SOCOM But Not Forgotten

I’m sorry, SOCOM II. I tried my best, I really did.

The plan was simple: In protest of SOCOM II‘s servers being permanently closed at the end of August, I was to order myself an NTSC copy of the game, log on and stage a one-man sit in, refusing to leave the British server until normal service resumed.

I can’t help feeling that everything since SOCOM II has been a step backwards.

I didn’t even make it to the main menu. Thanks to my gourmet of a PlayStation-refusing North American PS2 games (the PAL version can’t be used online anymore) my hopes of salvaging SOCOM II were dashed, snuffed out by finickity region locks and backwards incompatibly. My favorite game of all time is about to disappear forever; all that’s left to play is the offline campaign mode, and I’m sure the heartless sods will soon find a way to delete that, too.

I should have seen it coming. When Zipper, the Washington-based developer responsible for SOCOM, MAG and Unit 13 closed their doors in March 2012, it was only a matter of time before SOCOM followed suit. This is a game that hasn’t seen full servers since 2005 – seven years, Modern Warfare and a new console generation later, there’s no-one left to play SOCOM II, let alone run it. Save for a few die-hard cultists, SOCOM is about to die alone.

We call it progress. With the sleek, aforementioned giants of online multiplayer drawing console gamers in by the millions, antiques like SOCOM don’t stand a chance. This isn’t like PC gaming, where a hardcore community of modders and ninjas can keep a game running well past its sell-by date: This is the console market, where games only survive as long as the hardware that runs them.

The same goes for Zipper Interactive, who never made it big on the PlayStation 3. A medium hitter during the sixth generation, Zipper struggled with the transition to more powerful consoles. Online-only FPS MAG couldn’t win over the Call of Duty crowd; squad shooter Unit 13 failed to turn a profit from the already small Vita market. The financial precedent set by EA and Activision has made it difficult for small studios to survive even a single bad investment. Such is the fate of Zipper, Sony Liverpool, and the other lesser studios that have been bulldozed this year to make way for bigger earners.

Like I said; progress. Except, I can’t help feeling that everything since SOCOM II has been a step backwards. Battlefield‘s buildings fall apart nicely, and the guns sound even gunnier, but I never get the sense of community I had when I was playing SOCOM. I love using my hard-earned Masterkey in CoD, but I don’t remember the last time I logged in just to talk to someone. I don’t feel like I’m playing multiplayer anymore – all these dogtags and level-ups mean I’m always looking out for number one.

Without any of that bumph, the SOCOM II community thrived. Launching in November 2003 – in the days when you needed a network adapter and a lot of patience before you could get your PS2 online – SOCOM II quickly became the Playstation Network’s most popular attraction, pulling in a daily playership of around three-thousand (back when that kind of figure was still impressive). The online hub was simple: You logged in, scrolled the servers, picked a game you liked the look of and jumped straight in. Matches were eight-a-side – SEALs v Terrorists – and when you died, you died. You’d have to spectate until the next round started.

With respawns turned off, just leaving the base felt like suicide; the unlucky half of your team would get picked off quickly by an enemy gambit of hopeful grenades. Survive that, and the rest of the match became unbearably tense. Savvy players knew which corners of the map to stay clear of; any SOCOM II vets reading this will still feel vulnerable when they remember the beaches on Fish Hook. The rest of us just did what came natural, taking up sniper’s roosts if the map was tiered, stalking from alley to alley if things called for a more close-quarters approach. Even by 2003 standards, the gameplay was decidedly simple: The Capture the Bomb and Hostage Rescue modes were just variations on the basic Team Deathmatch premise. But although I won’t forget how much fun I had with the shooting (I still daydream about that no-scope pistol headshot I landed, even though the guy had run past my draw distance) it’s not the kills that I remember SOCOM II for – it’s the teamwork.

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Despite hundreds of hours of Seine Crossing and Prestige Mode since, nothing I’ve played online has stood up to the togetherness and neighborhood of SOCOM II. We worked together. The simple, effective chat system made it easy to coordinate attacks on the fly; rather than scurrying their separate ways to mop up as many kills as possible, your standard SOCOM team (whether they knew each other or not) would stick together, calling out targets and watching each other’s backs. This went double for clan matches. Super-serious scrimmages that took days of planning, clan matches epitomized SOCOM II‘s social scene. Tryouts and practice games would be held weeks in advance, running drills over every map and play style. We’d take it in turns to act as the opposing team; I remember hours spent purposefully zig-zagging around Foxhunt so our snipers could improve their aim.

Where customized rooms in Battlefield 3 have a big clan banner and a badly spelled personal message printed on the load screen, the private functions in SOCOM II were far more tasteful.

And when it came to the matches themselves, rules were rules. The defending team got choice of maps; an official referee would sit in the spectator box and whoever came first after three games got bumped up the leaderboard. Occasionally things would turn ugly. There were a few clan battles that ended in arguing, most of which were settled by a personal referee friend of ours – thanks, BulldogH. But most of the time, matches would conclude with a friendly sort of after party, the winning team hosting a post-game server with all the best maps and no hard feelings. The competitive element was there, sure, but it felt more like a local bowling league than the cutthroat, Hunger Gamesy clan ladders that I’ve found online since; we were all friends.

There was no pomp, is what I’m saying, no flaunting. Where customized rooms in Battlefield 3 have a big clan banner and a badly spelled personal message printed on the load screen, the private functions in SOCOM II were far more tasteful. Monday night was Crossroads night: The de_dust of SOCOM II, Crossroads was an early-week favorite for everyone who’d just gone back to work. Tuesday we’d hold clan tryouts; Wednesday we’d have an international game – the main event of the SOCOM week, UK vs. Germany proved particularly memorable when my friend Jez and I fluked the final round with an astonishing bomb rush.

Thursday was for clan matches, when you’d see a lot of password protected and “Clan X vs Clan Y Celebration” games open. If you weren’t competing that night, it was customary to sit in on the bigger fights; Omega Clan always had a full spectator box.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday were the quieter evenings, and would eventually become the preferred days for XP cheats and ninja-jumpers. Bored hackers looking for game-breaking glitches, these cozeners would be the death of SOCOM. See, what made SOCOM great was the lack of government: The Crossroads night, the cross-nation friendlies, even the weapon bans were all imposed by the community – Zipper just gave us the tools to build our own society and left us to it. And for a while, it worked beautifully. But the free-form working men’s club vibe also meant no mods, no console bans and no Valve Anti-Cheat, and as such, the hackers took over. Thanks to a few pesky exploits – like walls that could be climbed into and a certain corner of Crossroads that let you warp onto the roofs – SOCOM II became unplayable. With the network adapter growing in popularity, and more and more people taking their PS2 online, SOCOM steadily turned from thriving digital Fight Club to a cheater’s paradise, overrun by spoilsports who refused to play by our unwritten rules. By late 2005, most of the old faces had emigrated to Xbox Live; when SOCOM 3 arrived in October, SOCOM II was left empty.

I imagine that’s how it looks still, now, seven years after I last signed on. With only three hours to go until Sony pulled the plug on SOCOM for good, I was still trying to figure out a way to see it one last time: the snowfields in Requiem, the jail cell in Desert Glory, my favorite camping spot in Vigilance. All these little details are a big part of my gaming heritage – it feels like my old primary school is about to be demolished. But on an impersonal note, this is the end of an era. Console games today are about kill ratios and gun upgrades; nobody else matters so long as you get your precious XP points. SOCOM II represented something different. Ranks and stats were irrelevant – you were valued by how much people liked you. We talked and teamed up, we knew each other on first name terms; it was our own online society, and everybody knew the way.

There was a neat trick we’d use to warn the last man alive if someone was behind him: Watching from the spectator box, we’d vote to kick our surviving teammate from the game, so that when the vote flashed on the screen, he’d know he was about to get attacked. By today’s standards, it seems like a stupid idea. Why keep the guy alive when you don’t get the chance to play again until he’s dead? Why sit bored for another few minutes while some other guy grabs all the kills? Why poke your neck out for someone else? SOCOM embodied the true virtue of online multiplayer. Now, less than ten years later, I can’t think of another console shooter that’s even half as noble.

NiceGuyEddie is a budding freelance writer and wily SOCOM veteran, who wants to give a big shout out to crob, McPot, SolidSpike and all the rest.

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