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SOCOM = SO-SO
on 28 August 2003
SOCOM is the very first game released by Sony to support the new network adaptor, enabling you to play the game online, using a standard broadband internet connection. It also comes bundled with a headset enabling the player to talk to other players whilst online, or to order their team around in single player mode.
The headset is no gimmick, it works very well. It has an earpiece through which you hear other players and an unobtrusive boom microphone for you to speak into. All other sound is relayed through your TV as usual. Sound quality is clear and loud, and the mic picks up your voice very well considering its size. Naturally, for online play, the headset is essential, and it is supported by other current and upcoming PS2 Network games. Commanding your team in single player works surprisingly well, the system does not need to be ‘trained’ to recognise your voice, as long as you speak clearly and use the right commands, it simply works.
The online multiplayer aspect of SOCOM is standard stuff, with team deathmatch, demolition (essentially a bomb-based capture the flag) and hostage rescue (Counter-strike like) modes. It plays well enough, but the controls can be fiddly and when one shot can kill, being taken out of the game due to the sometimes tricky controls is frustrating. The team element does not always work as well as it should, and sadly cheating is becoming more common on the multiplayer servers. Sony have so far struggled to find any solution to the latter problem. It’s all OK, but not the greatest online game ever.
The muddy graphics do not help, as the screen is often quite dark (maps being set in jungles and the like), so picking out enemies is a challenge. This afflicts single player too, where switching to night vision goggles is no help as they just offer a zoomed-in scope view which is difficult to use whilst moving round the map. So you just have to crank the game brightness up as much as you can and squint a lot. Graphical detail is average, with some very bland textures but nice animation.
The single player campaign involves a lot of stealthy play, which is pretty difficult when you can’t always see what is going on. You are also limited in what you can get your team mates to do. You can order them to clear rooms, move to waypoints, etc. but amazingly cannot order snipers to take down certain targets or tell them to go prone. Oh dear.
Your ammo loadout is a staggering three magazines unless you choose to take more when loading out your team. So taking extra ammo is a necessity as most missions involve you taking down most of the terrorists yourself, and hence quickly running low on ammunition. The weapons themselves are quite well represented, with a nice variety (although you will tend to stick to the silenced MP5 and M4). Grenades are well done, with a fiddly but accurate throwing method.
Your team can be pretty stupid, if they are following you they are sheep-like and often get shot to hell by a bad guy standing right in front of them. Thankfully, the same bad guys also have poor reflexes, so if they get the drop on you, you can usually react first. This is handy as the missions are usually pretty long, with no save points and a lot of slow movement, watching and waiting. As only a few hits will kill you (and it’s then mission over), getting killed right near the end of a mission is frustrating as you don’t always feel like plodding through all the slow creeping around an enemy camp all over again.
You can just kick it all off and get stuck into firefights, but this often gets your guys killed and doesn’t really feel right in the game. You are supposed to be an elite Navy SEAL after all!
SOCOM is one of those games that you desperately want to like as it has so many nice ideas: varied missions, great cutscenes (your team being inserted by boat, etc.), the voice comms; but it also has a number of problems: the disappointing graphics, tricky controls, lack of team commands, sometimes rubbish AI.
It’s worth noting that SOCOM II is due for release in November. This is so close to the original that you suspect SOCOM 1 was rushed to get it finished as the big launch game for the PS2 network. Hopefully, the developers will address a lot of its issues in the sequel and we will get a better and more satisfying game as a result.