SOCOM: Special Forces
Welcome to the Far East. It seems to have become the focal point for all of the military shooter rage of recent times and SOCOM: Special Forces has become the latest to take advantage of the political instability of the region to forge an interesting storyline.
You are cast as the leader of a special ops team (in the UK release it is assumed that you are SAS and your team all have suitably hammy English accents) sent in to support a NATO peacekeeping mission in an unstable part of South East Asia and maintain the safety of international shipping lines.
It all gets a bit messy as the plot opens up and it becomes almost a cross between Tom Clancy and Metal Gear Solid as you tussle with militant rebels and PMC troops as you fight to uncover what is going on and eventually stop it.
To do all of this you need to master controlling your team and your own marksmanship as you fight your way across the countryside all in the name of world peace and economic stability. You begin with one fire team which grows to two as you encounter a Korean covert ops team lead by a headstrong woman whose codename is Forty-Five.
The game then switches between stealth sequences where you use Forty-Five to sneak into an area and wreak some havoc in order to collect intel and mess things up before you assault with the full team where you return to controlling the Ops-Com as he becomes known.
After a while it becomes intensely formulaic which means that the relatively short length of the single player campaign comes almost as a relief.
SOCOM has always been a third-person shooter and this is no different. Controls are pretty standard with the usual thumbstick and trigger arrangement applying with a couple of SOCOM's own personal idiosyncrasies applied for good measure. Holding the L2 will bring up the weapons menu allowing you to change your primary and secondary weapons and grenades over. Tapping it will quickly switch your weapons over. R2 throws a grenade when tapped or activates your laser target designator when held down and you have air support available.
Your squad is split up into two fire teams. Blue team is your SAS buddies who constitute your heavy weapons team. Gold team is Forty-Five and Chung who are stealth and sniping specialists. The game doesn't really require that you make too much of a differentiation as long as you just remember that Blue team can get in a bit closer and dirtier in a heavy fire fight.
The D-pad is how you command your squad and the tactical element of SOCOM is actually pretty basic. You can direct the individual fire teams by pointing your targetting reticule at a location and pushing the left button to direct Blue team or the right button to direct Gold team. Push down to get them to form up of you and that is about it. The only other thing to remember is to stay in cover and that is you. This is exceptionally basic especially when compared against the tactical controls presented in games like Operation Flashpoint.
Thankfully the basic tactical control options you are given is supported by a fairly robust AI which makes sure that your team mates are decent shots, don't do anything stupid and generally heal each other when they are wounded which is at least a one up on Operation Flashpoint which was let down by its AI. What is frustrating is that while you and your team members can heal a wounded team mate you getting wounded counts as an instant mission failure.
The stealth sections that revolve around Forty-Five add a bit of variety and just require that you guide her around the shadows and undergrowth, avoiding being caught and carrying out the odd stealth kill or long range headshot. Remaining unseen is vital as it is almost impossible to fight your way out of trouble once you are detected unless you are sprinting the last 20m to the extraction point.
Stealth is nothing special and again can be quite frustrating. The zoom on all the sniper rifles, even with the best scopes is pretty poor and you are still left feeling like you need to get in quite close to make sure that you hit your headshots. Miss and you'll be detected and will become a bullet magnet and, unlike MGS or Splinter Cell, running away and hiding in the shadows will not help one iota.
There is also a weapon levelling up system which pretends to allow you to customise your weapons as you get better than using them but when compared against Operation Flashpoint or the exceptionally flexible system in Army of Two: 40th Day it feels very limiting. This is most apparent when an entirely cosmetic grenade launcher appears on the fully-levelled-up M4A1 assault rifle.
It's not all bad though as the underlying gameplay mechanics and the solid, if entirely predictable storyline do draw SOCOM: Special Forces together as an entertaining cover shooter with some tactical elements. As always the draw with SOCOM is the multiplayer and many gamers will probably jump straight into that when they get the chance. It is as solid as ever and fans of SOCOM on the PS2 will feel right at home with the gameplay testing the mettle of even the most hardened online veteran.
Despite the nice little touch of localising the special forces involved in the game (the US release is called SOCOM: Navy SEALs for example) the single player elements of SOCOM are largely unremarkable. The multiplayer is enjoyable although definitely not too friendly on the novice and this does definitely show that developer Zipper Interactive, the team behind MAG, definitely was the right choice in terms of building a SOCOM that will cater for its core audience.
It seems though that Sony were looking for something a bit more as the single player (while a bit too short for my tastes) is a bit longer than the likes of Black Ops or Homefront and they have also built in Move support (which we haven't had the chance to test). It feels like SOCOM: Special Forces was meant to appeal to a wider audience and sadly it probably won't make the kind of splash that Sony are looking for.
This is a decent online shooter with a fairly bland and mildly repetitive single-player component added on. This is not quite the PS3 return we had anticipated for SOCOM but at least it's better that the awful online-only SOCOM: Confrontation. We wanted more and, in a year where Killzone 3, Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3 all arrive we're entitled to expect it.