance issues of that clunker.
But now we have SOCOM 4, and not just with a 32-person online game mode, but an actual and compelling story mode that had me glued to my TV and controller for almost eight straight hours. Even more important than the engaging campaign was the linear narrative that had you playing a six-day story comprised of ongoing missions that fed off the previous ones and fueled the next. Your travels across a hostile region, tracked on a satellite map, your ragtag yellow and blue teams, and the clever mix of action, strategy, and stealth combine to create one of the best shooters Iíve played this year.
For most of the game youíll be playing as Cullen Gray, the commander of a NATO strike team sent into hostile Southeast Asian territory to squash an uprising by some power-hungry dictator, or at least thatís the story youíve been told. You are ambushed just seconds after learning how to look and move around with the DualShock 3, and then itís on-the-job training as you are thrust into battle in the ruins of what used to be a rather nice downtown area - perhaps Shanghai juding from the crumbled tower. Early lessons include sprinting, taking cover, changing weapons and tossing grenades. Youíll even get to call in some airstrikes to erase a few tanks from the map, but when your offshore Navy is destroyed itís pretty much up to you and the boys to get outta Dodge on your own.
More advanced tutorials follow as you learn how to strategically position and command your men using the D-pad, having them advance, take cover, flank, and ultimately open fire on your chosen target. Their computer AI is rather impressive, and they will defend themselves and fire when fired upon. They will even heal each other (but not you) when they take critical damage, but if both should fall itís up to you to stab them with that hypo and return them to active duty.
By the time you get out of town and into the neighboring jungle you should have adequate leadership skills and just in time too. Your evac plane just got shot down and now you have to find the wreckage and assist any survivors. Once you do, Cullen now has two teams to command. You can selectively order your Blue and Yellow fire teams around creating more elaborate ambushes or leapfrog your advance into hostile zones with strategic cover fire. You can also pick and prioritize individual targets. Honestly, I havenít had this much fun strategically ordering men around in a combat game since Full Spectrum Warrior on the PC.
Also in the plane wreckage is Forty-Five, the other playable character in SOCOM 4. She adds a much-appreciated stealth element to the game that breaks up the otherwise nonstop shooting. From time to time, as the story dictates, you must have her infiltrate enemy installations without being detected and secure intelligence or sabotage enemy gear. These stealth levels are fairly intense requiring careful route planning, silent movement, lots of crouching and crawling, and plenty of stealth takedowns or sniper headshots. You can even toss empty shell casings to distract or lure guards into a trap. A light meter shows how detectable you are in any given area, and also allows you to find a dark spot to hide the bodies of your enemies before they are found by other patrolling guards.
The story mode plays out as one long adventure spread out across several days and numerous missions across one giant map. I found this a refreshing change to those other games that have you traveling around the world engaging in just the highlights of the adventure. In SOCOM 4 you must actually travel to your next objective and deal with whatever obstacles stand in your way. And if ďdealingĒ means opening the floodgates on a dam to wash away an enemy convoy, then so be it. Everything in SOCOM 4 just seems to flow and integrate together unlike any other game in the genre, such as setting up your next daylight mission by doing some covert setup with Forty-Five the night before.
Casual gamers will find the Normal skill setting challenging. What the enemy lacks in AI it makes up for in numbers, but your strike team is pretty good about shooting the enemies whether you call out any specific targets or not. But it was only after a few encounters where they had killed everyone before I could even get into position that I set the difficulty to Hard. It was now much more imperative to have everyone stay behind cover and shoot specific targets. And with damage set higher and AI healing so much harder to pull off, things just got a whole lot more real.
In addition to the outstanding story mode is a fairly involved co-op mode that includes two mission types on six maps for up to five players working as their own fire team. I have to admit, this is probably the most fun Iíve had playing a co-op game since Rainbow Six or Ghost Recon. There is no split-screen so all your co-op will have to be online, and donít even think about playing without a headset.
The online competitive modes in SOCOM 4, while not as numerous as a Call of Duty game, are perfectly design with great modes, balanced weapons, and excellent maps. You can choose between ranked and unranked modes as well as choosing classic rules versus the new rules, and there are all sorts of options the host can setup for each match. Familiar modes include; Suppression (team Deathmatch), Uplink (CTF), Last Defense (Domination), and perhaps my new favorite mode in a shooter, Bomb Squad. In this exciting mode one player is the bomb tech complete in padded suit, and the rest of his team must escort and protect him from enemy fire as he tries to defuse three bombs located around the map before time runs out.
There are nine maps which scale nicely to support up to 32 players. While there are some similar environmental themes to these levels borrowed from the story mode, they are all original in design and all of them are quite good. I canít think of one map I didnít like. As expected, your character will level up the more you play, but even more important, your weapons also level up the more you use them in both story mode and online play. Each new level will earn new mods and attachments like scopes and silencers, which can greatly influence the battles.
SOCOM 4 looks incredible from the opening firefight across the broken highway in a crumbling Asian downtown district, to the steamy jungles, seedy slums, and coastal beaches. Each level starts with a stunning top-down satellite map that looks good enough to host its own RTS game. Once in the game you can appreciate all the fantastic animation in both your character and your squad, who all move, crawl, crouch, and take cover with fluid and realistic motion. The maps are huge and loaded with detailed textures and complex architecture. Lighting and shadows were perfect for the various times of day and especially the suspenseful night missions. The only negative thing I saw were some clipping issues with leaves or bits of wall passing through crouched or crawling characters.
Itís also worth noting that SOCOM 4 supports 3D. This was my second chance to play a 3D game since Crysis 2 and while I can still appreciate the novelty of the experience, I just donít see this catching on for gaming. It looks cool, but the eye strain really wears on you after an hour or so, and it really doesnít help or improve your game experience. Itís still a nice feature for those of you with a 3D TV that want to taunt your friends.
The audio package gives you the choice of a powerful Dolby Digital mix or an even more powerful DTS experience that will put you in the middle of the fight. The weapons sound incredibly realistic and the explosions are so powerful I considered turning down my subwoofer. There is some good music suitable for a military game, which knew when to stay quiet and when to kick in for some added punch. And the voice acting was also surprisingly well done for everyone with a major speaking part.
I had a great time playing SOCOM 4, and I was surprised how easy it was to talk my buddies into getting copies of the game after they played it a few hours on my system. In fact, it was one of these guys who had also played Killzone 3 that introduced me to the Sharp Shooter gun for the PlayStation Move. I donít play a lot of PS3 games and didnít know much about the Move or the gun, but I have to admit there is something quite engaging about holding a rifle with that much substance and playing a military shooter. While itís not as immersive as it would be with a true FPS, I did appreciate the added level of aiming precision, but everything else just seemed a bit awkward after playing the game for over 12 hours with a DualShock 3. I suppose if you want to invest in a rather steep learning curve it might be a fun alternate way to play the game, but this SEAL is sticking with his gamepad.
Iíve played less than ten games on my PS3 and reviewed only three and Iím proud to count SOCOM 4 as one of those games. Playing this game solo brought back memories of Full Spectrum Warrior with all the squad-based tactics and ordering options, and playing co-op was like reliving all my best Tom Clancy moments, and the online versus modes had all the fun of MAG with the added bonus of the incredible Bomb Squad mode. And while it may never be able to compete with Call of Duty in sheer popularity, SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALs definitely wins when it comes to reality.