For years, PC users have fought off the scourge of terror with Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six series. Featuring counter-terrorism squads utilizing the most modern equipment, players traveled to numerous locations quelling threats to freedom. Considering the current global instability, organized acts of chaos and fear, and imminent conflict in Iraq, there’s no wonder that realistic combat titles hold new fascination for gamers everywhere. Fortunately, console players hungry for their taste of warfare can get satisfied with SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals.
SOCOM should actually be classified as two games by itself: A solid story-based single player, and a multi-genre multiplayer title. Single player missions avoid the recent unpleasantness of today by setting the action four years into the future. A multi-national terror organization known as the Iron Brotherhood is attempting to achieve their goals through economic infrastructure destruction, arms acquiring, and other malicious means. Players are cast as the leader of an elite SEAL team tasked with foiling the Brotherhood’s plans in 12 missions scattered across the globe.
Before each assignment, your team is briefed with specific background information on each level. Here you’ll be briefed upon your required objectives, such as demolition or information gathering, and secondary tasks, such as enemy communications disruption. Most of these are highlighted on your reconnaissance map, which typically consists of base layouts or blueprints with indicators placed upon them. Depending upon the mission, it’ll be necessary to take a trip to the armory to outfit your team, which not only allows you to customize your firearms, but bring additional items like specialized explosive, extra ammo, and other effects. Flashbangs, frag grenades, silenced semi-automatic guns and sniper rifles are just a few of the arms you can load each member of your team with.
Once you’ve made your selections, your team of four SEALs will be dropped at a pre-determined entry point. The soldier you’ll primarily control and his partner will always be assigned to team Alpha; the other soldiers, team Bravo. While you may have become accustomed to the fast-paced action of first person shooters where battles come down to you versus every other soldier on the map, SEALs operate by partnered teams, so you’ll always have at least one person covering you at all times. Of course, there will be many times when you’ll want to send Bravo to perform other tasks, such as distractions or breaches of rooms. You can communicate this via menu commands or by using one of the coolest peripherals designed for a console yet, the Logitech headset included with the game. Using simple syntax such as “Bravo, run to, Delta,” you can dictate exactly how your commandos should operate.
The headset has a completely different function within multiplayer, that of team communication. Up to sixteen players are assigned to one of two teams, SEALS or Terrorists, with each team having separate, secure channels of communication. Expect to use this feature a lot as you attempt to navigate through ten different maps. While there are three different types of play assigned to these maps, such as base destruction, hostage extraction or team elimination, you’ll typically find most of these matches quickly degenerate into full-on deathmatches, with each side trying to kill off the other. Using the headset is key to passing information between teammates, and before a message is passed, a tone rings in the headset to alert players to incoming communications. Additionally, SOCOM’s online component allows players to establish clans quickly and effortlessly, providing clan leaders with tools to establish private clan games, messages and team evaluations. Clan members can vote on players they feel aren’t pulling their weight with a polling feature, allowing fledgling leaders to swiftly decide who they want in their group.
SOCOM is animated beautifully, with a lot of nice detail scattered throughout the single player and multiplayer experience. You’ll be able to distinguish between the individual SEALs on your team, especially by individual armory specs. For example, someone that you’ve designated to be a sniper will have a different look than that of a demolitionist. Character animation is also very slick, with your SEALs maneuvering into crouches, silent runs, and clearing formations naturally. Seeing your team perform a successful room sweep for the first time can give you a shiver of excitement as you observe just how skilled, lethal and effective these men can be. Environments are just as detailed, with hills, forests, and other natural landmarks represented with realistic textures. These backgrounds also take into effect natural weather patterns, including rain, snow and fog, which has an added effect of heightening tension while it obscures your soldier’s vision, just as it would in real life. Of course, with a game of this kind, stealth and obscuring yourself from view is of prime importance, and utilizing shadows becomes as much of a weapon as your firearm. Fortunately, lights and the shadows cast upon objects perform naturally, allowing you to avoid detection and strike silently at targets.
The camera, unfortunately, is one of the largest downfalls within the game itself, as the angles it chooses can, at times, be rather counter-intuitive. It also provides for a slight amount of frustration when you transition between first and third person views, or when you’re attempting to perform a lean around a corner. While you can manipulate the camera, you may find that it can be just as dangerous as bad planning during a mission. You’ll also notice that while the SEALs and the backgrounds are rather detailed, the terrorists aren’t as fleshed out. While this may be done to assign a nameless, faceless state to the terrorists, the effect does hinder the quality of the graphics.
One thing can definitely be said about SOCOM is that the designers have spent a lot of time trying to envelop players in the sound of battle. To that end, the game features distinctive sounds for each weapon, along with other ambient noises, such as the crunch of snow or the clomp of boots. These effects are amplified with the headset, which has a noticeable effect of honing the onscreen action into a cacophony of realistic noise. Simply put, with the headset you feel as though you’re really on the team accomplishing objectives, hearing what the characters hear and reacting accordingly.
You’ll also notice how cleanly and crisply voices will come across through the headset, primarily things such as your briefings or team acknowledgements, or enemy conversations, which have subtle, but decent accent affectations. The vocal acting within the game is carried off rather well, with only a few eyebrow-raising deliveries. Musically, the game features a decent mix of military-themed music, heard primarily when objectives are cleared, and orchestral scores reminiscent of action movies. Of course, communication through the headset is the primary reason for its inclusion, and it performs its job admirably. The only time that you may detect a misfire within the single player game is if you mumble or are unclear with your instructions. During multiplayer, the headset is unbelievably vital for passing messages between players; though be forewarned, there are no aural censors, so you’ll might be inundated with foul language or childish humor from squadmates from time to time.
Control within the game is going to be paramount to helping the player believe they’re controlling a squad of elite fighting machines, and fortunately, SOCOM provides two setups, the sure shot and the precision shooter. While this primarily governs the firing of weapons, maneuvering your squad into position is very responsive to commands, allowing you to assume runs, leans and crouches with no difficulty. Additionally, there are situations where the game will force you to think in terms of squad teamwork. For example, there will never be a situation where one SEAL on a team will have enough C4 to blow something up, requiring two or more team members to concentrate on placing charges.
The largest fault that you will probably find will be the AI within the game, which can be spotty at best. Many times, you’ll discover the AI to be rabid about areas they’re personally in, sending out groups of men to search for intruders or the source of strange noises. Other times, enemy soldiers will not move a muscle, even when a sniper takes out one a fellow sentry only a few feet away. This questionable AI can also extend to some of your squadmates. There are many times you’ll quietly advance from waypoint to waypoint, attempting to set up a lightning-fast assault, only to have someone on Bravo team ruin the whole thing by firing off at someone in the distance or at a patrol.
On the online side, the game comes off beautifully, with very little, if any slowdown, even with the maximum allowable people in a game firing at the same time. Dial-up players may not want to risk the lag those lines can impart into a game, although there are dial-up clans online from what I was able to gather. Probably the biggest problem that exists online is a skewed perception towards snipers, whom most multiplayers would consider to be campers. Snipers are not only necessary, but also vital to a team’s success, and a sniper’s entire M.O. is based on finding a position and waiting for that one shot, one kill opportunity.
Overall, SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals is a great game for both online commandos and single player soldiers alike. With brisk, action-packed deathmatches online, easily controlled game hosting and clan setup, SOCOM is one of those games that the online experience was tailor-made for. However, it also has the added benefit of solid gameplay and story when taken offline, allowing players to sharpen their skills in a team-based environment. Plus, the included headset serves to fully draw characters into the action, making them feel even more involved within the game. Throw in an informative documentary movie on the Navy SEALs themselves, and you have a game that can easily compete for PS2 game of the year.