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Becoming a U.S. Navy SEAL is hard work. The training these guys go through is really intense stuff but those who make it through that training become part of an elite group of soldiers that can operate in all environments – Sea, Air, and Land, hence the name SEAL. Shortly after I graduated high school I turned eighteen and I can remember getting calls from several branches of the United States military asking if I wanted to join up. While I have the utmost respect for our troops, I don’t think that life was for me. Luckily, there are video games that attempt to simulate what it would be like to be a soldier. I think it’s obvious most of these military shooters are not exactly accurate to reality, but it’s still fun to kill waves of bad guys while listening to soldiers shout military jargon. In SOCOM’s case, you get to pretend you’re a SEAL, the best of the best. SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs is a tactical third-person shooter developed by Zipper Interactive, published by Sony Computer Entertainment, and released in August, 2002 for the PlayStation 2. At that time tactical shooters for the PC were pretty big with games like Rainbow Six and the original Ghost Recon, which released a year earlier, but for those who didn’t have a PC to play these games, SOCOM gave PS2 owners a chance to experience the tactical shooter genre. I think SOCOM was produced in abundance because every time I visit a game shop that sells older games, I always tend to find numerous copies of SOCOM and its PS2 sequels. Many times I find it in the same bin with all the sports games. Needless to say, finding a copy isn’t hard and after passing it up hundreds of times, I finally decided to give it a chance.
Like most games in this genre, the story in SOCOM is definitely not the focus. You play through four Operations, with each consisting of three missions. Each Operation is set in different areas around the world with different groups of terrorists to deal with. You’ll need to stop a group known as the Iron Brotherhood from blowing up an oil platform in Alaska and rescue the U.S. Ambassador and his wife from another group known as the Riddah Rouge in Thailand. In the Congo you’ll need to rescue POWs being held captive by dangerous mercenaries and the final operation takes you to Turkmenistan where you need to stop the terrorist group known as the Allah Sadikahu from using nuclear weapons. I guess you could say there’s four separate stories going on and I don’t believe they’re connected in any real way. The real focus of the game is how you play and complete objectives.
You lead a SEAL fireteam consisting of four men identified by their codenames. You play as the leader known as Kahuna and under your command are Boomer, Jester, and Spectre. Spectre seems to be the only standout squad member because he’s a translator and if he dies you won’t be able to obtain intel by listening to enemy conversations. Basically, no more subtitles. Before each mission is a briefing where you can get an overview of the situation, know what your objectives are, see a map of the area, and equip your squad with weapons and tactical gear. There are brief cut scenes before and after each mission but they don’t really seem to serve a purpose other than to give missions an intro and outro. A chunk of the voice acting is during mission briefings where some woman will tell you what’s going on and in all honestly she couldn’t sound less enthused if she tried. The rest of the voice acting heard during gameplay isn’t that great either. Kahuna sounds generic and uninterested in anything going on and your squad members will sometimes shout things when you successfully complete and objective or if they get injured, but most of the time you’ll be listening to them respond to your commands.
The team can be split into two smaller teams of two, named Able and Bravo. Kahuna and Boomer are part of Able, Jester and Spectre are part of Bravo. You do not get to decide who is part of what team and Boomer will never leave your side. Just like other tactical shooters, a big part of the gameplay is commanding your squad. One of the neat features of SOCOM was the ability to use a headset to issue voice commands but, unfortunately, I don’t have a PS2 headset so I resorted to using the in-game command menu which actually works pretty well. You can command your guys to clear rooms, kill enemies, move to locations, defuse bombs – it’s nothing you haven’t seen before if you played any other tactical shooter of the time. Each squad member is equipped with a primary and secondary weapon which include various assault rifles, sniper rifles, submachineguns, heavy machineguns, pistols, and most of these weapons have alternates which are silenced. In addition to the weapons is the tactical gear including different types of grenades, satchels, C4, and some gear is unique to specific missions and can’t be unequipped. After beating the game you unlock a bigger arsenal of weapons to be used in repeated playthroughs.
Each mission has at least one primary objective and usually multiple secondary objectives. You’ll be doing things like rescuing hostages, restraining terrorist leaders, blowing up weapons caches, disabling equipment, and other generic military stuff like that. Most of the environments are open, usually with multiple paths to an objective but if you get lost you can open a map to see where you need to go. I guess you could say SOCOM is a stealth game because it really pushes you to be stealthy. Staying in the shadows, shooting lights, hiding dead bodies, staying crouched and going prone are just some of the ways to remain unnoticed. Bad weather, being submerged in water, and staying in foliage will also help keep you out of sight. If you manage to sneak up on an enemy you can execute a silent knife kill or rifle butt. Crouching and going prone will help increase your accuracy when shooting although if you turn on aim assist, you shouldn’t have much trouble, even if your standing or running and gunning which I learned is the easiest way to get through this game, at least the first time you play. The game really wants you to use the stealth mechanics but it’s really not hard to just run through areas and gun down enemies. The biggest problem with this game is the difficulty. You don’t actually set the difficulty and instead the game becomes progressively more difficult each time you beat it. With that said, I found the game really easy the first time through, although the last two missions seem to be noticeably harder than all the rest. It doesn’t take many shots to kill or be killed but the combat is definitely more forgiving compared to many PC games in the genre, which is to be expected since this game is console exclusive. I think to really get the full experience, you’ll need to beat the game at least once so that being stealthy actually has more meaning. Sure, you can be quiet and careful the first time through but if you mess up or get noticed, you never have to worry about anything since gunning everybody down works just as well. After beating it the first time you may not want to play through it again so not having the ability to manually set the difficulty seems like a significant issue in a game like this.
I did notice that this game likes to introduce features that only seem to appear once. For example in the fifth mission, you can call in helicopter support to sweep the area of enemies and extract hostages. Yeah, that seems cool but you only get to do it during that one mission. In other missions, you’ll escort hostages to an extraction zone and that’s it, mission complete. One of the missions in the Congo lets you use this laser to identify enemy bunkers so jets can bomb them. And later in the game you’ll be pursued by an attack helicopter and need to shoot it down. Things like this stand out because they’re so unique compared to everything else you’ll be doing.
SOCOM can actually be played in first-person however I primarily played in third since you get a better view of your surroundings. When playing in first-person you won’t see the gun model but that was actually typical of many first-person tactical shooters back in the day. In many of the missions that contain dark areas you’ll be equipped with night vision goggles and they are helpful but unfortunately, you can only use night vision in first-person which really sucks. If you’re not running and gunning you’ll be slowly creeping or crawling through areas and that could be the difference between completing a mission in five minutes or completing it in twenty. The bad part is that there are no checkpoints so if you fail a mission you need to restart it from the beginning. If you die or if everybody in your squad dies, it’s an immediate mission failure. The same goes for failing to complete a primary objective. If you’re just blasting your way through a mission it shouldn’t take you that long to complete on your first run through the game however, putting all your efforts into being stealthy and cautious can be fun and satisfying but frustrating if you need to restart. This is a common concept in games like this although I find that tactical shooters on the PC have more fluid controls and once you learn them, everything feels seamless. But a game like this on console, where every button on the controller has a function, there’s more room for error, so you may need to be extra careful and think before doing, at least until you learn the controls. Bringing up the command menu may become second nature but you still need to fumble through commands as opposed to using muscle memory on a keyboard or simply using a mouse in other games like Rainbow Six 3 or SWAT 4. After commanding your team to do something, if they’re a significant distance away, it may take them what seems like forever to get where you need them to go. I get that because this game is on console, the command system and controls are limited, and because of that I really think the developers should have added mission checkpoints or at least an option to toggle them on or off. I really did try to use stealth the first time I would play a mission and eventually learned to memorize where enemies were placed because if I failed a mission I resorted to just blasting my way through it the second or third time around. This leads to another problem and that’s enemy placement. Most tactical shooters back in the day used randomized elements to increase replay value. Sadly, SOCOM doesn’t do this. The enemy placements are not really randomized. I did notice that they may spawn in a different spot if you play a mission again but it’s always in the same area and always near where they spawned before. If you play this game religiously, you can probably memorize where all of the enemies will be. For me, that really eliminates any replay value. Tactical shooters are about being cautious, on alert, and always being prepared for the unknown and there’s not a lot of unknown in SOCOM.
The AI in SOCOM really leans towards the stupid side. When you first start playing you may not notice it right away but it becomes more evident the more you play. Enemies don’t always react when one of their buddies is killed only a few feet away, you may enter a room and the enemies inside won’t notice you, and firing an unsilenced weapon doesn’t always alert the enemies that are definitely close enough to hear it. After beating the campaign, the game states enemies become more aggressive but I really don’t know if that means improved AI. It may just mean enemies react quicker and maybe they’re even more accurate with weapons. Sometimes your squad members will get ambushed from behind even if they’re commanded to cover that area, SEAL or no SEAL, one would think anyone with ears could hear enemies come charging and screaming in your direction so why they would keep getting killed from behind is beyond me. I don’t think me or any of my guys were ever killed by a sniper but more from enemies that seem to come out of nowhere, specifically in the second to last mission. During that mission, in one spot in particular, one or two of my guys would always end up getting killed from enemies that seem to just appear from somewhere behind us. Even after commanding them to hold or cover that area, the end result was always the same. Your squad will also do other stupid shit like sometimes stand in doorways or turn their back to enemies. Now I do admit I suck at games like this and would probably get most of my guys killed if I had to command a squad in real life, but I found that as I progressed through the game, I was starting to lose guys during missions due to poor AI rather than my own negligence.
One of the more unique elements of this game was the online multiplayer. Not that I would have played online anyway but the servers were shut down some time ago and there’s no LAN capabilities so it’s basically been reduced to a single player experience. On that note, there’s nothing else to do besides play through the campaign which, for me, is one of SOCOM’s bigger problems. When I play games like Rainbow Six or SWAT 3 and 4, I’ll play through the campaigns but I really look forward to the other single player modes like Rainbow Six’s terrorist hunt or creating custom missions in the SWAT games. Throw in the fact they will each include random enemy placements and you get games with immense replay value. SOCOM includes nothing like this and I think the multiplayer was supposed to be that other reason to return. This alone is a perfect example of why I tend to stay away from multiplayer focused games. Besides the fact I never want to rely on other players for my enjoyment, when the multiplayer servers shut down, the game is fucked. It’s stripped of a major element and if you bought the game strictly for multiplayer, you’re shit out of luck unless dedicated players find other ways to play it online. And because SOCOM is exclusive to a console, it becomes that much more limited when it comes to options. The campaign is fine but additional single player modes would have been a welcome addition. And another big problem is that you cannot replay missions even after beating them. Once you beat a mission you advance to the next and if you want to replay one you’ll need to restart the game and get to that mission or beat the game again. So not only is there no other single player gameplay modes but you can’t even pick and choose what missions you want to play through whether it be just to improve your score or because you like a particular mission. This seems like a very odd and poor design choice.
On the technical side the game runs fine. The frame rate does dip often enough but it’s not severe and the draw distance sucks but this is a PlayStation 2 game after all. Zooming in with binoculars or to snipe will reveal objects and more importantly enemies in the distance so at you least you never have to deal with cheap surprises if you’re careful. Visually, the game is just dated. I don’t think SOCOM was a looker back in the day but all of the environments just look bland and uninteresting. Textures are muddy, character models aren’t very well detailed, but the lighting is at least somewhat decent. Areas are portrayed well enough to depict the location but there’s nothing truly outstanding about the visuals. Animations are scripted but whenever you shoot an enemy it feels satisfying to watch him go down. The sound in SOCOM is actually quite good. Gunfire and explosions sound excellent although the reload sound effects are weak. The music is your generic cinematic/military style stuff with this patriotic tune that kicks in whenever you complete an objective.
Whenever I talk about tactical shooters, someone inevitably brings up the SOCOM games and how the first three PS2 titles were the best. I can honestly say I’m not really that impressed with this but maybe the sequels contain significant improvements. I really hope so because the first SOCOM is not a bad game by any means but I think those who enjoyed it so much either didn’t have a PC to play any of the other tactical shooters out at the time or were just in love with the online multiplayer which is no longer an option. If you’ve played any of the other popular games in the genre like Rainbow Six or SWAT 3 and 4, it’s hard not to notice the faults in SOCOM. Granted, the game is limited in many aspects by being exclusive to a console but even what is here didn’t really captivate me. Without difficulty options you’re forced to play through the campaign, on what I’ll call easy mode, the first time you play. I really didn’t feel like playing through this again but I think to get the most out of SOCOM you really need to play through the campaign multiple times as it keeps getting harder. Only then will using the stealth mechanics, the game so forcibly throws in your face, seem crucial for success. Some of the problems can be due to the game’s age but others like the lack of other single player modes and sub-par AI don’t make it any better nor do they help the game beg for players to return. Considering you can find SOCOM for extremely cheap now, I would say check it out if you’re interested but just know there are far better tactical shooters out there.