The new SOCOM is like a lot of other sequels these days. It's changed just enough to worry fans of the older games, changed just enough to take a crack at a more popular competitor. SOCOM, meet Call of Duty.
You could mistake SOCOM 4 for being something other than a true sequel to the most popular PlayStation-exclusive shooter series of all time. I saw the game today in an office in midtown Manhattan and walked out with a notebook marked with non-SOCOM details:
-No voice commands in this game
-Regenerative health in the campaign; lots of ammo
-Has a cover system
That's not the whole story, though. There are SOCOM-style features to this third-person-shooter:
-Player controls one character and can command two other fire-teams (four other characters overall) for careful, tactical gameplay.
-Significant offering of multiplayer modes
-No regenerative health; no cover in multiplayer (optional)
Ben Jones, a designer on SOCOM 4 at development studio Zipper Interactive, never said the words "Call of Duty" to me when he showed me the game today. He did talk about "modern games" and about making the game "more accessible." Those are CoD codewords. They're consistent with what Zipper people have said before about SOCOM 4. They want people to experience a more dramatic campaign that is spiked with moments of bigger action. The first-person-shooter Call of Duty series sells multi-millions; of course people making a shooter of their own might think there's a thing or two to imitate.
What I played today, however, was not exactly SOCoD. And the details Jones shared with me about the game's online modes further suggest that SOCOM 4 could be stepping into CoD terrain with maybe just one foot, not two.
I played part of SOCOM 4's second campaign mission, a tutorial mission set in Malaysia that introduced me to the game's second fire team and the concept of issuing commands to two teams. The Call of Duty games don't do this kind of thing. It's a SOCOM staple.
I was controlling the game with the PlayStation Move, the motion controller and its companion Navigation controller cradled in Sony's new Sharpshooter rifle shell (more about these controls later on Kotaku).
I used the d-pad to command the teams: d-pad left to send the two-man blue team toward whatever point my gun was pointed at when I pressed the button, d-pad right to send the two-person gold team. Blue is armed for close-quarters combat and overall mayhem. Gold is good for sniping and suppression. Blue is aligned with the player's character, whose nationality will match the region-specific special forces units of the country where the game is sold (U.S. Navy Seals for those who buy this game in America, for example; SAS for British consumers). The gold team is South Korean and led by a woman, another twist — and an accurate one, a PlayStation rep told me — for the SOCOM series.
Call of Duty sells multi-millions; of course people making a shooter of their own might think there's a thing or two to imitate.
The SOCOM 4 player can issue many commands. They can issue too many in the game's more frantic later stages for voice control to continue to be an efficient means of control, Jones told me. What was a classic feature of older SOCOMs — the games came bundled with headsets — is gone.
The player uses the Move controller or their DualShock's analog sticks to mark waypoints and targets. The build I saw allowed for an unlimited number of commands, though it wasn't clear if that will be capped prior to the game's April release. what is currently an unlimited number of. Players can send their fireteams from cover point to cover point, and then in an attack that has them sequentially attacking enemy fighters. In the level I played, I led the two fireteams in an assault on an enemy military based in a jungle. The assault involved hiding in tall weeds, which are so-called soft cover that allow a prone or slow-moving player to be undetectable. From there I commanded the gold team to creep in from the right, thinning out. From the left, I made the blue team rumble in. Briefly, enemies were alerted and grenades were tossed. To say I did this smoothly and perfectly on my first try would be to lie to you readers.
The early levels aren't that busy with enemies. On a second try, I'd bet mission two would be easy. Jones said that a player just starting the game could test SOCOM 4's advanced buddy artificial intelligence and freely send the fireteams toward the enemy. The fire teams are smart enough to clear the enemies pretty much on their own, reviving each other if there are problems. Later in the game, and at higher difficulty levels, he added, you can't do that. Careful play is required. That's SOCOM.
Health does regenerate. Ammo is more readily available. In multiplayer, though, all that can be turned off. Jones didn't show me multiplayer, but explained that the game's online competitive matches can be played in a classic mode that reverts to a SOCOM-style health-pack and no-cover system. Players will be able to toggle elements like those or just jump into the new multiplayer format — all the same modes — with the campaign's changed systems. In single-player and multiplayer gamers will also be filling a progress bar for each weapon with which they score a kill, unlocking upgrades. Sound CoD-ish? Players will see point tallies fly from those kills, but only in multiplayer. In solo play, the point tallies don't appear and the totals are kept separate from multiplayer accomplishment.
I'm not a longtime SOCOM player, so I have to work with the facts I've been given. I was told, though, that longtime SOCOM fans were recently welcomed into Zipper's studio to try the game's "classic" multiplayer on a GameStop-exclusive map called Abandoned. That map is from an older SOCOM game and has been upgraded for SOCOM 4. The PlayStation reps at today's meeting say the SOCOM fans were pleased. Of course they'd say that, but I didn't see a game today that would have made them completely angry.
There's still SOCOM in SOCOM 4; it's not exactly hiding. Look for more on the game — including further details on its five-player campaign-based co-op — as we approach its April release on the PlayStation 3.
[Note: Images and video in this post are from SOCOM 4's multiplayer modes, not the single-player mission I played today.]