By Chris Matel
I remember August 27th, 2002 almost too well. Frantically scouring every retail store with a gaming department, I was lucky enough to pluck one of the last two remaining Playstation 2 Network Adapters in my area, along with a copy of Zipper Interactive's SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals. It had only taken a brief, single-column preview to pique my interest a few months prior, but on their launch date, I became an early adopter in the process of upgrading to a broadband service.
This personal anecdote only escapes edits because, for me, SOCOM was one of those games: a soul-stealing, food-depriving product. Not for its voice-enabled single-player element, but its terse, one-life-to-give online competitions. It's follow-up, SOCOM 2, only re-invigorated addictive compulsions after glitchers and cheaters had taken roost to all but kill the experience.
That said, as one of the earliest online console shooters, I know I wasn't the only one to be that far down the rabbit's hole.
Between clan ladder tournaments, forum dramas, and being a victim of the 'nade trick, it was almost impossible to set aside my nostalgia while driving along SR 520 en route to Zipper's Redmond headquarters. As Travis Steiner, lead designer on SOCOM 4, went over key points in his presentation to our group, indecipherable scribbles made up my notes, since to our immediate right, four rows of flat-screens glowed with the PS3's full-fledged entrant of the series, drawing my attention. His structured message wanted to remind us of the franchises' team-focused direction; how it's designed to be authentic, rewarding tactical strategies for those who rely on caution and planned movement; and why it's billed to be innovative by supporting locked-in 30 frames per second 3-D and Move gameplay, complete with an originally designed peripheral (in partnership with Guerrilla Games), the Sharpshooter.
This was all the usual preparatory banter, however. Soon enough a feature list followed wherein general knowledge detailed how SOCOM 4 will support 32-player competitive gaming, with modes like: “Suppression,” a standard team deathmatch variant; “Uplink,” essentially its version of capture-the-flag; “Last Defense,” an objective-based game type where sides square off to secure three positions, active a two-minute timer, and attack to plant a bomb in the enemy's base; and a fourth, unannounced option. A plug for a GameStop exclusive was made, likely insuring pre-orders for any old-school player similar to myself, since in addition to the 9 included maps, those who opt for it get access to “Abandoned,” a SOCOM favorite. Finally, passing mention of 5-player cooperative gameplay rounded out the briefing—it was time to play.
The schedule for the preview included four rounds dedicated to experiencing SOCOM 4's competitive multiplayer. Though the demo was strictly reserved for DualShock 3 gaming and wasn't Move inclusive, the four maps and three modes showed off the game's ability to combine the 'old' with the 'new.'
Since its introduction 9 years ago, the online shooter landscape has developed a host of standards most gamers expect nowadays. Things like regenerative health, quick respawns, large arenas, and customizability make up only a short list. SOCOM 4 openly adopts these de facto qualities, inherently contrasting the design of the series' premiere. Suppression matches played along the sprawling, half-destroyed highway overpasses in “Rush Hour” and close-quarter junkyard of “Collision,” relayed how this is accomplished. Two teams of 16 players (Spec Ops versus Insurgents) hopped from showdown to showdown as teammates either spawned on the front lines next to their buddies, or in safe areas in designated bases.
“Rush Hour” also demonstrated how SOCOM 4 integrates cover and its destructability, features the single-player side is banking on to liven up its cinematically cut story. On this map, empty cars might provide protection, but they also can only be a shot away from becoming a squad's biggest threat. Their explosions can either add to or take away from your experience points earned. That means, just like regenerative health, SOCOM 4 learns from its contemporaries by implementing a rewards system linked to a ranking ladder. While overall experience boosts your levels, doing so unlocks more weapons to employ. In addition, each individual weapon gains their own “MOD” levels, which unlock designated attachments to equip.
What looks to be the easiest way to climb up the command chain are games of Last Defense. Moving away from the urban settings, our teams took turns attacking and defending the three points of interest in the jungle environment of “Assault and Battery.” A verdant, bright jungle pops with greenery overtaking concrete WWII architecture, namely bunkers and elevated gangways. Last Defense is a game mode necessary of teamwork. Capturing three middle-ground objectives isn't necessarily the hard part, it's the two-minute window the attacking team has to bomb their enemy's base before the whole process resets that creates the challenge.
The chaos of these games afford you a chance to call in an airstrike if you're patient enough to sit back and pick off a streak kills. You only get access to one per life and friendly fire is set as a default, however, thus SOCOM 4 doesn't play as ordinance-heavy as some modern shooters.
If that's not tactical enough though, there are always “Classic” games. While the 'new' appropriately cherry picks features today's gamers will enjoy, it's the return to the 'old' that really caught my attention. Sure, my reaction is a bit skewed, the full disclosure above admits as much, but with all of today's inflated kill-to-death ratios, the shooter genre could use a bit of a slower pace. Zipper showed they can do big with MAG, but the deliberate pace of the classic, 8-versus-8 SOCOM is like a needed dose of Ritalin. Shown on a re-designed “Abandoned,” with its Thai theme, Classic games strip away the recharging health and unlimited lives. Here, once you're dead, you have to wait until the next round to get back into the action. Full-throttle, guns-blazing still isn't the preferred style of play.
With a ton of textual and asset changes, “Abandoned” is a benchmark in showing how the games have changed from a visual standpoint. For better or worse, no longer are players able to rely on the engine's shading or muted draw distances for concealment. The uptick in graphical fidelity didn't allow the map's waterfall to be a viable hiding spot, either. In this controlled setting, everything ran smoothly and looked sharp—but for all it's eye candy, the reticule had a floaty quality with a camera that was almost awkwardly third-person, as panning it around in tight spaces caused it to squish up behind my character. This appeared most likely an effect in optimizing for the Move to be used with the third-person perspective, without any options to correct.
That doesn't mean there aren't other settings to toy around with. Quite the opposite, especially when considering multiplayer variables. In a move to further appease both the newcomer and returning veteran, gameplay settings can be mashed up in custom games. Clans can challenge and play other clans how they want since almost everything can be tweaked: ability to engage cover (yes, no), respawns (yes, no), health regeneration (yes, no), damage multipliers, speed multipliers, friendly fire (ON, OFF), and restricted weapons. Not to mention, according to the game's Director, Seth Luisi, Zipper will be monitoring user-created settings with the possibility of throwing them into the general matchmaking queue.
On April 19th, Zipper will be releasing an interesting contrast not only to MAG, their last project, but their previous SOCOM installments as well. Not necessarily because it's departing from the PSP realm or integrating both Move controls and 3-D capabilities, but because it's a different kind of multiplayer experience than their previous console versions. The more modernized direction might draw attention away from what made the first couple of titles so intense and enthralling, but thankfully the Classic mode finds a matchmaking filter.
This one goes out to >Z<^>FU<^>, *tB, I'm smellin' a rematch. Any other SOCOM vets out there let us know on Twitter @gamers_hell