Summary: You've seen the commercials on TV, the ads in the magazines, and the boxes in stores. Now the latest killer app for the PlayStation 2 is reviewed here on FiringSquad. Alan and Alexis dissect this tactical shooter and put the PS2's Network Adapter through the paces. How do they stack up, and what's this voice-over-IP technology? Read here!
Back in the day, if you werenít in the United Stated Special Forces and you found out about them, you probably wouldnít live to tell any body about it. In what started out as a specialized underwater demolition team, the US Navy SEALS soon became one of the worldís elite fighting forces. Thanks to the media, their existence is no longer a secret. This publicity has increased the respect from the world and has brought back the true soldier who fights with his mind and intellect as much as with his brawn.
The high level of mental and physical training that goes along with the SEAL lifestyle carries forth into real world results. No question about it, SEALs and US Special Forces are Elite with a capital E. This toughness, elite attitude, and respect for the fight were all on Sonyís mind when they developed the new game for the PS2, SOCOM: US Navy SEALs. In addition, Sony introduced a few new technologies with this game, including voice command and broadband internet play. Thatís quite a list of objectives for Sony to accomplish, so read on to find out how they execute.
SIDEBAR: A trauma surgeon once told me, make sure you always have a plan B, C, and D before you even scrub for the operation.
Is it live, or is it Memorex?
No question about it, Elite soldiers need equipment to match. The only limiting factor in a conflict should be your skill, not poor equipment. Sony steps up to the challenge and bundles a USB voice recognition headset with the game. Incidentally, the broadband adapter has come out just at the same time to let you take advantage of the headset online!
The broadband adapter fits snuggly into the back of the PlayStation 2. It has two connectors on the back, a 10/100 Ethernet port and a 56k modem socket. Once installed, the module looks like it belongs on the back of the Playstation 2, it doesnít stick out too much and the finned design blends in with the stock Playstation.
One advantage of the Sony implementation of broadband is the ability to support PPPOE protocols. This is the favored protocol for many DSL providers. I tested it on Mindspring/Earthlink/Covad with success. I also tried it using Windows 2000 Internet Connection sharing and again, it performed well. I did not bother to test the 56k modem as online play really isnít enjoyable at narrowband speeds. To Sonyís credit, setting up the network adapter is very easy and the end-user doesnít even need to know whether or not their ISP uses PPPOE, since it is detected and configured automatically.
SOCOM is designed to take full advantage of the broadband adapter, with a separate online play module with unique levels and scenarios. Narrowband gameplay is not supported.
Another technological breakthrough with SOCOM is the ability to output a progressive scan 480p signal. This is the first US PS2 game with this capability. The increase in resolution when coupled with a high definition TV brings another level of realism to the game.
SIDEBAR: The USB headset also works with Windows.
Iíll admit it. We are getting spoiled. 3D graphics with various filtering, fog effects, lighting effects -- that doesnít really impress us much. Our expectations of graphics clearly follow Mooreís law. While console systems used to be excluded from this scrutiny, the advent of supercomputing consoles has changed all that.
Backgrounds are well done, but a bit redundant due to the low texture sizes. There is very controlled popup with the use of fog effects. Lighting is generally previous generation, with nothing like what we have seen in Halo. If I had to draw a comparison, I would say the graphics are very similar to what we have seen in Rainbow Six or Rouge Spear but with better animation.
There is just not as much eye candy as in Halo. With Halo, you would blow things up just for fun. SOCOMís graphics are designed to be functional, not gimmicky. They focus on highlighting the movement of the characters and the physical interaction with the environment.
Pre-rendered cut scenes look great and are reminiscent of what we have seen with Metal Gear Solid 2. The CG characters themselves arenít the best quality, but the camera work makes up for it. Also on the disc is a US Navy SEAL documentary, similar to what youíve seen on the Discovery Channel. It is worth mentioning that there is no slowdown with SOCOM as there is with Halo.
The SOCOM box has the Dolby Pro-Logic II logo on it, meaning that it is a 2-channel source that was encoded in anticipation for Dolby Pro-Logic II decoding. This isnít as good as games that have a discrete 5.1 DTS source. That said, the sound works well for the game. The background music is used sparingly with an occasional crescendo of music when something significant occurs. For the most part the soundtrack remains reserved, composed mostly of ambient noises and generally non-descript music. This actually works great as the sound effects are top-notch. Weapon sounds are recorded with reasonable amounts of subwoofer data, and if you are too close to a grenade when it goes off, you can only hear a high-pitched ringing tone for a short amount of time. This game is clearly more about business than show. Surround effects work well in controlling ambient sounds, but arenít that good with helping you localize where the enemy is. For some reason, that seems to work better in multiplayer.
Commands are generally composed of three parts: who, what, and where. Basically you call out to either Bravo group or Able, tell them what you want them to do, and then tell them where you want it to happen. Examples would be ďBravo, run to, crosshairs,Ē or ďTeam, follow me.Ē The great thing about this is that you do not need to pause between each part of the command. You can speak with normal pacing and rhythm. Commands are initiated by pressing and holding down the circle button while speaking. There are times when you may need to repeat yourself because you were speaking too softly or not clearly, but this can be done quickly. In addition to talking to the computer, you can also talk to your human teammates when playing online.
Itís not small, itís stealth baby
Traditional first person shooters have been all about blitzing the enemy and making as much noise as possible. This strategy doesnít work in real life for SEALs and it doesnít work in the game. SEALs are all about stealth operations, doing your job without anyone noticing, with the only evidence of your work being the results.
Unlike the Rainbow Six series of games, the plan is set out for you. Preparation consists primarily of choosing your weapon and reading through the objectives. The difficulty is moderate, as you are able to take multiple hits before checking out, while the enemy needs just a single headshot or a couple hits to the chest. The one exception to the rule is when you get a rifle butt to the face - that takes you out of the game right away. In general, the more patience you have, the easier the game. To mix things up, some objectives must be accomplished in a limited amount of time, always keeping you on your feet. There are a total of 12 single-player missions, each taking anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour to complete. The difficulty is such that you wonít be able to complete many levels on your first try.
You play Kahuna, commander of a four-unit SEAL team. Boomer is your right hand man, always watching your back, never leaving your side. Another two-man team, Bravo group, provides support as you see necessary. Unlike other tactical games, SOCOM restricts to you the role of commander. In other words all three of your teammates are computer controlled. This presented a unique challenge to the developers at Sonyís Foster City studio and Zipper Interactive. In real-life, US Navy SEALs are capable (and expected) to make decisions on their own to accomplish the mission. If the game were designed with perfect Navy SEAL A.I. code, then the game would be very easy. You could basically issue the command ďTeam, complete mission and regroup for extraction.Ē The compromise set forth by the development teams results in an idiosyncratic A.I. thatís not quite perfect.
In general the A.I. is quite good. I can send Bravo team to the top of a hill to provide sniper cover for me as Boomer and I take care of business. I can have the team open a door for me and throw in a flashbang and help me clear the room. The problems start to occur when you are trying to maintain stealth. At times you will give a direct order to Boomer to hold his fire and go low profile, yet he may panic and take down an enemy, revealing your location or preventing you from getting intel. At other times you will be busy defusing a bomb, only to have an enemy sneak up on you while Boomer simply stands idle.
Based upon our gameplay impressions, it seems like Boomer has been programmed to be slightly trigger happy, and the close-range A.I. seems flawed. There are ways to get around this such as telling Boomer explicitly to ďfire at willĒ when you need him to protect you, but it has been difficult to get him to hold his fire. The problems arenít always there, but it can be frustrating at times. Nevertheless, as you gain more experience with the team AI, you naturally adapt and the game becomes much more enjoyable. Halfway into the game, I donít mind the AI problems anymore and have been able to use it effectively.
Enemy AI is also a mixed bag. To the developerís credit, they have taken into account the fact that some terrorists are trained mercenaries, while others have little or no experience. So depending on your mission, you encounter enemies with differing intelligence. There seem to be some problems though. In some levels enemies will go on alert after seeing a dead body, while in others you will be able to kill an opponent with a silenced weapon as his friend looks on. Every time you beat the game, a new difficulty level is unlocked and so itís possible that enemy AI will improve significantly with time.
The game is played primarily from a third person perspective, however you can switch it to first person mode. A simplified gamepad control scheme is possible, but we used the WASD/Mouse style approach with the left thumbstick controlling movement and right thumbstick controlling your crosshairs. The third person view is what I used most primarily because the animation of your character is so incredible. Although this allows you to see things your character does not have line of sight to, the game makes sure that you wonít be able to hit your target in such a situation, showing a red ďnoĒ symbol when this is the case.
My only complaint is that level load times do remind me of Halo on the Xbox. Itís not quite as slow though.
SIDEBAR: SOCOM is a game where you will want to read the manual.
My PS2 is all grown up
SOCOM is also noteworthy as being the first online game available from Sony. The game is designed to be used on broadband only, so lag is generally not an issue. Finding other players is only possible using Sonyís central servers, although it is possible to establish official clans and host private games via the service. On a Saturday night (10pm PST), there were about 2600 players online. Thatís actually a pretty good amount given that itís about the same number of people who are playing the UT2003 demo, and itís across fewer servers (meaning bigger games). There are 10 online maps with different goals such as rescuing hostages, team deathmatch, or CTF-like missions (planting bombs).
Comparisons to Counter Strike are probably fair. There is a wide range of skill being seen online and you always have teammates who have never played the single player mode and rush around. For a game that requires more teamwork this can be frustrating at times. SOCOM is simply not a game designed for run Ďn gun deathmatches. With some strategy, however, it is possible to break up your team into offense and defense and give different commands to different groups. The voice-over-IP software is top-notch and the fact that every gamer has such a headset and uses it, makes the game that much better. Certainly there are immature gamers who misuse the headset, but fortunately you can vote that person off the server.
That said, if you get lucky and get on a server with seasoned players, the game is excellent. USB Mouse/keyboard controls are not available to avoid others having an unfair advantage. Cheating in SOCOM is largely non-existent since it is a console game. The only problem arises with gamers on narrowband trying to use ICS to sneak onto SOCOM servers and lagging everyone else.
Setting up your own server is a bit quirky in that you canít easily switch maps in the middle of a game, or change any of the settings, but from a purely technical perspective, the multiplayer mode is quite good. Itís not as robust as PC games, but the style of gameplay is unique and Iíd say that a multiplayer SOCOM game is much more fun than a multiplayer Rainbow Six series game. Itís a different game than Counter Strike though. Counter Strike is a first person shooter with some teamwork and strategy whereas SOCOM is a stealthy tactical shooter, more like Metal Gear Solid 2 than any other FPS.
SIDEBAR: US Navy SEAL website: http://www.seal.navy.mil
Fun. Itís a blast to play, and the headset works superbly.
Single Player Campaign is a bit short. A skilled, determined player could probably beat the game in a weekend. There is some replay value as some enemies are not always in the same place on each level, but many are. You could add your own goals to the missions, such as trying to neutralize the enemy only using rifle butts and knife attacks.
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