Okay, I’ll admit something right now that I haven’t said to some of my gaming friends: I have a love/hate relationship with the SOCOM franchise. Personally, I love the tactical strategy and the realism of the series, but I can’t stand the stupidity that friendly and enemy AI exhibits. I love jumping online and getting involved in a firefight with other digital grunts, but I hate running around extremely confined maps with cheaters, map exploiters and other people that ruin the experience. And while I have to respect the game that probably moved more Network Adapters than any other title, establishing an incredibly rabid multiplayer community in the process, the single player game has definitely been lacking. In effect, it felt like the SOCOM franchise has been just on the edge of greatness but just not quite ready to make that next step. Now, two years after the last sortie, Sony returns gamers to the field with SOCOM III.
Most previews of SOCOM focus on the multiplayer aspects of the game, but SOCOM III actually steps up to the plate with the best single player mode of the series. As Specter, leader of the Able squad, you’ll lead your four man crew across the sands of Northern Africa, through the jungles of Southeast Asia and the streets of Poland. While Jester returns as Specter’s partner, your Bravo squad will still rotate to suit the needs of the mission at hand. This means that throughout the campaign, you’ll mount up with fellow SEALs, British SAS forces and even Polish GROM troops to go up against daunting tasks. Many of these are the standard kind of missions that you’ve come to expect from SOCOM, such as defending positions, clearing towns of defenders or capturing targets.
For the most part, you’ll receive these orders during your operation briefings, where you’ll be told what your primary goals are through a series of news reports and radio communications. However, some of these tasks will either change based on the situation, receive critical updates during your time in the field, or become supported by numerous secondary and tertiary tasks. This can range from disrupting enemy radio communications to collecting intelligence key to the enemy organization. However, unlike the previous games, there’s much more of a reason to scour the map and accomplish every side mission. SOCOM has a significant number of bonuses – 65 in all – that can be unlocked with successful play as the numerous difficulty levels. Even cooler, SOCOM III will support the yet to be released SOCOM: Fire Team Bravo on the PSP, so successful play with the console version will unlock even more features in the portable title and vice versa when you sync the two together.
A number of these unlockables will be items or weaponry that you can use in missions. SOCOM III comes with more than 30 separate firearms and 20 different attachments to make these guns more accurate, silent or explosive, amongst other options. Players will be able to customize their load out as well, which will affect their soldier’s speed as they run across each level. Obviously, the more weight the soldier has, the slower they’ll be. But you might also notice how sluggishly they’ll move when they’re swimming with all that extra equipment on them. That’s right, it’s about time that the SEALs, who are known for their aquatic combat prowess, actually take to the water. This gives you a tactical advantage, as you can submerge your squad to hide from plain sight or swim towards a boat to launch an attack on unsuspecting thugs.
SOCOM III packs a number of vehicles that you can take over and use to transport your squad from one waypoint to another. This includes Humvees, armored jeeps, transport boats, cargo trucks and others. Most vehicles have at least one weapon mounted on the body of the machine, allowing one of your characters the option to shell positions or spit lead at enemies. Soldiers in the side positions of a car will peek out and fire via gun slots as well, so you can potentially be surprised before you start deploying the turret weaponry. Your opponents will also have access to some of these machines as well, and it’s not surprising to see yourself up against two or more enemies in technicals (or pickups with turrets in the truck bed) or turn the corner and find yourself face to face with a tank. You’ll need to adjust your tactics accordingly as well, as each vehicle maneuvers completely different from the next. In fact, the first time that I tried to take on a tank with a humvee, my machine went up in smoke.
Vehicles aren’t simply a gimmick to take out enemies. They’re extremely useful to cross the massive levels created for each mission. In fact, the levels from each stage are so large that the stages from previous games wouldn’t even fill a quarter of these maps. This is due to the streaming level design that allows the designers to provide a grander experience for players, providing just what you need for the section you’re currently exploring. Fortunately, you won’t be forced to start over from scratch if or when you bite the bullet on a level. SOCOM generously sprinkles the continue points throughout each stage, making it much easier to pick up where you left off after a poorly executed attack. Yes, you won’t have to worry about restarting from scratch this time around, which should save your frustration levels significantly.
The size of these levels carries over to the Multiplayer arena, where the 12 large multiplayer maps included in the game will provide plenty of places to hide, snipe or camp during each match. Sure, the standard Demolition, Breach, Escort, Extraction and Supression mission types that you’ve come to expect from SOCOM have been included, but this time they’re joined by the newest features, Control and Convoy. Control is centered on capturing a number of points on a map with markers. Once a marker has been placed, it can't be removed, so this mode quickly turns into a race against time to beat your opponent to the rest of the designated areas. Convoy, on the other hand, is the better mode of the two, with a larger emphasis on strategy and use of vehicles. The terrorists attempt to move some cargo from one place to another (it's up to you to imagine what kind of item they'd be interested in transporting) while protecting the vehicles carrying the materials from the SEALs, who are out to stop them at all costs.
One of the significant changes in the multiplayer arena, particularly with the introduction of Convoy to SOCOM 3, is the emphasis of teamplay and coordination with other members on our side. This is particularly important now that the multiplayer limit has been raised to 32 players. A scattered crew of sixteen players that don't communicate well can be infuriating and ineffective (with a few exceptions thanks to a player's skill or luck), but a crew that regularly communicates and splits their squad into coverage teams is truly a frightening opponent to go against. This is merely augmented with the inclusion of vehicles in multiplayer, which adds a new layer of strategy to achieving your objectives. Do you load up with teammates and roll across the map taking out your opponents, or do you head out on foot as a much smaller and more undetectable target? Similarly, you're given the option to lie in wait for your opponents to approach these modes of transportation, taking them out with high powered rifles and anti-tank rockets or spreading across a level, killing those that come across your path.
While the improvements made are major steps forward, some minor issues still arise to complicate gameplay every now and then. First of all, AI in the single player campaign still leaves much to be desired on the part of your squadmates, particularly when it comes to the entrance and exiting of vehicles. More often than not, you'll discover that Bravo squat or Jester, your backup will remain far behind for some strange reason, refusing to actually move with you until you've called them multiple times. There also seems to be a slight bit of confusion on the part of your opponents when it comes to combat. You'll notice them flanking or running for cover during certain scripted sequences and standing completely still during others as you mow them down.
In fact, there are some moments where the game can be radically imbalanced as far as the vehicles are concerned. Enemy troops never exhibit effective tactics against a truck or jeep with a turret, meaning that you're more than likely invulnerable to incoming attacks from enemy soldiers. Not once did I have to worry about an incoming grenade or rocket from the computer when I was in a vehicle. Even worse, not once was I concerned when I went up against an enemy vehicle, because there were no tactical moves pulled off by the computer. Obviously, the AI still leaves much to be desired.
Similarly, the graphical presentation of the game is beginning to show its age. A few years ago, when SOCOM first came out, it was an impressive looking title with a number of nice touches when it came to the soldier models and other details. The character models are still quite nicely drawn and animated, and there are even new death animations for opponents. The vehicles in the game look good as well, with a good sense of weight and reaction to impacts and physics. However, the backgrounds are the primary detractors in the game. Some sections of levels, particularly ones that are contained in the borders of towns or internal structures are well defined and drawn out. Other sections, particularly the deserts and other wide expanses of land are shapeless generic textures. There's also a preponderance of aliasing issues that snake their way across these formless textures that can be somewhat detracting. Fortunately, the sound quality for SOCOM III is superb, with varying reports from fired or suppressed weapons being a standout effect. There is a sweeping cinematic score that bolsters the military action taking place on screen, and the voice acting throughout is excellent.
To be honest, this is really the sequel to the original SOCOM that players have long been waiting for. Expanded multiplayer, larger mission maps and a dedicated single player story makes SOCOM III stand out above the infuriating missteps of its predecessor. It's a given that the hardcore SOCOM player will buy this title, but SOCOM III will probably appeal to newcomers to the series that have wondered what the buzz has been all about for the past three years. Fortunately, they're in for an excellent time with this title.