SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals

Gamestyle Archive Intro: it seems hard to remember the era when online gaming was nothing more than a pipe dream. For Gamestyle and its followers in the early 90’s this was a period when the internet was only slowly becoming a possibility. Playing Quake 3 on the Dreamcast via a 33.3k modem was a memorable and impressive technical feat. The game that captured the true spirit of the internet and co-operative play was Sonic Team’s Phantasy Star Online; a magnificent experience.

The PlayStation 2 needed its own online experience and for Europe SOCOM was the launch title, going live almost a year after its American debut. Now games are dominated by online play and military combat. Gamestyle was fortunate enough to receive the review code for this title. It came as an impressive pack; perhaps the most impressive this writer can recall. Providing everything you needed to go online including the LAN adaptor and USB headset – which I occasionally still use today. In comparison the title has faded from memory unlike Call of Duty. This review dates from June 2003.

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When the Playstation 2 finally made its online debut, the flagship launch title was SOCOM: Navy Seals. This taut anti-terrorist game became the most functional online release and until recently remained the best reason for overcoming the hurdles between an offline and online playing session.

Gamestyle is aware of cheap Ghost Recon comparisons, however both titles offer a different perspective on tactical warfare. In SOCOM you control a SEAL unit, which is a highly-trained elite American unit, often engaged in anti-terrorist activities. Such a premise allows the team to be inserted into various environments with differing goals – showing good imagination and variety throughout. And unlike Ghost Recon, when you die here you are not conveniently transported into another body; even virtual life is precious. Releases such as these can be overcome with realistic demands, and to a certain extent lose the immediacy of a quick ten-minute session.

While SOCOM is faithful to its real-life counterpart (and is well researched, offering a satisfying blend of existing weaponry and tactics), it is thankfully not an American military training simulation. Zipper Interactive has managed to create a game which successfully bridges the gap between both camps, and proves engaging enough for the experienced warfare connoisseur or the most casual recruit. In retrospect, this is something that similar releases have failed to achieve to any great extent. Offline, the missions are well-planned yet remain forgettable, offering little reason to return. The opposition AI is decidedly average and shows rudimentary awareness of human foes. Mission goals can be tackled in any set order, and allow for a variety of different approaches. Even the gung-ho action fan will find much to savour, as the squad can be left to fire at will. Adding to its universal appeal is the implementation of the third-person view, which allows for easier squad control. (A first-person camera is included, however given its clunky nature and relative framiness, is an option best avoided.)

As the flagship title of the PS2 online experience, SOCOM has embraced everything that the new medium has to offer – albeit with mixed results. Being the first title to support the much-vaunted voice communication feature, means that this trailblazer was never going to technically satisfy (but only because it was the first). The communication – offline – is reasonably accomplished, and allows the player to direct his squad independently of position. Even with a thick (northern-Scottish) accent, Gamestyle managed to guide the elite troops with Lemmings-like precision. SOCOM is an evolutionary step forward from (Dreamcast’s) Seaman, which hinted at the possibilities afforded by the in-game microphone. For those uncomfortable with such a feature – or let’s face it, unable to afford the headset – intuitive menus exist as a back-up. Not content with merely directing troop movements, Zipper Interactive has enhanced the headset feature by using it for communication updates from HQ during play. A simple touch, but one that really drives home the practicality of the peripheral, which is more than just a two-way communication device.

Again, it serves to heighten the realism and immersion, but without increasing the learning curve. Unfortunately, the quality of the audio signal – online – leaves a great deal to be desired. In this game, it lacks the free-flowing clarity of its rival (Xbox Live), but second-generation (PS2 online) titles will no doubt overcome this tentative drawback. Visually, SOCOM is again functional, as the real gameplay cannot be measured by exotic environments or realistic-looking enemies (although the fogging can become rather intrusive). Moreover, any sustained interest stems from what is going on beneath the visuals – such as the aforementioned communication. Given the memory limits imposed by the strictly online environments obviously chastises any grandiose design – which perhaps explains the disappointing textures and low-level detail. After all, creating a wonderful environment full of life, incidental objects and multi-routes does not translate well online, and with sixteen players involved.

SOCOM: Navy Seals manages to avoid the main drawback associated with taking your Playstation 2 online because a thriving community of regular players supports it. Sixteen players – divided into two camps – facilitates highly-charged matches where good guys versus bad guys. Whether you play terrorist or army hero, expect an addictive experience (regardless of clan membership). Xbox Live users are aware that when Ghost Recon: Island Thunder participants hit double figures, the server can go into meltdown. Amazingly, the functionality of SOCOM avoids such a problem; and the only price to pay is the long sequence before joining or starting a match. Gamestyle feels that this indeed is a small price.

So, there you have it – a game that manages to deliver an online experience which completely overwhelms the single-player mode. If you have not yet endeavoured to go online with your Playstation 2, this perhaps provides a compelling reason to do so.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

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