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SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALs
Graphics: 6.8
Gameplay: 7.4
Sound: 8.1
Control: 7.2
Replay Value: 7.7
Rating: 7.5

Admittedly, I have never been a SOCOM fan, primarily because I’ve never been an avid online player. But I was excited to give SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALs a try, primarily because it featured a full single-player campaign, one that even sports a bit of stealth. Of course, the game is still designed with multiplayer as the focus and for that reason, this game is best experienced with others; just make sure you have a headset so as to take advantage of the inherent strategy and tactics. On the one hand, the campaign doesn’t feel tacked on and the multiplayer is oodles of fun. On the other hand, the poor AI, iffy control in regards to commands, and uninspired level design drops the production down a few notches.

Graphically, Zipper Interactive gives gamers an interesting combination of highs and lows: on the high end of the spectrum, the character modeling and detailing is surprisingly impressive. This is especially noticeable during cut-scenes, where facial animation and emotions really steal the limelight. I was surprised at this. On the other end of the aforementioned spectrum, much of the visual presentation seems a little dull, and the special effects aren’t exactly striking or engaging. The environment never really stands out and there’s a definite repetitiveness and relative drabness to the levels. There are also a few technical issues, like clipping and collision detection. Still, the detail is great in some areas and for some reason, I liked the nighttime situations most.

If the visuals slip a bit, the sound saves the day, as some good voice acting and borderline spectacular special effects add to the immersion. Whether you’re involved in the campaign or playing online, you always get the benefit of sharp, explosive effects and a decent soundtrack. Both act as solid gameplay accompaniments and bolster our interest level. The writing isn’t great, though, so even the competent voice actors often have to struggle through some mediocre dialogue, and the balance is often an issue, as the music and effects don’t always blend well. That being said, there’s every reason to play this game with a great stereo system – or a great headset – because you’ll appreciate the well-implemented and effective audio. It's always a big bonus in any game.

We’ll start with the single-player campaign, which puts you in the boots of Ops Commander Cullen Gray, who is in charge of four other operatives. There are two teams of two; one pair is best used for short and medium range encounters as well as explosives, while the other – Forty-Five – specializes in long-range (sniping) and stealth. In fact, you will have several opportunities to play as one of the Forty-Five members, a South Korean who works best in the shadows. Her missions are stealth-based and in truth, were my favorite of the campaign, because Zipper embraced the concept and even allowed us to move bodies. In other words, while it’s hardly Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell, we still have to consider similar hazards and maintain patience and accuracy.

The rest of the time, you’ll be leading your team of five as Gray, and you’ll soon learn how to issue orders, choose approach styles, and set up ambushes. In recent weeks, we’ve learned a lot about choice- you can either get knee-deep in a confrontation and take down most of the bad guys yourself, or you can hang back and focus on commanding your four teammates. It’s quite possible to move through entire missions without firing a single shot and in fact, this is where the biggest challenge often lies, because your allies can fall. If you place them in bad positions or ignore their pleas for assistance, they’re likely to go down, leaving you alone to face a barrage of bullets. And no, they can’t revive you. If you die, it’s over.

Issuing commands is as easy as using the directional pad; pressing down rallies all squad mates to you, while pressing right orders the Gold team and pressing left handles the Blue team. There are more advanced options as well, as you can single out individual teammates and select specific targets for them. You can even select a target and, by holding down the appropriate button, delay the fire command until the opportune moment. It all works well but there are some significant problems that detract from our enjoyment and increase our frustration. Firstly, you have to be very precise with your directions and even then, your allies may not be in the exact spot you desired. They will also get stuck near obstacles and force each other out of cover when maneuvering.

Secondly, while they are effective, their reaction to up-close foes isn’t good. There was one situation where we had to fend off several waves of oncoming enemies, all of whom would run right into my group of five. It was ridiculous for two obvious reasons: 1. the AI really can be that stupid, and 2. it took way too long for my allies to recognize the proximity of their adversaries, and it usually fell to me to take care of the charging soldiers. Oddly enough, my teammates had little to no trouble taking down targets that were a good distance away. When the battlefield constricts, though, things can get chaotic and quite unreliable. Then there are the magic bullets that hit you no matter what.

So yeah, there are some definite problems with the campaign, even if it’s still mostly entertaining. But once again, multiplayer lies at the heart of SOCOM, and you’ll be able to sample several co-op mission modes. These co-op modes span 6 separate maps so the longevity is high and communication is key; you will always be talking to each other and setting up strategies. Competitive multiplayer is just as fun, even if there are only four modes. Suppression (Deathmatch) and Uplink (Capture the Flag, of sorts) are pretty standard but you gotta love Bomb Squad, when one friend is a bomb technician, and you have to cover him while he attempts to diffuse three separate bombs. It’s a definite challenge but it’s relatively unique and is worthy of attention.

Plus, there are cool options, as players can control respawns, whether or not competitors can take cover, and health regeneration. You even have the option of new and classic SOCOM rules and with 9 multiplayer maps, fans should be satisfied with the available diversity and variety. There’s plenty to do and provided you’ve got a dedicated, capable team of buddies, you can lose many hours to the multiplayer elements. In respect to the single-player campaign, the story is a throwaway plot (I never really cared about the mission, nor was it ever explained very well), the mechanic of issuing commands can be erratic, the AI is faulty, and your allies don’t always show the best judgment. And although I am not as familiar with past entries, it seems the long-time followers have some complaints concerning the multiplayer; it's easy to find such rants.

SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALs has its fair share of drawbacks, which keeps it from being a solid, stable, ultimately rewarding title. It can be satisfying, though, especially if you can overlook some of the obvious flaws in the single-player campaign. Perhaps the best way to describe this game is to say the campaign is worthy of no more than a 7, while the multiplayer is around an 8. But if you’re more anal and susceptible to the problems I outlined in this review, you’ll find the single-player element even more tiresome, and if you’re one of those veteran fans I just mentioned, you may have other reservations. Those, I cannot account for as I can only go by my own experience. That being said, I’m confident in tentatively recommending this game.

That recommendation just comes with a few significant caveats…which is why you read the text of reviews, and don’t just glance at the score, right? ;)

The Good: Great character detail. Top-notch sound effects. Co-op and competitive multiplayer are highlights. Strategy and command is accessible. Freedom to be a more active or passive leader.

The Bad: Somewhat bland, unimpressive visual presentation. Control in delivering commands can be unreliable. Poor enemy AI. Lack of variety and boring story in campaign.

The Ugly: “He’s right in front of you! Shoot him!”

4/16/2011   Ben Dutka