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SOCOM: Special Forces Review

22 Apr 2011  by
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Credit where credit’s due: SOCOM did wonders for pushing online console play. The original game, which launched way back in 2002, used the PlayStation 2’s online adapter and headset to create what I believe was one of the first internet-capable shooters on console. While we’ve had tonnes since then, SOCOM was there at the beginning and I think the series holds a special place in the hearts of a lot of gamers for that very innovation.
SOCOM: Special Forces (SOCOM 4) doesn’t really do anything particularly innovative or interesting. In fact, it’s probably the single most average game I’ve played in years. I guess that’s an achievement of some sort, but probably not the one the developers were going for.

The plot is typical modern-day military thriller guff. As a gruff NATO operations commander known as “OpsCom”, you blast your way through an unnamed – and rebel-strewn – Asian country located somewhere along the economically-important Strait of Malacca. Predictably, everything goes tits up, and by the time the second mission rolls around the fate of the Strait rests squarely on the shoulders of you and your squad: two close-to-mid range British soldiers, and two mid-to-long range Korean soldiers.
If you’re allergic to clichés you may need to reach for the antihistamines: within the first couple of hours you’ll have heard such gem-studded dialogue as the barked “You’ve got a problem with authority, and that makes you a wildcard. That gets people killed!” That’s far from the only example of dialogue that could’ve been lifted from an action movie about a good cop who doesn’t play by the rules.
In short, if you’re expecting anything new or shocking in terms of plot or characterisation, you’re going to be a tad disappointed. It’s not particularly bad – it’s just… well. Average. The voice-acting is perfectly solid (and there’s a wonderful touch in that most in-mission dialogue was recorded twice, resulting in the lines playing as either a whisper or as an out-of-breath shout based on whether you’re sneaking or running at the time) but the script and overarching plot arc never rise above mediocrity.
It’s the gameplay that counts, though, and this is where things get even more average.

Apparently, SOCOM 4 is a tactical shooter. Realistically, SOCOM 4 is a cover-based third-person shooter with allusions towards tactics, in that you can use the D-pad to order your two squads around separately. You can have them advance and take cover behind terrain, or have them target certain enemies and open fire with another flick of the D-pad. Disappointingly you never really need to use this, for two reasons. Firstly, your squads are usually more than capable of looking after themselves, and your orders appear to do little but confuse the hell out of them. Secondly, they’re incredibly brain-dead when it comes to interpreting what you want them to do.
Telling them to take cover behind a barrier may result in them taking cover on the side nearest the enemies. Asking them to head up a ramp has, on one memorable occasion, caused them to charge backwards down the ramp and hide around the corner. Orders might inexplicably cause them to stop shooting. Oh, and if I hear them shout “I need to move or I’m dead!” when there are no enemies around just one more time, I may lose what little sanity I have left. In short, it’s not exactly Rainbow Six.
The game also suffers from being heavily scripted, which means you rarely have the opportunity to set up clever plans anyway, and the occasions when you do need to employ tactics feel more like a puzzle game with one correct solution than they do a tactical problem.
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The vast majority of the gameplay is competent, but not exceptional. For the most part, combat is made up of you hiding behind cover in a bland jungle/city/industrial environment, and popping out to take pot-shots at swarms of enemies. If you get hit, you duck behind cover until you heal up (yes, regenerating health is in). Aiming itself is serviceable but a little clunky. Weapons don’t feel particularly powerful, particularly in the later stages of the game when the only reliable way to kill someone is to shoot them in the head. The camera has issues whenever you back towards a wall. These are simple and disappointing problems, but worst of all, there’s none of the adrenaline or panache present in other shooters – whether third or first-person.
You hide, you pop up, you shoot, you wait for your health to regenerate. You might order your companions to move, or fire on a particular target. You revive a fallen ally. You advance. Repeat.
SOCOM 4 attempts to break up the shooty bang-bang action with the inclusion of squadless stealth missions, which are the absolute low point of the game. Taking control of Forty-Five, the female Korean squad member, you’re occasionally asked to sneak around a variety of enemy bases by staying low, moving slowly, and crouching in foliage.

That plan rarely works out because the enemy’s detection AI follows some sort of absurd moon logic, and so too does the on-screen bar that shows how hidden you are. You’re almost invisible when standing in the corner of a well-lit room, but if you’re lurking in the shadow of a tank, outside, at night, then you might as well send off flares because everyone knows where you are anyway. Frustrating trial-and-error ensues. Did I mention the stealth kill animation in which Forty-Five stabs a man in the genitals? I’m not sure how that’s stealthy or a kill, and it’s one of the many things that seems like it’s in the wrong game.
The campaign is average. It doesn’t do anything special but – trial-and-error stealth missions aside – it never really offends. It has as many nice moments as it does terrible ones. There’s even a dose of replayability with the Custom Missions, which let you vaguely define four parameters (map, mission type, enemy count, difficulty) to create a brief challenge. Ironically, the lack of scripting makes these feel a lot more tactical than the main game itself, and you can even play these through co-operatively with friends. It’s a blast for a short while, but the limited customisation means these missions get quickly repetitive.
Which leads to the next point: the real replayability is surely in what has, since the very first game, been SOCOM’s ace in the hole – multiplayer – but after everything I’ve written so far, would you care to guess as to the quality? Bingo! It’s pretty damn average.

You and 31 others fight it out across wide-open maps that cater to players of every bent: there’s usually high ground for snipers and low trenches for those who love assault rifles. By and large the action is standard but overly chaotic; randomised spawn points and the masses of players mean that there’s a good chance you’ll spawn in enemy crosshairs, and co-ordinating with your swarm of teammates is rather tricky.
The complete chaos, killstreak-based airstrikes, and impossibility of meaningfully working together with your team are fun for a little while but quickly start to bore, and feel massively at odds with the “tactical” manifesto of the gameplay. Throw in regenerating health and a cover system and you end up with what seems, disappointingly, like a cookie-cutter third-person shooter. Purists can turn off some of these features in “classic mode,” but this still doesn’t help SOCOM 4 rise up to become the clever team-based game it clearly wants to be.
SOCOM: Special Forces was obviously designed to be a more accessible experience than its predcessors, but I suspect this will prove to be a mistake. Long-standing SOCOM fans are likely to protest against the changes to the mechanics, while those new to the series are going to wonder what all the fuss was about. The game will certainly provide a weekend’s entertainment, as it’s easy to get mindlessly swept away once you get to grips with how it works, but “mindless” is not a word I should ever have to use when describing a tactical game, and there are oh-so-many better options out there when it comes to pseudo-realistic modern day shooters.

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