SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Tactical Strike
It's probably fair at this early point to offer up a hearty round of applause for the idea behind SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Tactical Strike. The decision to remove direct control of individual soldiers and replace it with a kind of remote point-and-click approach, rather like a really zoomed in RTS, is a fantastic one. The loss of direct control takes with it all of the camera/aiming issues PSP shooters fall foul of while pushing the deep and involving squad tactics of previous SOCOM games to the fore.
So, bravos all round for the people at Slant Six Games. Well done. Of course it would have been nice if you'd also taken the time to ensure that all the fancy tactical planning actually worked as it should all the time as well. If you had we'd probably be talking about a truly great game rather than am often broken one with a great central idea.
Since you don't have direct control of any units you're reliant completely on the AI to interpret and carry out your orders without doing anything silly. Unfortunately all too often you'll find the AI acting less like a highly trained member of the elite Special Forces and more like a twelve year old on their first paintball trip. Sometime the problem is as basic as blatantly ignoring your command, even on the tutorial mission it took about ten increasingly frantic button presses to get my team to break a window and fire through it even when the game was specifically asking me to. Other times the AI appears to have blatant bugs in it, for example it's not unusual to see a soldier walking around the wrong side of a bit of cover to get to his destination because no doubt the path finding routines decided it was a slightly quicker route regardless of the fact he'd be in full view of the enemy and almost guaranteed to get shot down. Equally as frustrating are the times when you've split up your team to perform an elegant pincer movement only to be told at the point of attack that your units can't fire as they risk hitting members of their own team despite the fact that it would take a misfire of spectacular proportions for such a tragedy to occur.
To add to the frustration the check-pointing also is painfully unfair for a handheld game (hell, any game really) with half an hour or so between points not uncommon once the game gets going and no option to save at any point. To make things worse once you die the game doesn't automatically start you back at the last checkpoint, oh no, it drops you back to the main menu and forces you to manually re-load your last save. Since this process takes over a minute you can probably image the cursing involved when you've died cheaply, especially when the dodgy AI is at fault.
It doesn't help matters that the controls don't quite feel as intuitive as they should. I appreciate the amount of options Slant Six Games are trying to fit onto the limited available buttons but in the heat of battle the convoluted combinations of button taps and holds, fiddly menus and context sensitive commands all add up to a control scheme that you never really feel in command of. The L and R buttons control unit selection while you guide your currently selected soldier(s) around the battlefield by placing a destination target using the analogue stick and telling them to move to it. Although the camera remains stuck near your squad the placement target can be guided further a field via the on screen map. The only downside is that this 'imaginary' marker obeys real world physics for some strange reason so, for example, you can't simply push it through a wall into a room you have to guide it around till you can find a doorway to move it through. This obviously stops you asking your troops to move somewhere that's impossible to physically get to but it makes movement in tight spaces a pain in the neck.
While the basic move and fire commands can be issued with simple button taps holding down the relevant buttons will open up a menu of more specific orders (move with stealth, leg it, move with covering fire, etc.) and these can also be delayed till you give the signal. When combined with the capability to split up your group of four soldiers into pairs or individuals this ability to delay orders can make for some fairly complex tactics to be worked out and deployed on your say so, resulting in some hugely satisfying encounters when you see your plans unfold as expected.
That sense of satisfaction is the paradox in Tactical Strike, for all of my moaning there are times when everything works, when the AI does what you expect it to, when the controls respond as you want and at those times Tactical Strike is ace. To be fair its ace a lot of the time, we're not talking about a completely broken experience here just one that has moments of rage inducing stupidity in the midst of a lot of top notch gaming goodness. The question is, are they enough to ruin the game as a whole? I'm tempted to say yes, the fantastic half hour of tense tactical action you've just played through doesn't stop you wanting to throw your PSP at the wall when your team do something stupid through no fault of your own just as your coming up to a checkpoint or end of level. But, to the game's credit, once you've calmed down you'll find yourself reloading and starting again almost despite yourself which has to count for something.
There's a nice range of multiplayer options to enjoy too and it's cool to see infrastructure mode supported as well as Ad-Hoc. Controlling your full squad of four soldiers alongside and against other players doing the same is an interesting experience. As with a lot of more tactical games the quality of the online experience depends a lot on your fellow gamers. Playing with someone whose only tactic is all out frontal assault is as boring as you'd imagine because the game is really not designed for that all out action approach, but if you can find a decent match then there's a lot of fun to be had. It's not all good though, it's also fair to say that the increased pace of multiplayer games does throw some of the control and squad AI issues even more into focus.
Taking it as a whole its blatantly not perfect, in fact it's almost shoddy at times, but there's a nugget of gold inside SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Tactical Strike that shines through bright enough to almost make up for the numerous problems. If you're willing to put up with the issues there's a lot of fun to be had here, if you're not (and I have to admit I fall into this category) then keep an eye out for any future sequels because if the developers can fix the AI and the controls then the next one will be fantastic.