[Due to limited time spent with the multiplayer aspects of SOCOM: Special Forces, a separate preview of the game’s co-operative mode will be posted tomorrow, but we will be waiting for extended time with the game’s other modes before we complete our review. As co-op and multiplayer are such large parts of the game, we have chosen to review the single-player mode seperately, but not yet award the game a score.]
Even only a couple of months in, 2011 is shaping up to be a massive year for Sony, with new LittleBigPlanet, MotorStorm and Killzone games (to name just a few) already on store shelves. April’s first-party release is SOCOM Special Forces, the first proper entry for the series on current-gen consoles – the multiplayer-only, Slant Six-developed Confrontation excluded. It’s also a game stuck sitting on the fence and never really satisfying any particular group; old fans will be disappointed, action shooter fans will be disappointed, and those looking for a solid single-player experience to carry them through the summer will be most disappointed.
But before we got into that, let’s backtrack a little. Special Forces sees you in the shoes of the Operations Commander of a small NATO team, part of a much larger force sent to the Strait of Malacca in south-east Asia to combat a terrorist threat in the region. The first two missions set up the story for the game, as well as teaching you Special Forces’ new team command controls (more on that in a moment); the NATO team are attacked by a rebel group called Naga and the OpsCom and his five-man team head off to discover what’s going on and take down those in charge of the attack.
The plot plays out largely through between-level cutscenes but it’s really not until about halfway through the game that it becomes interesting – prior to that point there’s a number of missions with no real explanation as to how they’ll help with your overall aims. After halfway though, the plot picks right up, even if you’ll probably guess the big plot twist quite a bit before the game reveals it. Even so, it’s compelling enough, with a couple of decent tangents and it’ll certainly keep you engaged with the game.[drop]SOCOM has always been about command and control, utilising strategy rather than firepower to defeat the enemy. Special Forces ditches the voice controls and complex circle-button menus of the PS2 games, and instead works from a much simpler set of commands. Your team is split into two – blue team, better with medium-range weapons, and yellow team, which are more of a recon and sniper team – and you control them independently using the directional pad.
Pointing the crosshair at a target and tapping left will order blue team to attack, or right for yellow team. Holding down a directional button will mark the target, you then trigger the attack using up. It’s a good way to line up a series of targets before letting hell break loose. In terms of movement, it’s much the same: pointing at some cover or just somewhere on the ground will send the particular team there. Some may mourn the loss of voice controls (I certainly did when I first realised shouting into my headset was doing nothing), but there’s no denying Zipper’s claim that the new d-pad controls are so much quicker to use, particularly during a firefight.
However, it’s not all good. Amongst the game’s fourteen missions are scattered four in which you take control of ’45’, a stealthy South Korean operative that forms part of your yellow team. In these sections you are given only a supressed sniper rifle and semi-automatic weapon, and your grenades are swapped out for empty bullet casings to be used as distractions. At first, it’s a nice break from the more action-orientated main campaign missions but it quickly descends into annoyance at some of the most infuriating level and game design decisions I’ve seen in a long time. Sure, you have your weapons, but apart from the occasional sniper kill, you’ll likely not be using them because 45 will die almost always after one shot.
In addition, despite the level’s stealth meter at its lowest, and the minimap which pops up for 45’s missions reporting no nearby enemies, you’ll quite often hear a random shout of “I see you!” or “What’s that?” and instantly every enemy in the level descends on you. It’s a situation not really remedied by the appearance, after a few deaths, of a prompt that reads “Try and stay in the shadows.” Really, Zipper? Do you not think I was already trying that?
Basically, the 45 missions are an exercise in trial and error until you find the single perfect line through the levels that doesn’t alert any guards and gets the mission done, quite often walking straight past enemies supposedly on alert. It’s a mess, and despite only making up just under a quarter of the missions in the game, I found myself spending just as much time on those 45 levels as the whole rest of the game – it got to the point where I actually just turned off the console and walked away a couple of times when I realised my next level was a stealth one.
It’s not just the 45 missions that suffer from some baffling level design though. On three occasions in the main game, your team comes under attack from artillery but whether you actually make it to the reinforced cover the game clearly wants you to use to take out the aforementioned artillery is almost entirely pot luck. On one particular occasion, you have to contend with an offshore barrage whilst engaging in a firefight, all on a rooftop with very limited cover.
Speaking of cover, it’s also very difficult to tell what scenery can be destroyed and what can’t, and even when you are hidden behind a concrete structure, you can quite often still take damage despite being completely protected, the enemies simply spraying from a distance. Finally, you’ll find that a lot of locations in the game are very generic – either forest or brown-and-grey enemy bases.[drop2]However, I’m concerned that I’m highlighting the negatives here. Special Forces is largely a very competent third-person shooter and on-the-fly strategy game. Moving through the jungle or cities, shuffling your two teams progressively through the level taking out any enemies that threaten them as they move between cover, the game can be a joy to play. There are some brilliant moments with your team attacking reinforced bases, or taking down helicopters, and the enemy AI (outside of the baffling 45 segments) is fantastic, with further teams deploying covering fire as closer enemies attempt to flank you.
Sometimes, yes, you can sit back and let your team do the work but others you will find yourself issuing orders all over the place, and trying to cover yourself as you get surrounded by enemies, watching the health bars of your teammates depleting. Just managing to finish off the last few enemies yourself, with all of your team incapacitated over the area is an exhilarating feeling.
In addition, SOCOM supports Sony’s favourite new toys, 3D and the PlayStation Move. Zipper actually collaborated on the development of the Sharpshooter, and it feels very natural pointing out targets and cover for your team – but of course it will take some getting used to not only if you’re previously playing with a DualShock, but also Move without the casing, which is a lot quicker and lighter.
The 3D effect is fantastic, probably some of the best I’ve seen on PS3 so far, with leafy cover fading out to the sides of your vision and bullets whizzing past in every direction. Both Move and 3D have a number of fine-tuning customisation options in-game. It is worth pointing out a bizarre Move glitch that not only happened on my console but also a couple of the demo units set up at a Sony event last week: when playing a level with Move, pausing, and then the power-saving on those controllers kicking in, SOCOM would not properly recognise the main Move stick in-game. All the buttons worked, but the ball didn’t light up and you couldn’t aim at all. It’s a strange little glitch but one Zipper are aware of and it may even be fixed in the launch-day patch.[boxout]Special Forces is not a bad game, in fact it’s a reasonably good one, there are just inherent flaws that pop up now and again. Throughout most of the game, you’ll have a lot of fun: the new command controls work very well, and the game looks and plays just as nicely. It’s those cursed 45 missions that completely bring the game down and once you’ve experienced a couple you might start to notice what else the game hasn’t quite got right. Having said that, it’s a fair effort for Zipper’s first SOCOM game on PS3, and hopefully signifies a rebirth for a series with a large and devoted fanbase.