It's April already and little by little the trees see the return of their leaves and nature is getting all dressed up to be ready for the summer. What better occasion then to put on our camouflage outfit for the full review of SOCOM : Special Forces, the new episode of Sony's tactical franchise. Armed with our faithful Dualshock 3 and the Playstation Move, we went through the single player campaign and brought you back our detailed impressions of the game. Update: The review is back to celebrate the game's release this week.
No heroics, it's all about the team
When the first SOCOM was released on Playstation 2 back in 2002, it featured a whole tactical dimension that was quite unusual for a "mere" console game. On the menu at the time: killing terrorists, rescuing hostages, retrieving intelligence, or destroying terrorist bases. The recipe has not changed much since then, except for the fact that the game has been designed for a wider audience today. The reason I say that is, now it is not compulsory to use your squad to complete the single player campaign. Don't get me wrong, it is of course still possible to give orders and assign different tasks but the list of commands is not that big actually. You can tell your men to reach a designated location, to fire at will or at your command and that's about it. In normal mode, you won't even need to order them around to succeed, even though their nice shooting skills can help you make your life easier on the battlefield.
Thankfully, the AI will not drive you crazy if you let them do as they like. True, sometimes they will stand in your way when shooting at a target, but overall, you won't have to yell at them and order them to retreat because of their kamikaze behavior. Should one of your squad members fall, you still have the possibility to revive him so he is back in business in no time. What is really missing though, is a real cinematographic treatment of the personality of your allies so you feel more connected to them. Park, the only woman in your team, is probably the sole exception. Indeed, aside from OpsCom the hero, she will unfortunately be the only character worth remembering. It may be due to her lovely face (I don't know why but she reminds me a lot of Grace Park that you should know from Battlestar Galactica or Hawai Five O), but it is still a shame the other squad members have not been treated on an equal footing.
45 aka Samantha Fisher
Now look at that, my last comment in the previous paragraph is the perfect transition to talk about some very specific missions involving the only female character of the game (well, minus the voice of the liaison officer that is). Park (codename 45) is indeed very gifted when it comes to infiltrating enemy territory and a few levels are dedicated to stealth gameplay only. You will be in control of the young Korean woman while OpsCom will guide you through the mission step by step. These sequences offer a nice break from the shooting gameplay as it is really complicated to stay under the radar in the other levels. The stealth missions are of course very straightforward as you are always told what to do and where to go, but after all it makes sense. One can't expect a real Special Forces soldier to operate like Snake or Sam Fisher and just do what they want.
Silent kills are obviously part of the core gameplay mechanics here and they are quite sadistic at times I must say. You can also throw shell casings to create diversion and give yourself time to slip through unnoticed. If you have no other choice, your sniper rifle may also be useful but beware of the guards as they will be on the lookout for any suspicious situation (I even suspect some of them to have some sorts of psychic powers). A stealth meter indicates whether or not you can be seen and if you have to move back to the shadows quickly for the sake of the mission. Overall, I really enjoyed playing such levels, not because they are really challenging (because they are not), but because it reminded me a bit of the old days, back when Sam Fisher showed us what it meant to be invisible.
SOCOM Advanced Warfighter
But SOCOM Special Forces is not stingy in the action department either, and I can guarantee you that by the end of the single player campaign, you will have shot at a whole lot of enemies. There are times when you have to face impressive waves of soldiers, making you feel that you are in the heart of war and chaos. Whether you have to lay siege, cover one of your men while he's trying to recover intelligence or get to the extract point before the end of a fatal countdown, you must use the cover system if you want to stay alive long enough to see the end of the game. Lead exposition can indeed be quite lethal to Ops Com and he will not take a lot of bullets before dying, even in normal mode.
Thankfully, the arsenal you are given is both effective and exhaustive. After each briefing, you are asked to choose your equipment, but you can of course switch weapons during missions if you find one that suits your purpose on the battlefield. After all, you never know when you might encounter a pissed off helicopter... Each weapon can be upgraded thanks to the experience you gain by using them. By reaching the next level, you can add new mods like a silencer or a more efficient scope.
Move, move move!
The first SOCOM game included a very special feature at the time as you could use vocal command to control your squad. No such things here but that does not mean Special Forces does not come with a nifty gadgety support since it features Playstation Move controls. It allowed us to try Sony's motion controller in a game not aimed at casual players. Even though I am not used to playing that way, I was surprised to see how precise aiming was. The navigation controller is used for character movement whereas the PS Move is dedicated to aiming, reloading, changing stance, etc.
Once you've gotten a hang of it, it becomes pretty easy to shoot and move around. To see it in action, watch the following video of the first 10 minutes of the game. It was my very first try with the PS Move and as you see, though there is definite room for improvement, I think I'm doing ok. The only downside may be button mapping as they could have done a better job to make it more comfortable. Now it all depends on your personal tastes in terms of playability.
No need to beat about the bush, the first eye-contact you get with SOCOM Special Forces is not that flattering for a PS3 exclusive, especially when you consider titles like Killzone 3 or Uncharted 2 to name but a few. Not that the game is that bad from a technical standpoint, but there are clearly some aliasing issues, poor textures at times as well as washed-out colors and unimpressive lighting effects. That being said, the game still manages to convey a good atmosphere and to offer a bit of variety in terms of locations. Now you should not expect drastically different landscapes as the story is actually set in Southeast Asia, which obviously implies geographical coherence. Some will probably find the environments to lack a bit of originality (city, jungle, bases, ancients ruins, etc), but in the end you're not there for tourism so... Character models look good, especially their faces as you can see in the game's cutscenes.
As far as framerate is concerned, it is steady as a rock, no matter what happens on screen. Animations are also rather well-executed, so you'll see the characters dash, prone or climb over an obstacle quite naturally. We could have used a slide move to facilitate getting into cover after a long run though. The weapon sounds and explosions are pretty impressive, which gives a lot of intensity to combat and voice acting is also good. You will probably recognize Nolan North's voice in the cast but he does not sound like Drake so it works pretty well. The game's music helps give the game its general pace, with a little Asian touch at times to make it more exotic somehow.
SOCOM Special Forces is a lot more generous than its predecessor in terms of content as we are getting both a single player and a multiplayer experience this time around. The single player campaign will not take you more than 7 hours to complete (it took me exactly 6 hours and 28 minutes in normal mode) but multiplayer (with online co-op and four more competitive modes among which team deathmatch or capture the flag) will certainly keep you busy for a while (we would tell you more if we had had a chance to try ourselves). If that's not enough, you can also create your own custom missions, where you can choose the objective type as well as the number of enemies. In some ways, SOCOM Special Forces reminds a bit of the GRAW series (more particularly its multiplayer mechanics), with the will to offer something more movie-like than the previous titles. Too bad the story is so basic and uninteresting as a whole, though it does not mean the game does not have very tense moments, because it does. If players dig multiplayer, then SOCOM will certainly be a lot of fun to play online, but for now, it is a bit too soon to tell.