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SOCOM 4 review: Covert oops


When it arrived on PlayStation 2 nearly a decade ago, SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs was unlike anything console gamers had experienced before. Rather than running and gunning, it focused on strategy, stealth, teamwork and a fair amount of realism.

At the time, the idea of a military shooter in which one or two shots would take the player down was more or less unheard of, but it was a great representation of the authenticity the series strove for. True to its namesake, the title drew upon the field tactics and training of the elite U.S. Navy SEALs, putting players in command of two, two-man fire teams as they snuck behind enemy lines, destroyed targets, rescued hostages and generally worked to get their job done like ghosts.

Now the first numbered installment in the series since 2005 is finally here, and if it weren't for squad commands and a familiar acronym in the title, you might not give it the time of day -- for good reason.

Gallery: SOCOM 4 | 13 Photos

There are aspects of SOCOM 4 that are competent. PlayStation Move is well-implemented and even became my preferred control method (though the Sharp Shooter attachment seemed little more than a means to ensure sore arms). In every other respect, this sequel feels like Zipper Interactive, creator of the series and developer of the superb, risk-taking and genre-advancing 256-player military shooter MAG, radioed this one in and called it a day.

On the single-player side, I trudged through 14 missions held loosely together by a plot involving some bad guys trying to get away with something bad in a country somewhere with lots of jungles. There are some attempts at characterization, humor and even some drama, but they failed too badly to warrant attention.

Sure, SOCOM 4 plays all right. There's a basic "sticky" cover system and everything else feels more or less like Generic Third-Person Shooter Template C. The actual game content -- the missions, the enemies, the levels -- just isn't acceptable by franchise standards, and is only about average for the genre as a whole.

Jungle, industrial area, village, jungle, repeat -- these are the themes applied to a heavily scripted shooting gallery. Sure, there's a basic interface for issuing fire team commands (no voice commands as in previous installments), but it more often than not seems included to maintain some tenuous connection to the franchise. Yes, the game did a good job of holding my hand through a variety of situations early on, in which my ability to command AI teammates came in handy, but after that the majority of strategy seemed to come down to sending them ahead to get shot at first. Try as I may, the ability and opportunity to set up elaborate -- even functional -- takedowns and ambushes just never came up.

Every third mission or so (which, by the by, you're no longer scored on for stealth, teamwork and the like) I'd play a game of Metal Gear Solid lite, controlling female team member "Forty-Five" on solo missions. These offered a large amount of trial and error, but were at least a change of pace, however forced.

So, there are 14 missions that all play out in this C-average way. Then there's the multiplayer.

The first game in the SOCOM series was also the first online game for PS2, earning itself a large following and major improvements to the multiplayer component game-to-game. To say that SOCOM 4's multiplayer is a step back from the franchise standard is an understatement. While the five-players-vs-AI enemies in custom campaigns wasn't bad, the competitive element has gone from unique among military-themed games to an attempt at a third-person Call of Duty.

The moving spawn points, kill streak rewards and other mechanics aren't bad, per se, but coupled with the loss of favorite game modes (escort and extraction, for example) the experience just ends up being a twitch-reaction, teamwork-eschewing madhouse. Many other long-time fans of the franchise I encountered during the course of the multiplayer beta shared my sentiments.

What could have been a return to form for the series ends up suffering an almost total loss of form. If this game didn't carry the SOCOM name it would be just another functional third-person military shooter that you might recognize when you saw it in the markdown bin after a few months. But this is a SOCOM game and, as such, is hard to see as anything more than a disappointment.

This review is based on a final, pre-retail version of SOCOM 4 provided by Sony.

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