Have you ever wondered what Disney would be like without Mickey Mouse, or how Usain Bolt would run if you surgically removed his legs? In both examples you take an established concept and remove what it is that makes it a pioneer of its respective field. This is what has been done to SOCOM 4 (or SOCOM: Special Forces as it is known in PAL regions. By speeding up the game and removing the ability to voice command your AI allies, Zipper Interactive have resigned SOCOM 4’s campaign to a state of shameful mediocrity by removing what made the original titles so unique and compelling.
Without wishing to sound like your grandparents, back when I was young the original SOCOM: US Navy Seals was considered fairly innovative at the time for offering an online console shooter experience. It was able to offer tactical shooting action on a non-local scale by coming boxed with a USB headset. For those who hadn’t yet adopted broadband (what philistines we were) SOCOM still offered a deep campaign mode, where you could control your AI team-mates by saying certain commands into the headset. That, in conjunction with the game’s slow and demanding tactical spin and large non-linear map and objective designs was what I would call SOCOM’s x-factor. With SOCOM 4 this factor has been removed, leaving a painfully large gap in its wake. I’m all for a series attempting to subvert what is expected of it, but only when this change is for the better.
The first thing that differs SOCOM 4 from its predecessors is its speed. The game is faster than ever before but, unusually, this isn’t a good thing. It now looks and feel just like every other shooter out there. The tactical focus of the game also doesn’t shine through as much as a result of this. It’s definitely there, but the new pace makes SOCOM feel less like a tactical shooter and more like a run and gun affair. Ordering your team around is no longer possible via headset, with the directional buttons now issuing commands instead. This system does work well enough and allows for some enjoyable strategies to be devised and implemented, but it isn’t a patch on the spectacle of voice recognition we enjoyed in the older SOCOM titles. Another key change is the inclusion of a cover system. It’s a robust and functional one button snap-to affair, but it feels all too familiar. Gears of War was good and we are all aware of this, but the amount of copy cats out there is getting shameful. It is yet another area where SOCOM 4 fails to do anything new or interesting. The only thing SOCOM 4 adopts that seems vaguely new is compatibility with the Move motion controller. What initially seemed like a gimmick of the highest order actually turns out to be a fairly robust and fun, if more difficult, method of controlling SOCOM 4.
The first thing players are likely to engage in is the single player campaign. The player is usually in control of the fire squad leader as you (tactically) run and gun your way through a variety of reasonably well designed missions. The difficulty leaves a bit to be desired, as your squad mates will literally destroy anything in your path, even if you haven’t given them any particular orders. There’s nothing new in gameplay here (yet again), but the campaign is well put together and offers a decent amount of enjoyment. It is also well bolstered by a few solo stealth missions thrown in here and there that, whilst often a little bit on the frustrating side, offer a tense and brooding change of pace. Funnily enough it is the story part of the story mode that leaves a lot to be desired. You once again play a brooding, byronic and otherwise perfect commander as he leads his team to prevent a mercenary group from taking over Malaysia. If this doesn’t sound generic enough, then some of the dialogue is likely to make your ears bleed. Not only that but, having received a PAL copy of SOCOM 4, I was somewhat insulted by the pathetic attempts at localization. Whereas in NTSC regions your comrades, Wells and Schweitzer, are supposedly American, the PAL version saw fit to make them British. When I say British, I mean horrible and ill-fitting British stereotypes. The amount of banal and frustrating dialogue given to them as a result of this, and the voice acting… It truly has to be experienced to be believed. With weak characterisation and a predictable and paper thin plot, you will enjoy SOCOM 4’s campaign for its gameplay merits only.
Whether on your own or through online co-op, there are also a series of custom missions that complement the campaign. These feel kind of like your standard horde mode, though with more offensive objectives. The six maps provided won’t last you especially long, but the choice of game modes and various other customization options make the co-op a welcome addition. Screaming voice commands down your headset to real life squad mates never gets old.
The online game is comparatively strong as well, offering a robust experience. The maps provided are plentiful and well designed, if fairly forgettable. The game modes too are fun but very run of the mill, aside from the bomb squad mode. Bomb squad sees one team defending a series of bombs on a map, with players from the other team randomly spawning as the slower bomb tech who must defuse these bombs. In a game so devoid of individuality, this was the only instance where I felt SOCOM 4 had something vaguely unique to offer. The tweaks to the game engine completely alter how SOCOM 4 handles online in comparison to its pedigree, but a huge wealth of customization options are offered that hosts can tweak to make the rules more “classic” should they prefer. Definitely a plus.
As you plough through the online ranks you’ll notice the ranking system is also lifted straight from other titles, with new ranks getting you new weapons, and continued usage of a single weapon gaining you new attachments for that particular gun. It works well, but other games have labelled and displayed all the information in a far clearer manner. I often found myself getting bored scrolling through trying to find what attachment I’d get next on my favourite Assault Rifle. The other main criticism I have with SOCOM 4’s online is the grenades. They have been very poorly balanced and, with their rather dominating blast radius, get consistently spammed. If you’re unlucky you’ll find yourself in a game where you die every other second from a random frag. Hopefully this will be patched out soon. Until then it is annoyance you must endure. Aside from a few blunders and a continued lack of innovation, the online component of SOCOM 4 is well implemented and fairly enjoyable overall.
Though SOCOM 4 is an empty and hollow parcel of a game, it is at least wrapped up and presented nicely. The graphics are sharp and crisp, with some impressive animations all held together by a very steady frame rate. My only graphical complaint was that the facial animations seemed rather wooden but, as you spend the majority of time staring at your character’s back, this isn’t a huge problem. The audio too is reasonable with meaty sound effects and a pleasant, if forgettable, score. The voice acting (British stereotypes aside) isn’t too bad either, though it may have shone through more had the script been more accomplished.
You’ll notice a disproportionate amount of ranting has occurred in the body of this review, considering SOCOM 4’s moderate score out of ten. This is because, in general, SOCOM 4 ticks most of the necessary boxes. It is enjoyable. It has a lot of content. It looks nice. The problem comes in that there is no reason to recommend it to you over any of the other hundreds of more accomplished and unique titles that adorn the store shelves. You want fast-paced gunplay? Go get CoD or Crysis 2. You want tactical shooting action? Grab GRAW2 or Rainbow Six Vegas on the cheap. Only turn to SOCOM 4 as a last resort, or if you really have a hankering for a middle of the road title that is lacking in ideas.
Graphics are good, Solid gameplay, Varied campaign, Vast customization options, Team are easy to command, Good online and co-op, Move controls work well
Boring story, Shoddy scripting and characterisation, Multiplayer has frustrating balance issues, Nothing innovative or interesting in the slightest, Gameplay pacing problems