Review: SOCOM 4: Special Forces
The SOCOM series is definitely an interesting one, because despite financial success, rising up as a cult favourite and acquiring a devoted fan base due to producing some amazing multiplayer experiences back on the PlayStation 2, it’s also a series with a shaky past, as it started to go down hill over time and significantly suffered when it made its transition to the PlayStation 3. Now, come 2011 and Zipper Interactive attempted to return the series to its best form with SOCOM 4, and while that got fans excited for a revival after the bitter disappointment that was 2008’s SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Confrontation, unfortunately the result is just another big reminder that the series is done and fading, and this latest entry fails to make any kind of lasting impact, ending up being an uninspired and empty game.
Fortunately no one will really be entering the single-player campaign hoping for a good narrative, because you certainly won’t find one here, and there doesn’t really need to be one in this type of game. However, regarding the plot, it’s a standard cliched military affair filled with mean and angry American and British soldiers with guns trying to kill bad people with guns who are just as mean and angry. The plot takes place over a six-day period in two main story acts, and there are 14 missions in total to get through in the single-player campaign. But let me skip ahead and drop the reality bomb, and that is that it would be the best move to just avoid playing SOCOM 4’s main campaign altogether, because over and above featuring a narrative you care little about, filled with characters you care less about, doing things you care nothing about, the campaign is just a repetitive and boring affair that fails to impress or entertain on any level.
Since I can’t just make bold statements like that without backing them up substantially, let’s get into the gameplay and the deeper issues plaguing this game, now that you know where I’m ultimately heading. For starters, it’s immediately evident during your first few moments of play time that SOCOM 4 feels inspired heavily by Call of Duty – perhaps inspired a bit too much at that. The gameplay is basically an exact replica of a third person CoD, which interestingly enough was a mode featured in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer’s component. To elaborate, the game’s control layout and feel is exactly like CoD in third person, except for the fact that it’s largely inferior. If comparing it to CoD doesn’t swing well with you, then just know that it’s a somewhat standard third-person tactical shooter that barely offers anything to make it unique or able to compete with the better games out there, and it really can’t do that or even get close at all.
The campaign’s missions are all structured similarly, in that they mostly involve you moving from Point A to B in a fairly open landscape confronting enemies and objectives along the way. Typically, you’ll get a squad of teammates to order around and be at your side throughout, and this is supposed to add to the critical tactical perspective of the game. Unfortunately, it’s at this point that everything just comes crashing down. Firstly, while ordering your comrades around is nicely controlled with the D-pad and can make for intriguing tactical approaches at times, the system, much like the entire game, just feels shallow and lacklustre. The friendly AI isn’t all that clever, enemies have a natural tendency to target you relentlessly as you’re probably the ugliest soldier, and interaction and control of squad mates just feels limited, as there isn’t much you can do with them. Due to tactics being so limited and enemies hating you, the most effective course of action to take is to simply send your allies out into the open to die so that you can distract your enemies and pick them off from a distance. Rinse and repeat and you have a winning formula – until you get to the stealth missions that is.
Speaking of, sending your allies out to die can be quite annoying, because while you’re able to revive fallen squadmates, for some unfathomable reason reviving them requires your crosshair to be pointed at a specific area on their bodies rather than just being close to them. So it will happen that you’ll be dumbly moving your reticule around trying to find the one designated spot at the exact distance in order to revive someone, all the while getting shot at or increasingly frustrated. Fortunately, you’re able to leave your fallen friends for your other friends to revive, but this becomes unfortunate if they’re all down. What’s worse is that this bizarre issue applies elsewhere in the game as well, when it comes to interacting with most objects. This is but one example of the many, many small frustrations and perplexing flaws that are littered all over this game. Another example would be that when your health gets low, which is after like one or two shots since this game is opting for realism, your entire screen becomes red with annoying blood blotches splashed over it, making it hard to see anything at all. And for a third example, the cover system is irritatingly hit and miss, as enemies at times can cleanly shoot you through solid cover and the system can be clunky and unresponsive.
For the most part, the campaign is just boring and unexciting, with shallow and repetitive gameplay making up its entirety. Aside from the standard and linear open war-zone missions, there are a couple of stealth-focused levels that simply define what it is to be a chore. They’re obnoxiously slow and dragged out, utilise extremely basic and dated stealth mechanics, such as just passing patrols by sticking to the dark, and fail to really bring out the tactical and tense atmosphere that is expected when playing the role of a predator or silent assassin. Much like the whole game, the stealth missions lack any kind of intensity or immersion, and it won’t take long before they begin to bore you and get on your nerves. Overall, practically all aspects of SOCOM 4’s gameplay just give you the feeling that you’ve played all of it before in better ways and in better games, and there really is nothing that stands out in the main campaign. At best, the campaign is just a functional experience where the gameplay lacks a great amount of substance and depth, and at worst it’s pretty much just a bad experience that should have been dropped to favour the multiplayer components.
The multiplayer component of this game is where things could have turned out pretty decent, but unfortunately they don’t due to a lack of content, game modes and features and a disturbing display of bugs, lag and technical grievances. Firstly there are the co-op online missions to get involved in, which are actually quite fun and addictive – at least, the first few times before the novelty wears off. It’s disappointing that the multiplayer as a whole in SOCOM 4 received less attention than it could have due to the fact that Zipper Interactive spent time and effort working on the lame single-player experience, but such is life and this is the result we’re left with. Basically, the co-op missions put you and your friends in a map and task you with an objective such as assassinating a target or extracting important intel, but it’s obvious that there is a definite lack of substance and depth to the whole affair, and sadly after you’ve played through a few co-op missions you’ll most likely tire of the whole mode. It is fun while it lasts though, but it’s nothing revolutionary.
There are four multiplayer modes on offer, ranging from the standard and expected Team Deathmatch mode (Suppression) and a capture the flag mode (Uplink) to the more interesting and diverse mode Bomb Squad, which is probably the only one that stands out. In a nutshell, one member of the team is given the responsibility of being the bomb technician and as a result is suited up with a heavily padded suit. The bomb technicians’ team has to protect them as they advance to three bombs located around the map in order to defuse them. It’s quite an interesting and enjoyable mode if you get a good round going, but it can easily be spoiled or ended prematurely by a retarded technician or a rather solid bullet. SOCOM 4 features a ranking system, if you’re actually planning to get into it, as well as a weapon progression system, where the more you use a weapon the more mods and upgrades you unlock specifically for it. There’s no doubt that it’s a sound system, and is naturally better included than not, but it mostly feels stock-standard.
Unfortunately, SOCOM 4’s multiplayer component can only give you glimpses of decency, but nothing more than that. It tires itself out due to a lack of features, game modes, maps and depth, and overall it just doesn’t feel anywhere close to the game it could have been. Sure enough you can glean some entertainment out of it, but it’s largely short-lived fun and there is nothing to keep you here after you’ve satisfied whatever curiousity you may have towards it. SOCOM 4 in all honesty just doesn’t feel like it even attempted to compete with the top gunners of today, and it won’t be too long before it’s forgotten and tossed aside, failing to have any kind of lasting impact. I can’t even call this much of a disappointment really, because it’s sadly just underwhelming and poor in most regards, even more so since it’s trying to fit in with the caliber of games available on the market today, and with the high standard that PlayStation 3 exclusives demand.
On a graphical front, SOCOM 4 really looks dated and unimpressive. The graphics are sub par, and barely stand up and compare to the host of other PlayStation 3 exclusive games around. It lacks polish, detail and depth, and is just hard to accept as a 2011 title. The levels are bland in their design, and the environments and models are often ugly. Rather annoyingly, enemies seem to blend in with the environment, and it’s hard to pick them out, especially at a far distance. The game does support 3D, but it feels completely unnecessary, as it hardly affects the visual presentation at all and gives one the feeling that it was thrown in for the sake of it. I stuck to playing without it, because it was better that way and there was no “seeing double” issues to deal with, which came about when using the 3D function. The audio in SOCOM 4 is also hit and miss, as the game’s rather bland sound effects fail to bring the battleground to life or immerse you in the experience, and the voice acting is rather annoying, but the musical scores are quite enjoyable.
For some inexplicable reason, SOCOM 4 takes a damn long time to get to the main menu after launching the game. First you have to sit through the usual PlayStation Move information screens, then there’s a SOCOM wallpaper display that lingers without any sound for much too long before fading out to make way for a blinking saving icon, which gets followed by the usual autosave explanation screen. Then, if that isn’t enough already, you have to go through a couple of developer, publisher and Sony splash screens and only then do you get to the main menu. This probably sounds like nitpicking right now, but it really isn’t if you actually consider how long it takes you to just get to the main menu of the game. Perhaps this is a message in itself, and can be seen as the game trying to make you turn away from it before it’s too late.
Then there is PlayStation Move support, which adds about as much value to the game as 3D functionality does. Usually, Sony’s peripheral is difficult to get used to, but at times it offers a very different and intriguing way to play. It’s been hit and miss with games as a whole, even though it proved to be fantastic in Heavy Rain and enjoyable in Killzone 3, as it generally always ends up taking a backseat to the standard controller. However, in the case of SOCOM 4, Move is not at all fun to use. While aiming and movement feels fine and satisfactory, it’s really uncomfortable and unintuitive to play through the game using Move, especially because of the controller’s button layout and the game’s need for easy controlling of your squads and position. It’s best to stick with the standard controller, as it’s just the better way to play.
SOCOM 4 is a game that aspired to step up and revive a fading series, but in the end it unfortunately only sped up the process. There is nothing here that hasn’t been done before and done better in a wide variety of other games, including its own distant predecessors, which is a shame. SOCOM 4 is a functional but lacking shooter at best, and an overall limited package at its worst. Take your pick, but it isn’t really worth your time or money either way.