SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Fireteam Bravo 2
Whatever happened to short snappy titles, I mean Quake was a good one, so was Mario Kart and although a little longer even Command & Conquer got the point across nice and easy. Acronyms help, WoW and FIFA do their job fine after all, but surely when we get to the stage where even including an acronym still doesn't get the title down below a staggering thirty characters we need to have a bit of a rethink, or a new PR department. Which brings us nicely to the new PSP tactical shooter, SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Fireteam Bravo 2, which will from now on be known as SOCOM2, at least as far as this review goes anyway (and yes Mr Pedantic, I do realise there's actually a PS2 game called SOCOM 2, but as it's almost four years old I'm guessing you'll all manage to cope with the confusion).
Set in the fictional country of Adjikistan SOCOM2 sees you once again fill the shoes of elite Navy Seal 'Sandman' while working your way through a detailed fourteen mission single player campaign that aims to put the kybosh on the corrupt governments plans for, well general naughtiness really. Each mission sees you and an AI controlled team mate work through a series of primary and secondary objectives and while the emphasis is firmly on a more thoughtful and stealthy variety of combat there's more than enough action to be found for those more used to the run and gun ethics of other shooters.
Considering the last tactical shooter I played was the frankly really rather wonderful GRAW2 on the Xbox 360, you'll forgive me a little trepidation when sitting down to play SOCOM2 on the PSP. I mean tactical shooters, especially ones where you need to quickly and easily order team mates around, rely on an intuitive and well constructed control scheme so squeezing all of the required options onto the PSP's limited button count could be a recipe for chaos. Thankfully for the most part Zipper Interactive have managed to make controlling the action remarkably simple, giving orders to team mates is well handled as is weapon selection and movement. In fact the lack of the second analogue stick proves (once again) to be the only real stumbling block since it relegates any control of the camera movement to a free look mode that needs to be engaged/disengaged manually and leaves you unable to walk while it's switched on, which can make for a frustratingly restricted field of vision at times when on any other console you'd simply pan the camera around while you walked.
As with a fair few PSP shooters, SOCOM2 has an auto aim feature built in, simply hold the R button and your crosshairs will lock on the nearest enemy while you 'X' them to their doom and cackle with power crazed laughter, probably. It's hard to see how else developers are supposed to deal with the combination of aiming and moving given the lack of a second analogue control, especially considering the fact that all the other face buttons are being used. But it does mean that battles are often less about precision skill and more and running around holding R and firing blindly while the game does the rest. As I mentioned earlier, you're never alone, your trusty team mate is always around to lend a hand when needed and you can issue limited but useful instructions to him to ensure he's more of a help than a hindrance.
The campaign's fourteen missions are set over a pleasingly wide variety of terrain; you'll battle everywhere from industrial complexes to small villages as well as venture underground when the need arises. However, despite all the variety in their settings, the levels themselves are never as open as you'd like and there's often an overwhelming sense of being herded down a narrow preset path which is a shame. You'll also have cause to curse the lack of any kind of mid-level check points or save system, some missions can take a while to play through and having to return right to the start if you die near the end or simply want to turn off the PSP at any point seems more than a little unfair and somewhat against the pick-up/put-down nature of handheld gaming. As you move through the missions you earn command equity and influence points which can be used to unlock various new weapons and abilities as you play through a level. Command equity points are earned by completing non-primary mission objectives and can be spent on some useful bonuses such as supply drops and air-raids. Influence points are similar but can be gained by saving civilians and can be spent on the black market for cheap weapons and very useful intelligence about local troop placements.
The release of the PS2 game SOCOM Combined Assault provides an opportunity for an interesting linkup via the cross-talk feature. Some of the missions in the two games are linked and by synchronising your PSP data with the PS2 you can change the course of certain missions by your actions in the other game. It's a novel idea and perhaps a touch gimmicky in reality but it's nice to see the technology being used and it'll be interesting to see where the future takes such things with the PS3.
The original SOCOM was one of the best multiplayer PSP games around, offering both Ad-Hoc and Infrastructure modes as well as voice chat over the PSP headset, friends lists and clan support so it's pleasing to see that this sequel keeps up the good family name. Up to sixteen players can play together over a total of twelve maps and seven game styles, with new modes like tug-of-war, target and intel grab now added to the mix so it's fair to say one of the best just got better.
When it comes to the looks department SOCOM2 should be proud of itself, it looks lovely (although not really noticeably different to the original), the problem is that sometimes those looks come at a cost, and the frame-rate does suffer during the more hectic fire fights. Most of the time however everything is rosy, characters look detailed and inhabit environments that, while often a bit empty, always manage to look impressive. A commendable lack of loading screens during missions keeps things flowing and the large amount of voice work is all well delivered.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened to PSP review scores in general if Sony had sensibly included the second analogue nub the console so obviously needs. So many times the general conclusion about a PSP game is 'good but let down by control/camera problems' that you have to wonder how many 60-70% games have been held back from reaching higher up the scale by the design of the hardware rather than problems with the game. SOCOM2 is one of the better ones, its few flaws are more often than not its own and it has done as good a job as any other game of working round the lack of that additional nub. But the simple fact is that there are still control/camera issues that do, at times, get in the way of an other wise highly polished experience and playing the exact same game on a PS2 would be a far easier proposition even if a tad less portable. As it is, SOCOM2 is a top tier PSP game that provides an immersive and enjoyable tactical shooter experience in the palm of your hand. It's just a little frustrating to see it being held back from true greatness by things outside of its control. 80%