SOCOM Confrontation’s debut on the PS3 was an eventful one, with non-functioning servers and frequent disconnections. Developed by Slant-Six Games, it took almost six months to bring the game to a playable state. When its sequel SOCOM 4 (called SOCOM: Special Forces for us) was announced, there was a glimmer of hope for the franchise thanks to development duties heading back to the original creators, Zipper Interactive. Instead of sticking to the franchise’s roots, Zipper tries to make the game more accessible to new players, while retaining the qualities that made the series so great – slow paced, tactical gameplay with emphasis on teamwork. This isn’t the first time a developer has tried to do that, and it certainly won’t be the last. The problem I have with such radical changes to the tried and trusted formula is that the game loses its identity. Sometimes, these changes are unnecessary, and in SOCOM 4’s case, completely illogical.
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Using a modified version of the engine that Zipper’s previous game MAG utilised, the game impresses visually. Crisp image quality with attention to detail on characters, environments and a plethora of visual effects grace the screen as you start the campaign. It’s definitely the best looking SOCOM game yet, although some people might be allergic to the ‘MAG filter’. Sporadic frame rate drops aside, it doesn’t have many technical issues. You play as Cullen Gray, an American soldier (with an awful Aussie accent in the EU version) leading a group of special operatives deployed in Malaysia, tasked with investigating a terrorist group called Naga. That can’t be all, can it? There has to be a twist somewhere. There is.
A forgettable plot aside, the campaign takes you on a 7-hour linear romp through varied locations, giving you generic missions like, ‘plant the bomb and proceed to the extraction point’. At least you get to witness a huge explosion in each of the 14 chapters in the campaign, so it’s not a bad thing after all (I’m serious). Gone are the large environments and the amount of freedom that was given to you in choosing or completing a mission. In its place, you get a linear campaign, which holds your hand all the way. This doesn’t quite put the campaign in the ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ category yet. I did enjoy the recon missions at night, which do a good job of breaking up the pacing. In fact, the female South Korean operative you control during these missions, known as ‘45’, has a more dynamic, likable personality than the main protagonist, and lends the campaign some respectability.
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When muscling through the other missions as Gray, you can issue simple commands to your squad using the d-pad, which tells them where to go, to take cover or to regroup. It’s distracting to do that during a firefight, and largely goes ignored. This is one of the illogical changes I was talking about earlier, because in retrospect, SOCOM 2 allowed you to issue voice commands to your AI team. The main reason the campaign doesn’t get dull fast is due to the relentless AI. You will meet hefty resistance, they will flank you, charge in, throw grenades, and force you to adapt even on the easier difficulties. The cover system is nicely executed, adequately shielding you from enemy fire. The friendly AI is pretty competent too, and doesn’t get on your nerves, but there’s something else that does – cringe-worthy voice acting and clichés-a-plenty like, “Go on ahead without me”.
There is an assortment of weapons for you to choose from, which isn’t surprising, as it’s a SOCOM game after all. You can level up the weapons in the campaign as well as the multiplayer mode, and unlock new equipment like scopes, silencers and so on to increase efficiency. Due to the sheer amount of gameplay options available to you, it feels like Zipper ran out of buttons on the DS3 controller when assigning actions to it. It’s like you have to perform a ritual just to select a different grenade. It isn’t that complicated per se, but the learning curve is slightly on the higher side. The soundtrack is sublime, complementing the South-East Asian setting well, and pumps you up during the intense action sequences, even if it does get a bit monotonous if you keep dying.
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The game has a five-player standalone co-operative mode, giving you freedom to choose missions, difficulty, and maps. While it certainly looks good on paper, it is in fact very shallow, since all you do is just shoot waves of enemies. I would be surprised if people play this more than once. I still can’t grasp the fact that there is no campaign co-op mode, as I really can’t find a valid reason for its exclusion. There are nine maps available for you online, and each one of them is well designed. I have to be honest here; I spent an unhealthy amount of time in the SOCOM 4 beta because of the splendid netcode, and it’s no different in the full game. Zipper’s strengths are quite evident here, as the matchmaking is quite fast as well.
There are plenty of competitive modes available online, which you can play under standard or classic rules (Hello, SOCOM 2). Suppression is your standard deathmatch mode and it can get quite chaotic in small maps, as the game supports 32 players online. In Last Defense, you must capture the three points located on the map, and if successful, the enemy headquarters will be revealed, after which you have exactly two minutes to place a beacon there to call in an air strike. Bomb Squad is the best of the bunch, tasking you with destroying a few bomb sites scattered across the map. Only the bomb technician, who is loaded with twice the armour and unique weapons, can disarm them, so it’s quite amusing to see people sacrificing themselves to protect him. Uplink is your standard capture the flag mode, where enemy data replaces flags. These game types have a lots of variations, so it will take quite some time to get accustomed to them all. If you can join a good clan, and there are plenty of them available as the franchise has a hardcore fanbase, the multiplayer will last you a long time.
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With Slant-Six Games staying true to the original formula, it is disappointing that Zipper chose to deviate from it, and without much success. This game does not define the online capabilities of the PS3 as its predecessors did for the PS2, and it is highly likely that the game will quickly sink into the depths of obscurity for many as it doesn’t stand out from the crowd. Zipper seems to have lacked motivation when developing this game, and it shows.