Review / SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALs’ single-player (PS3)

*Note* Much like our Killzone 3 review, there won’t be any SOCOM online time until after the game is released. We’ll have impressions for you then.

My life would be a lot simpler if I had one huge elaborate stamp with a review for your everyday shooter written on it. I’d just fill in the blanks with the name of the game, slap it on a piece of paper and I’d have saved myself an hour or so. Said stamp would apply to SOCOM 4: US Navy Seals, the latest PS3 entry in the franchise.

Maybe that’s a little unfair though. Not because the game isn’t generic (the car parks, machine guns and cover system will argue that for me), but because it didn’t used to be like that. This was once a tactic-heavy, punishing thrill of a shooter. With its latest entry though, it drifts into that so-so realm of being just a shooter, and that’s something that needs discussing, rather than simply stamping.

See, developer Zipper Interactive’s last game, MAG, was exactly what we’d expect from the team; it made no compromises in its strict tactical gameplay despite wanting to appeal to as wide a market as possible. Given that SOCOM is already established as a fairly niche game, you’d think the same approach would be taken here, right? Wrong.

You notice it pretty much straight away with the inclusions of what people call cutscenes and characters. No more “faceless soldier A” carrying out “simple objective B”. No, now it has to be “might as well be faceless soldier A” carrying out “objective that was explained in the last cutscene you weren’t listening to B”. There’s a plot in place, but it’s filled with bog-standard characters that I’m meant to be caring for, I just don’t. It’s not what I want a SOCOM game for, I want a SOCOM game to slowly crawl through a jungle or desert, picking off targets and planning out fire fights to get the best possible results.

Fortunately, when it comes to gameplay, some of that’s still here. Everything’s been dumbed down and then dressed up in the supposed “drama”, but you can still order your team around effectively and carry out smart, satisfying battles. Throughout the six hour campaign you’ll be able to do a few things that do indeed make you feel like a US Navy SEAL, like setting up ambushes or defending targets while waves of enemies surround you. It’s here that SOCOM 4 is at its tactical best, getting you to slow down and think rather than charge in, especially on higher difficulties. Sadly it now has to be done with a bunch of loud mouthed, swear filled squad mates, but it’s still there.

In some places there’s a welcome bit of variety, too. Stealth missions with the silent but deadly Forty Five are decent fun, though they don’t really give Sam Fisher a run for his money. Add in some satisfying weapon customisation and you’ll be able to take your own spin on a lot of the objectives too.

Move support makes its way in, though we’re not sure who’ll end up using it. That said, it works, but it’s no DualShock alternative.

But it’s the dumbing down and dressing up that really hurt this title. The tactical edge is nearly shot dead by a few questionable design choices, like a regenerating health system. It’s the meat and potatoes or any shooter these days, but SOCOM isn’t meant to be a meat and potatoes shooter. What good are all the tactics and realism in the world if you can simply duck behind a bit of cover and seemingly breathe off those bullet wounds?

And by dressing up I mean red carpet at the Oscars style. For example, some of the more elaborate set pieces are ridiculous for this game, clearly meant to drop your jaw but instead feeling out of place and rough around the edges. The pace of game gets a sudden mix up early on when you run head first into a fight with a battleship. Zipper got a little Nathan Drake mixed in with my SEALs; suddenly I’m ducking huge explosions and shaking them off like I’m Rambo while charging past enemies in case I get blown to smithereens. If this were the SOCOM of old I would have been blown in smithereens, full stop. I would get a second to blink and then cannon fire would hit me and there’d be pieces of me all over the screen. Now if you get hit by cannon fire you just duck behind a wall and all is fine again.

It’s all in the general atmosphere the game shakes up too. Having walked my squad into a trap, the dramatic music suddenly pumps up, squad mates start spouting out foul mouthed curses, and a timer emphasises the fact I have to absolutely leg it down to the other end of the level. Add a first-person view and someone start calling me Soap and we’re not far off the dreaded CoD juggernaut that everyone wants to be.

Sometimes that simplification helps; ordering squad mates around is less of a task this time thanks to the easy to use d-pad system that lets you place your two teams anywhere and fire at any target. Mastering the system will give you the edge in battle although that’s dependent on if your team mates want to obey you or not. Sometimes they’ll walk right round the cover you ordered them to get behind and into a stream of bullets and sometimes they’ll just flat out ignore you.

Messing up like that will get your team mates dead and yourself deader. But if your squad falls you can’t revive them… I think. When I first popped in SOCOM I had no problem healing downed team mates but since then a patch has seemingly stopped me from doing so. You can’t order others to heal them either; they’ll do so of their own, pretty random accord.

That’s one of a number of rough edges to the game. I’ve experienced a few crashes throughout the campaign, weird reload animations where the magazine never leaves the gun, graphics that can best be described as gritty (which, given that this is released after Killzone 3, is pretty dire), and some truly cringe worthy voice acting. By far the weirdest presentation point is that voice acting, which is – mind blowingly – different in between the UK and US versions of the game. Perhaps Zipper thought it would help UK audiences to relate to the characters to get accents closer to home, but they’re so out of place and laughable that it does more harm than good. This is a game that clearly could have used a few more months of polishing time.

It hurts me to hammer on SOCOM 4 like this, it really does. At the core of the game there’s a fun, if flawed, shooter in place that I do like, but it could have been so much more. SOCOM is no longer SOCOM with a patriotic trumpet and military drum, it’s SOCOM with an air guitar and a “hell yeah!” thrown in. It sort of makes a somber statement about the industry today; can we afford to develop these niche titles at an AAA level anymore or do we have to fall behind the CoD template, maybe ticking a few extra boxes along the way? It’s looking more and more like the latter of these two suggestions is coming true.

Bless SOCOM 4’s heart, because it does try, the poor thing. But Zipper’s return to the franchise should have meant a return to the punishing game that we all knew and loved, not a dumbed down version so that less experienced gamers could enjoy it. It’s like taking Demon’s Souls and slapping Barney the dinosaur in there.

Still, before we go ahead and order you to avoid, we’ll wait to check out the online portion of the game, which for all we know could turn things around drastically.

+ Solid if generic campaign
+ Nice variety in stealth missions and weapon customisation
+ Some simplifications like the squad commands are better

– Some aspects are completely broken
– Campaign loses the identity that past games were built on
– Presentation a step behind current PS3 exclusives