The SOCOM series is arguably Sony's most important franchise in its portfolio. While games like Gran Turismo and such may have garnered more total sales and critical praise (not that SOCOM is lacking in either), the series has been the most important series thus far in getting PlayStation 2 gamers to pick up a Network Adaptor and take their consoles online.
Zipper Interactive and Sony Computer Entertainment are now set to release the third game in the series, SOCOM 3: U. S. Navy SEALs. While SOCOM II may have sort of felt like an expansion pack to the original game, with some expected improvements and additions not quite making their way to the first sequel, SOCOM 3 is packed to the brim with new features, content, game types and more that will no doubt quench the parched thirst of SOCOM fans everywhere.
SOCOM 3 is bigger and better than the previous two titles in almost every way. New additions like vehicles, much larger environments, a better singleplayer campaign and more have done a lot to essentially polish off a series that has always been this close to being something really special.
The series has always had tight controls, and SOCOM 3 is no different. The layout and feel of movement is top-notch, with its analog control movement and look easily on par with other AAA system sellers like Halo. Quick and easy access to things like soldier commands is a cinch through its tiered command structure. We'd still like to see a slightly quicker and more natural way to switch through weapons, but aside from that the series has essentially nailed its overall feel, which is obviously of utmost importance.
One of the two biggest and most important additions the game makes to the SOCOM franchise is the ability to pilot vehicles. SOCOM 3 features roughly 20 transports you can commandeer, like Humvees, tanks, jeeps, convoy trucks, assault boats... the list goes on and on. Each vehicle has multiple ride points, many with mounted turrets or open weapons holes, meaning that other soldiers can hop and act not only as passengers but as a collective mobile unit of death.
All of the vehicles feel great to drive and are a blast to use while either squishing enemy soldiers beneath your tires or gunning them down from a moving gun turret. We've never driven a tank or many of the other vehicles in SOCOM 3 in real life, so we can only guess as to their real-world accuracy, but the variation with regards to speed, handling and overall feel between the vehicles is great. A basic jeep handles totally unlike a Humvee which of course handles totally unlike a tank. We're not talking Gran Turismo accuracy here with regards to physics and whatnot, but the vehicles are fun stuff nonetheless.
The bigger and deadlier units, like tanks, generally require multiple troops working together to take them out. As you'll essentially have to work together to take out something like a tank, and as it's both simple and beneficial to give other passengers a ride when you take off after spawning, the inclusion of vehicles oddly helps to encourage the use of squads. Most every veteran of tactical war shooters already knows the benefits of scouting in groups, but the vehicles actually help guide new players into squads as well. Designers usually draw a fine line between forcing players into squads, sometimes designing the game around some sort of requirement for this (even if said "requirement" is just a score bonus), but SOCOM 3 does a great job of encouraging it without actually requiring it. If you're on your own against a tank though, run your ass off.
Another example of Zipper encouraging teamwork without necessarily requiring it is one of the new online gametypes, Convoy. In it, the terrorists must move one of two convoy trucks to a pickup zone, pickup whatever sort of illegal goods they're interested in moving, and then get at least one of them through the exit zone in order to win. Convoy helps encourage teamwork on the terrorist side as you're heading towards one of the static pickup points and there are bound to be SEALs about, so you're going to need help defending the truck. While it may be possible to win this one alone, it's highly unlikely it'll happen very often, so loners will probably set off by themselves to take out the amassing SEALs. Again, the new addition of vehicles helps to form squads.
Bigger is Better
The vehicles are important not only because they help to expand upon the game's possible battle combinations, but because the levels are absolutely massive this time around. Zipper has modified the existing SOCOM technology to allow levels to be streamed as you move about them, resulting in battlefields that are an order of magnitude larger than before. A map might contain a town that is roughly the same size as a level from SOCOM II, but said town would only be a small portion of the map and only a single point of interest out of many.
The massively large outdoor environments, combined with complex and dense points of interest make for an online game that feels like a combination of the Battlefield and Rainbow Six series. The game has elements of both as you'll be engaged in plenty of vehicle-centric battles while also having to stealthily move about the cities and villages in order to hunt down the opposition. What generally ends up happening is that you'll jump into a vehicle with some of your teammates, who by default will then essentially make up your squad, and you'll haul ass to one of the map's choke points, hop out and find cover as fast as possible. Then the game quickly turns into a chess match, Rainbow Six-style. It's an awesome mix that combines the best aspects of both games; Battlefield's massive, vehicular-based travel and combat, and Rainbow Six's chess-match style of gameplay.
32 is Greater Than 1
SOCOM 3 brings the ability to play with up to 32 players online simultaneously. Matches with a full 32 person loadout work pretty well for the most part, though there are a few occasions where the game will lag or slow down a bit. This is dependant upon how concentrated the skirmishes on the map are, and is often a result of the map and game type you're currently playing. Even when things get a bit slow it's not too bad, at least not enough to prevent you from having some fun, though it's not too often that this happens anyway. In general, the online portion of the game runs exactly like the singleplayer aspect of the game, even with 32 players on a map, which is a great thing.
Like some other online games with a high player count limit, SOCOM 3 is able to expand and contract its map zones in order to accommodate a smaller group of folks. This seems to work pretty well with simple borders put up along roads and passages to keep everyone in the battle, or warning signs that you're heading out of bounds in the case of a wide-open map. It does have a slight catch, though: the size of the map is dependent upon what the server limit is set at. In other words, if you start a 32 player server and only have 12 players in the match, the map will still be full size. When you're browsing around for a game, you're likely going to want to find a server whose current player count is close to its maximum number of player slots.
We've already mentioned one of the new multiplayer modes, Convoy. It's great fun and rather hard, actually, as you need to be damn sure you have some sort of plan together and are quick to take out approaching SEALs if you're playing as a terrorist.
The second new mode, Control, has each team racing to be the first to plant markers at each of the designation points on the map. Once a marker has been set, it cannot be removed, but both teams can plant markers at each point. The first team to plant all of their markers wins the match. This mode is pretty fun as well, though we still prefer Convoy of the two modes. The cool part about Control is that it takes time to place a marker, so when you reach a control point that's already been taken, you need to try and find out whether the enemy left the area, since you can't take their marker, or whether they're waiting around for you to start setting your own marker. It may not sound like much, but it's a pretty big rush to be crouching at a control point, trying to plant a marker, and counting the seconds while you hope that a sniper rifle isn't pointed at your head.
While the online aspect of any SOCOM game is easily its strongest and most important element of the game, unlike the past games in the series, SOCOM 3 actually has a singleplayer campaign that's compelling enough to play through, partly because of additions and fixes that Zipper has made to the series. For starters, SOCOM 3 now features a checkpoint system, which the last game didn't and generally aggravated the hell out of us. Most missions have three or four main goals or skirmish points, and the game will set you up with a checkpoint after each one. It's pretty fair about this throughout the whole game and you generally should never have to play for more than 10 minutes without the game marking your progress.
The singleplayer mode also has a fairly good backing story and progression of events. While it still has a mostly hands-off story structure where you watch news clips or some such between missions and then get sent on random tasks, like to defend this convoy or take out this village of bad guys, the presentation here is very well done. You're still just defending convoys or taking out villages of bad guys for the most part, so some people might get tired of it after a while, but the game is generally fun enough that it's worth playing through the campaign.
While the mission briefings and such are well done and detail elements of the story enough that you can keep up with what's happening quite easily, the best part of the singleplayer presentation is that the cutscenes that show the leaders of each faction feature incredible voice acting. It's literally some of the best I've ever heard in a video game, and on the scale with some AAA movies. Granted, all of these are done in various foreign languages so I have no idea if they're saying what the subtitles say they are, or if they're talking about last night's 49ers game, but it sounds perfect to my ears.
The singleplayer AI is generally good, with guys ducking behind cover and using the environment to their advantage like they should, but it isn't perfect. Sometimes a couple of your troops will stay put when you're finished with a skirmish and you'll have to remind them to follow you. Other times, lone enemies will hide somewhere and you'll have to search them out to end the mission, when they should have come out to find you so that it's clear that you have one more soldier to kill. Neither of these are huge sticking points, happen all the time or even really hinder the game at all, but it's worth noting.
The streaming aspect of the game is great in that it provides massive battle environments, but this combination does have its negatives, though. The PlayStation 2 is nearly at the end of its lifespan and is obviously showing signs of age, and SOCOM doesn't hide all of these problems. Some environments look great, while others are hit or miss. The villages, towns and such all look pretty good and do a great job of bringing the country's environments and general feel to life. The outdoor environments sometimes look quite good, while at other times they're really basic geometry-wise. It's rather odd to see almost nothing in the horizon or on the field - which matches many of the game's nearly barren desert levels - but a rather low level of detail on the ground geometry.
The soldiers and vehicles look really good however, and the dust, smoke and general particle effects are some of the best on the system. As sand kicks up in the air and a sandstorm approaches, you can almost feel the grit in your eyes.
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