What makes a great shooter? Is it the pacing between firefights? The number of weapons at your disposal? The presentation of the cutscenes? Can well-executed characters and voiceacting trump mechanics or does how you shoot your gun and kill your enemies rule all? Does the visceral feeling of battle quickly pump the blood through your veins when you play? Can you feel the pull of story drawing you into the combat so that the experience truly transcends the genre into becoming an integral part of gamer culture at large? I can’t answer any of those questions – all I know is that SOCOM 4 doesn’t accomplish any of it. SOCOM 4 isn’t awful, there is fun to be had with its tactical mechanics, but the game doesn’t do any of things above or wow me in any significant way.
The first SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals came out on the PS2 in 2002 and offered a somewhat realistic simulation of how special operatives behave in combat. The gimmick of speaking orders to your teammates through the PS2 headset never worked exactly as advertised, but SOCOM was still well-received because you were forced to carefully move through hostile territory in order to complete your objectives. The sequels on the PS2 and PSP cemented the SOCOM brand as one of the most respected by gun nuts and military types for at least attempting to portray modern engagements realistically.
Building on that reputation, SOCOM 4 sells itself as a tactical shooter – those two words are plastered all over the box art and the opening dialogue boxes of the game – but much of the realism has been blasted away in the name of accessibility. I suppose that’s why so much energy was wasted in crafting such an astoundingly unimaginative story. The campaign begins by introducing the wooden character of OpsComm in the midst of a revolution in a fictional nation in southeast Asia. After witnessing a frightfully forced confrontation between two walking stereotypes, he’s briefed by his CO that some shit is about to hit the fan. That’s exactly what happens as the rebels attack and OpsComm – short for OPerationS COMMander, dummy – takes over after HQ is blown up. The plot from that point is generally meaningless, with twists and betrayals that might be trying to make a commentary on the growing power of private armies but just end up sounding like a bad episode of 24.
As you make your escape from the city, SOCOM 4 introduces you to the mechanics of the game. You are in charge of two teams of two members each – Gold and Blue which break down to Asian and not-Asian respectively. You command your two teams to hold positions, advance to cover, or take out enemies with the D-pad and the system allows players to queue up orders so that you can time when the teams execute your commands. It works generally well in practice, but there are enough glitches to make it frustrating. Tell the Gold team to advance behind some bricks, sure fine. If you are off just a bit in your aim, they won’t take cover behind the pile but stop just short, leaving themselves open to opposing fire. You can only give orders to places that you can see with your reticule, but it is tough do so when you are in cover so you are forced to try to peak around corners to get the right angle. I constantly found myself fussing with the sticky cover controls, not only to give orders but even to just shoot where I wanted. Throughout the whole game, I wish that I had more finely-tuned control over my teams.
It must be noted that when you skillfully execute an attack that takes out five opponents almost before they fire back, all the disparate elements of SOCOM 4 coalesce to provide the unique thrill of battlefield command. When it works, it works, but those moments are few and far between because of the buggy controls. In addition, careful planning is usually unnecessary – at least on normal difficulty – because you can be just as effective blasting through enemies with little mind for the tactics of the situation.
The real downfall is that the level design never takes advantage of the unique mechanics on which the game wants you to focus. Even though the intro to each mission takes care to provide a top-down map of the location, the actual play is funneled in a very linear fashion. Your tactical choices are limited to which wood pile you should hide behind. More open maps with multiple entry points would have really highlighted the tactical gameplay that SOCOM claims it provides.
Because so much of SOCOM is about sneaking around to get the drop on enemies, it made sense on some level to add a stealth element. In several missions throughout the 14 in the game, you control the female Asian operative Forty-Five as she scouts out a location at night. The game instructs you that moving too fast or into the pool of a streetlight raises a detection meter on the left of the screen, letting the player know when you might be visible. Tossing a bullet casing distracts the guards so that you can sneak past, but even that mechanic seems weirdly dissociative from the game world. Where does she get all those bullet casings? Is she carrying around a bag of them? Doesn’t that make noise?
There’s a reason there haven’t been that many really great stealth games; such games need an internal logic and dedicated mechanics so the player knows when he’s taking risks and when to hold back. The problem with SOCOM 4‘s stealth missions is that the logic is inconsistent and ultimately feels arbitrary. I can shoot that guy in the head with my sniper rifle, and the guard five feet from him won’t notice, but if I move Forty-Five in a direction the designers didn’t anticipate, every mook within 100 clicks suddenly knows she’s there and punctures her with bullets.
SOCOM 4 was one of the first titles to be announced as Move compliant, but it doesn’t treat the motion controls any differently than other shooters. You can aim faster with Sony’s Sharp Shooter accessory, but actually controlling your movement, quickly turning, or giving orders is more frustration than it’s worth, in my opinion. SOCOM 4 also shipped with some interesting multiplayer modes, but I wasn’t able to test it all because the PlayStation Network hasn’t been functioning the entire time I was given to play the game. Take that for what it’s worth.
I can understand if these complaints feel like I’m quibbling, well, because I am. SOCOM 4 isn’t a terrible game, just achingly average. The combat feels generic, the wrinkle of commanding teams adds as much as it takes away, and the stealth missions feel like annoying work instead of a thrilling change of pace. It’s a shame that fans of more realistic shooters will have to wait for another game to scratch that itch.
Bottom Line: Sony wants SOCOM 4 to be COD in “tactical” clothing, but all they ended up with is an utterly bland amalgam of missions and cutscenes that lacks any soul.
Recommendation: PS3 Shooter fans are better off buying a multi-platform shooter or an exclusive with more polish like Killzone 3, but those hardcore fans interested in tactical shooters might get some enjoyment out of the harder difficulties of SOCOM 4.[rating=3]
This review is based on the PS3 version of the game.