One man armies are almost a distant memory these days. Many years and shooters have passed since the first Doom and Wolfenstein games, and now even the most rock solid action heroes get some sort of back up either from friends or ease their way forward by leaning in behind cover. It's not necessarily a bad thing. It can be just as powerful an experience to tackle the battle tactically with human or AI controlled comrades. But after having played through Socom 4: Special Force I'm starting to miss my solo days.
In Socom 4: Special Forces Cullen Gray and his Nato friends visits Southeast Asia to bully a revolutionary group called Naga. The first impression of the story and the main character is that they are completely devoid of any form of character or substance, and unfortunately this was an impression that lasted throughout the campaign. My guess is that you'll stop caring about why you shoot after five minutes, if you even cared to begin with. Gray is soulless, generically designed and has no ambitions apart from his next mission. A slightly more interesting character, but still a stereotypical one, is the sniper bird "54", who also happens to be playable in certain levels. More on that later on.
Much like in the predecessor Socom 4: Special Forces is all about conquering levels with the help of your squad mates, divided into Team Blue and Team Gold. You can give them orders with the d-pad through a rather simple interface with commands such as "go there" or "shoot". The maps are larger than what you would find in normal action games, and the idea is that you should sneak up on your enemy, overwhelm them or flank them, showing off your leadership skills while emptying your gun at the same time.
The maps - everything from villages in the jungle to ships and warehouses - are often well guarded and once you've entered combat your radar fills up with lots of angry red dots. A few well placed shots are enough to kill Gray and you're going to have to find some cover. The cover system is decent at best. There is an overall kind of shaky and imprecise feeling over the controls, and when you're in cover you are far from "glued" to it. To move and shoot while in cover turns into a pain, and I have sent many bullets flying into concrete barriers, wooden boxes and vehicles as I've tried to pick of Naga bad guys.
At first the strategic component comes across as completely unnecessary. I randomly press the d-pad to command the blue and golden boys and it works fine. When I ignore them completely and just let them tag along behind me, I have no problem clearing the areas in a semi-careful Rambo way. A bit later on, when I'm faced with a frigate that I need to blow up, I die a bit too often with the macho tactics and I'm forced to start using more precise methods. But it never really gets more difficult than sending your teams to a highlighted spot in the front and rear of the frigate. I run on board, shoot a bit, and I'm all clear.
After a few levels it's time to switch characters and I get to play one (of a total of four) stealth levels as the somewhat bitter and cocky 54. Much like Snake and Sam Fisher I sneak around in the shadows with a silenced gun and the objective is the pass through a heavily guarded harbour. I shoot guards in the head, perform surprise melee attacks when their backs are turned and I hide the bodies in the dark areas. All stuff we're used to, and nothing really memorable.
Now I've spent enough words on the dull campaign, and it's time to motivate the decent score I'm giving the game. It has to do with multiplayer, an area where Socom 4 gets a lot of things right. It's definitely better than the somewhat uneven Socom: Confrontation and despite some odd bugs (two mags ought to kill an enemy) both the co-operative campaign and the multiplayer is entertaining.
The game mode Bomb Squad is my personal favourite. Here you are either defending or disarming three explosive charges in the map and you disarm them with a technician - invaluable to the attacking team. Regardless of whether you are playing as a regular soldier or the technician you can accept a lot of action, and high demands are put on your teams ability to work together. The moments when a bomb is being disarmed is a real nail biting experience and when you finally are on the winning side of a match it's highly addictive.
There are lots of weapons in both the campaign and multiplayer and as I write this a list of about 2,5 pages lie on my table with all the guns listed. Before each level you pick your primary and secondary weapons. It's a mix of machine guns, assault rifles, shotguns and sniper rifles and it quickly becomes a hard to remember soup of letter combinations. To be honest, one rifle felt so similar to the next one that I never really found a favourite.
As far as presentation goes Socom 4: Special Forces does well, and when it peaks it reminds me of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves - not that it comes anywhere near the stunning graphics of Naughty Dog's crowning achievement, but Zipper aimed for the stars and that meant they at least landed high in the trees. The colour palette is pale and warm, and the lighting adds to the tropical atmosphere while the environments are detailed.
If you want to make use of your Move controller you should feel free to do so, but you are likely to return to your Dualshock after a few rounds. There aren't any real problems, the aiming is precise and it's easier to make those headshots, but you're still worse of than with your standard controller. You can also use the Sharp Shooter peripheral if you want to hold something that resembles a gun in your hands, but once again, these standard controller are a pretty neat invention.
A lukewarm campaign with some annoying flaws and a good (but currently somewhat bug infested) multiplayer mode is what we're getting. I was hoping for more. Engaging battles, more problem solving and levels that allowed me to experiment more with my tactics would have been welcome.