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SOCOM
Review By:  Christopher Coey
Developer:  Zipper Interactive
Publisher:  Sony
# of Players:  1-16
Genre:  Action
ESRB:  Mature
Online:  Yes
Accessories:  Memory Card, Network Adaptor
Date Posted:  10-16-02

This is a stealth breach. You need to find and locate the portable nuclear devices within the intricate cave hideout of a Turkmenistan terrorist cell before the enemy even knows youíre there. Time is of the essence. You need to be at point Juliet ASAP, but what about the group waiting to ambush you at point Romeo? You need to trust your teammates. "Bravo, secure Romeo", you whisper into your headset. "Yes sir. Tango spotted. Tango eliminated. Hoo ha!" That leaves you, and your shadow Boomer to secure Juliet, knowing that your back is covered. And it was all as simple as speaking into a microphone. Brilliant. And this is just the single player game. Thereís a whole other world out there.

Games have bragged about their realism, and touted the phrase "immersive gameplay experience." After player SoCom youíll think all the previous hype was a huge joke. THIS game is immersive, and itís all because of the headset, and maybe a little credit to the fact that itís online!

Iíll bet at some point, maybe a couple of years ago, the executives at Sony charged their lead programmers to list all of the things they would include in their dream game. Those programmers then did what any of us would do, they made a list that was outrageous, and overly extreme because they assumed that the executives would only give them the budget for half of the things on their wish list. The programmers came up with things like: actual involvement with the US special forces, online multi-player for PS2, headset support with voice recognition <snicker snicker, "thereís no way theyíll let us do all this".> Well, guess what. This game has it all.

Most of you reading this review will probably want to hear only about the online elements, and rightly so. Iíll get around to that. But donít discount the single player game. The graphics are outstanding. The stealth model of the game is directly tied to the graphics model. Lighting, fog, sound effects, ambience, coverage, etc. all combine onscreen to help hide or reveal characters. The Navy Seals are all about quick, quiet, and deadly strikes. So itís especially important that the game supports real life stealth elements.

The sound effects are extremely intelligent as well. That may seem like an unusual way to praise sound, but itís the use of sound within the game that is really impressive. If, for example, a grenade explodes too close to your character, you will hear nothing but a high pitched ringing. This will slowly fade back into muffled sounds, until finally after a while youíll get your hearing back. The same happens visually if you witness the explosion of a flash grenade (the screen whites out.) Each gun has itís own unique sounds. And volume matters, since you never want to alert anyone to your location. Walls and buildings can muffle sound, and the volume will vary depending on the type of gun you are using. All of this is especially important when hunting, or being hunted while playing online.

Letís talk more about guns. Most of the time when playing missions youíll want to go with whatever weapon is assigned to you by HQ. But occasionally youíll want to mix it up. In addition, after completing the game youíll move up in rank and can replay all of the missions with a greater selection of weapons. And there are a LOT of weapons; each of which youíll want to give a go, since most of them will be available to you during the online game. One minor strategy hint though: in single player youíll want to snipe a lot, but itís really difficult to do once you get online (real life players donít generally stand still while you line up your crosshairs.)

Game extras are negligible. There is nothing to "unlock". However, there is a Documentary that is included on the disc, which is a nice touch. But it may be pushing things too far. Overall, SoCom is so pro-military that it seems like the extras, the gameís manual, and the game itself are all one big US Army commercial.

This game is a great example of developers listening to and responding to players. It has a solid backbone; the game engine is solid. One thing immediately noticeable (or, not noticeable at all) is that if you fail a mission and need to restart, there is zero load-time. Why canít ALL games pull this off? And the initial load times are minimal as well. One thing Iíve always hated in certain games is the restart reload. Why on earth do I have to wait for a level to load, that I was JUST playing? Well, major props to the Zipper Interactive for solving that headache.

Now the bad news. As much as I do think that the game has a solid engine behind it. There are a number of noticeable glitches. During the single player game, reloading your gun doesnít seem to work at all. The magazine changes, and occasionally you will get a random amount of ammo loaded. Then at some point youíll run out of ammo, or have a gun jam. Iím not sure how this big an error made it past the play testers. There are also some accuracy issues. Sometimes bullets landed absolutely nowhere near the crosshairs. Finally, there are some draw-though, and "ghost" polygon issues. Especially in multi-player. I wonít mention the exact problem (since I donít want to propagate the issue), but there is a pretty major glitch during the "abandoned" level online, that can lead cause negative playing experiences (NPE). However, the glitches are far and away insignificant compared to the overall quality of the game.

Finally, the online elements. I was giddy the first time I logged on to the SoCom server. First off, it was SO easy. I donít know exactly why, but I was expecting it to be complicated. I put in the game, pushed a couple of buttons, and there it was: the whole world. Know this upfront, it may be easy to join a new game, but itís not easy to stay alive. You will die a lot, and quickly. But youíll learn. And the learning curves for the online parts of this game are forgiving.

Once connected, choose a local server. [Can I give a HUGE gripe here for a second. There are a lot of servers, everything from three regions of the United States, to the United Kingdom, to countries in the Far East, including freakiní Nippon. What about CANADA! Iím sorry, but thatís a little insulting to a major share of gamers.] Once you have a server, simply choose a game. The "type" of game wonít matter initially, but later on you might have a couple of favorites. There are three types which are basically: escort, eliminate, or destroy. Destroy is a take on the staple Ďcapture the flag.í In Ďescortí, if playing the seals, you need to find and rescue hostages; if playing the terrorist you need to guard them. I think Ďeliminateí is self-explanatory. Anyone whoís played a significant number of games online over a PC may be frustrated with the lack of options for multiplayer games, but for an online launch title it does just fine. Plus, on the PC only some of the players have headsets, and few games support in-game voice chat. With SoCom, everyone has a headset, so everyone can chat. And itís damn cool to be able to discuss tactics with your teammate while trying to breach an enemy building in real-time. You canít, however, chat with opponents, which is unfortunate (but makes sense considering the potential for trash talking.)

The most important thing for any online FPS (or really, probably any online game) is the level design. Evidence of this can come from the massive community of mods that sprung up around many PC games. Zipper has outdone themselves in this area of SoCom. Each level is balanced extremely well between the Seals, and the Terrorist. For each of the 10 levels there are perfect spots for sniping, hiding, regrouping, etc. But most importantly, the levels are designed to fully exploit the graphical model I discussed earlier. Sight distances, and lighting levels, foliage and cover are used to their fullest to allow a truly tactical team experience. You could play this game for months without ever fully exploring every nook and cranny of each of the levels. How great a accolade to the developers that they can create real tension, and anxiousness when playing their game. Immersive is a term never before used accurately, until now.

HIGHS:

  • The big online launch title lives up to the hype.
  • Packaged headset adds an awesome experience
  • Single-player is as good as the online game

LOWS:

  • Occasionally glitchy
  • Inconsistent, often poor A.I.

FINAL VERDICT:

There is no question: If you own a PS2 with a network adapter, buy this game. If you think youíll be getting a network adapter anytime in the near future, buy this game. If you donít own, or plan on buying a network adapter, but want an immersive, tactics based first person shooter you should seriously consider buying this game. If this game wasnít online, and was simply a tactical FPS that came packaged with a headset it would be worth the money. More than just a game, SOCOM is an experience. You are not simply the leader of a squad whom you order around through menu systems. You actually talk to your team, and they talk back. Itís a level of realism heretofore inexperienced, and it rocks.

Overall Score: 9.3

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