Once upon a time, SOCOM meant something. It was important. Years ago, the very face of gaming changed in part in its image. Our consoles are online now, headsets for team-chat have become ubiquitous accessories, whilst in the last little while, cover-based, tactical shooters have experienced something of a renaissance. Simply by being such a solid experience, and so set apart from the day’s prevailing mechanics of play, SOCOM helped push these myriad innovations on a base of gamers resistant to change at the best of times. Way back when, then, it was more than a happy memory… so much more.
All of which seems pretty hard to believe, going from SOCOM: Special Forces – aka SOCOM 4. Thislatestiteration of the storied franchise was supposed to mark the triumphant return of creators Zipper Interactive to the fold. Oh, would have been, could have been, should havebeen- all that, and I’m not even being flippant. Because five years seems plenty long enough for a first-party studio to recharge and take stock of new console architecture, doesn’t it?
Well, evidently not.
Now there’vebeen digressions on both sides in that time. SOCOM originators Zipper went off and made last year’s so-called Massive Action Game, while once-and-future PSP devs Slant Six stepped up to the plate to make the lamentable SOCOM: Confrontation. Both disappointed, needless to say, however neither was quite the right hook to the heart SOCOM 4 represents.
It begins with a static load screen which gives no indication that it’s doing anything of the sort. You start to wonder whether your PS3 has locked up, or if there’s some sort of covert install going on. Perhaps there is! I have no idea one way or the other: SOCOM 4 didn’t care to tell me, and I couldn’t summon the enthusiasm to check, because quickly – oh so very quickly – larger issues come to light.
There are three tenets at the core of what one understands to represent the essential SOCOM experience: to wit, we have online multiplayer, tactical action, and strategic shooting. Let’s start with the last and surely the least of those, and work our way towards the first, arguably the most important. And why not? As per the example Zipper set in SOCOM 4, backwards seems to be the only way forwards, by all accounts.
It has, then, been some years since I last encountered such a cack-handed shooter as SOCOM 4. From the third-person perspective, you will wield any number of indistinct weapons with precious little in the way of weight or momentum to them; no punch, and so none of the satisfaction you’ve come to expect from popping an agent of the OpForin the eye socket. You will wield these weapons through four or five hours of missions in the dreary single-player campaign, levelling them up – thus unlocking mods such as silencers, sights and extended clips – on a per-headshot basis as you go.
Or perhaps you will not. Maybe a single, solitary mission will be discouragement enough that you entirely forgo the mean-spirited void where SOCOM 4’s campaign should be; you would be well within your rights to. But I think the point is somewhere in the middle, there: perhaps the shooting is such a nothing precisely so as to stress that you’re not really meant to be doing so much of it. You’re supposed to be approaching encounters strategically.
Which brings me neatly to the second of SOCOM’s three claims to fame: tactical action. For you see, your well-to-do Ops Commander, Cullen Gray, is accompanied at all times by one or two fireteams, codenamed blue and gold, to whom you can issue orders via a tap of the d-pad. The big idea is to scope out the various arenas you encounter, assess the particular situation before you, and according to your choice of tactics – which is to say those of a silent but violent aggressor or an unsuppressed warmonger – dispatch your dudes to certain strategically valuable positions. Only then do you go in guns blazing, or issue the appropriate attack commands.
It’d be something, I suppose – a bit Brothers in Arms, a touch Tom Clancy’s – if it worked out just so. Alas, such intuitiveness, such decency, as it applies to the give and take of gameplay, is not to be. Not in SOCOM 4, at the least, because your squadmates are idiots, running obscenely into the line of fire, as often as not, in full view of the very evil South Koreans you’re trying to avoid – though hey, they mightn’t even blink, in which case, one woe cancels out the other. Because enemies havea hateful habit of spawning only when you pass a certain arbitrary point, therefore undermining all your careful preparation, and because a hundred other things can, and routinely do, go wrong when in all honestly Zipper Interactive should know better by now, SOCOM 4 is crippled in exactly the ways SOCOM: Confrontation was.
In fact it could well be worse. I daren’t even mention the dreadful stealth missions interspersed throughout the single-player campaign, as if to break up the heart-attack of tension SOCOM 4 wishes it were evoking: it would be cause for vitriol I’d sooner spare you. And the multiplayer. Oh, the multiplayer!
If there are three tenets at the heart of the SOCOM series, and of those three a single one takes precedence, then it is certainly the team-based multiplayer with which Zipper made their name in the first place back in the era of the PS2; much the same multiplayer, in fact, Slant Six were criticised for implementing so inexpertly in SOCOM: Confrontation. Well, here it is again: the same, again. Archaic, clumsy and unfocussed.
No. Not in the least. In truth it quite beggars belief that so many early reviews have berated SOCOM 4 for its supposedly “broken” multiplayer on the grounds of certain bugs and technical hiccups on the engine end – admittedly insufferable lag, regular drop-outs and inexplicably floating objects – the vast majority of which were addressed in a day-one patch. Unless critics are now reviewing exclusively for other critics and no-one thought to clue me in on the contrary change-up, I fail to see how early code is of any relevance to actual consumers, especially in those cases where the offending issues have been fixed.
If SOCOM 4’s multiplayer is broken in any sense, it’s only insofar as the single-player is broken, because of course the online carries over many of the campaign’s multitudinous burdens. Whether you’re looking to play competitively or cooperatively – of which there are a fair proliferation of modes for both – the moment-to-moment action of this so-called action game, the shooting, still feels like waste of kinetic energy. There is thus an inescapable hollowness to encounters with real people as with hapless AI opponents; a lack of feedback, and so any implication of gratification. Movement, too, is hampered by a third-person camera so wearisome and inadequate as to put one in mind of Bethseda’s hopeless attempts in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3.
On the other hand, several of the more egregious offenses of SOCOM 4’s frankly embarrassing campaign are made moot when you take the game online. Firstly, foremostly, you’re no longer landed with a gang of malcontents determined to make a meal of your every command, which is something. There’s that, and the fact that laughable enemy AI routines are rendered redundant when actual, rather than artificial, intelligences are involved. So two somethings.
But you know, in the face of all its failings – and they are, I assure you, many and various – SOCOM 4 will nevertheless have its staunch supporters. There will be those who can tolerate the vacant gameplay, who can coax themselves into appreciating the only slightly controlled chaos of the multiplayer modes Zipper have made their bread and butter. SOCOM 4 is, I’ll say, a differently paced and differently pitched experience than most modern equivalents offer; you have to stand in respect of that. Yet much as I’d have likedto applaud its individuality, I oftentimes found myself wishing for another by the numbers third-person shooter to play in this game’s stead, because to call SOCOM 4 by the numbers would be to give numbers a bad name.
Sure, it looks pretty decent. And it sounds libellously like 24, which is to say pretty fine. However, SOCOM: Special Forces plays like a relic. It might not be broken in all the ways early reviewers have insisted, but it’s still a dreadful disappointment. I take no pleasure in saying so, but though SOCOM was an important franchise, once upon a time… it’s not, now.
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