There’s no denying that shooters are the most popular genre in modern gaming. Seems like every other week we get another shooter releasing on the HD consoles. That makes for a ton of competition and if any single shooter wants to stand out they really have to do something new and different. Does SOCOM IV succeed at this or is it just another face in a crowd of shooters?
You play as Cullen Gray, affectionately called the “Ops Commander”, who leads a small five man team of two US Navy SEALs and two similar South Korean operatives under the NATO umbrella. Their assigned task is to seek out a group of rebels near the Strait of Malacca, known as the Naga, and to take out their leader. Before the mission really starts in earnest the crap hits the fan immediately. The chain of command is broken when your Chief NATO Commander’s HQ is destroyed within the first five minutes and suddenly it’s just your five man team and a Captain by default, called Oracle, on a battered up ship against the entire rebel force. Things do not look great.
Now you may have noticed that my retelling of the story was a tad dry and full of military jargon. Well get used to it because that’s exactly how the story to SOCOM IV goes. Each mission is led into by a little synopsis of what you’re doing and why from Oracle, but it’s all very clinical and emotionless. I understand that this is more realistic and that every SEAL mission isn’t a harrowing tale of family redemption or self-discovery, but just going to areas 'because it needs to get done' gets boring and doesn’t really make for an interesting video game story, regardless of its realism. There are some cut scenes during the missions and little plot twists, but because the bulk of the story is told so clinically you don’t really get a feel for the characters and it’s hard to care about someone’s self-sacrifice or betrayal when you barely know who they are.
The SOCOM series has always been in its own little shooter niche known as “tactical shooter” and SOCOM IV takes the tactical part very seriously. You control everywhere your teammates go by pointing to the area you want them to go and pressing left on the directional pad for one team and right for the other. Clicking on an enemy instead of a patch of ground in this way gives the team a specific target to focus on. Pressing down on the directional pad sets everyone to follow. My issue with this control scheme is that it becomes a little too much like babysitting sometimes; apparently my teammates are too dumb to take good cover spots unless I specifically tell them. This works in a game like Mass Effect 2 where your squad mates can take a decent number of hits before they die, but in SOCOM IV deaths are realistically quick once you start soaking up a few bullets and this forces you to micromanage your squad mates if you want them to do anything useful. It can become tiresome, setting and resetting positions for your squads as you move across a field, never knowing when the actual firefight is going to start.
You move from one firefight to the next with some reasonable variety in objectives but there's nothing to get you excited about what might be around the next corner. You know that it’ll be a bunch of generic bad guys with maybe a vehicle or two, the only thing you don’t know is when the next group will pop up. As you play through, weapons that you use often level up and receive improvements (like faster firing rate or a new scope), but the order of these new features is set in stone so it doesn’t really feel like you're customizing your weapons. You can choose what pieces to use but there aren’t any detriments to the new pieces, so there’s no reason to choose anything other than the latest set up for each weapon.
Gameplay diversity is maintained by adding in solo stealth missions every now and then. The irritating part about these sections of the game is that they are all too unforgiving. Most stealth based gameplay in games allows for a little bit of wiggle room if you get sighted to continue the mission but I didn’t really see that in SOCOM IV. Most times, when someone saw me, that was it, and on that note I’d like to make a general tip to developers everywhere. While playing SOCOM IV I came to a realization - re-doing portions of the game where you are forced to move abnormally slowly is the worst thing ever in games. Sneaking around a building for the third time because I can’t quite figure out how to pass the guard at the end is some of the most boring stuff I can imagine. It’s not all terrible though, the sneaking missions were the best time for me to snipe to my heart’s content, as long as I didn’t overdo it and kill someone that would be discovered by the other guards.
So the single player is a bit dull, but who cares? Shooters are all about the multiplayer, right? Well if that’s what you think about the genre then you could get a reasonable amount of fun out of SOCOM IV. It includes some competitive multiplayer modes that are surprisingly unique, like Bomb Squad, in which one team tries to diffuse a bomb while the other tries to defend them. The interesting part is not every person can diffuse the bombs but instead one person on the diffusing team is assigned as the Bomb Tech. Your weapons choices are limited, you move a little slower due to the bomb suit, and everyone else now has the job of protecting you. It's kind of like an escort mission within multiplayer, but it works. There are three other modes ranging from the classic team deathmatch to king of the hill type modes, each with their own unique little twist. Strangely there’s also a mode called Abandoned that, for whatever reason, I couldn’t access - if that’s due to a level requirement I didn’t see anything saying so.
Interesting multiplayer modes are great, but my issue with SOCOM IV’s multiplayer is the core gameplay. As with the single player you die with just 2 or 3 bullets, which is all fine and realistic, but it isn’t all that fun. Respawning just to die in ten seconds is not what I want to do when there are other, more entertaining online multiplayer shooters to play. I’m sure many fans of the series will tell me that I’m not being fair, and that’s how a tactical shooter should play, but I just don’t see the tactics in these matches. Maybe in past SOCOM titles, when deaths were permanent, players would be careful where they went and try to sneak their way through a level instead of just running in blasting, but SOCOM IV opted for the more popular respawning multiplayer and perhaps it has suffered for it. It’s not all bad, of course. If you want, you can turn off respawning when you make your own game (as well as a plethora of other choices to tune the match to suit you), but that still doesn’t change the established and popular modes.
Cooperative multiplayer is also available but the options are lackluster. You can create custom missions to play with friends online, however there are only two mission types and six maps, so “custom” seems like overstating it. You can also change the enemy count and difficulty but the fact that missions can only consist of either taking down opposing officers or securing intel is wholly disappointing.
Visuals in SOCOM IV are about as uninspired as one can get. Shadows are noticeably blocky and everything just has the look of something from the beginning of this generation of consoles instead of nearing the end. The music has a tendency to kick in and out based on whether or not a firefight is occurring, which is always a nice indicator of when you can relax, but it isn’t always accurate, which is irritating. Even my teammates would sometimes say “all clear” right before I got shot by some forgotten adversary. Perhaps, again, this was done for realism because all the enemies my teammates could see were dead, but it was irritating nonetheless.
SOCOM IV took me five and a half hours to complete the single player, but that was with a plethora of deaths, so it’ll probably be shorter if you don’t suck. Obviously there’s a fairly unique multiplayer, but there isn’t a lot of reason to keep going at it and the almost immediate deaths can be infuriating for newcomers (read: me). You can upgrade your weapons through use, much like in single player, but it only upgrades based on kills, so you have to go into a fight with a crappy sniper rifle and try to get enough kills to turn it into something worthwhile. To add insult to injury, if you get put on the other team some of your weapons change so you’re back to square one and have two sets of weapons to level up past mediocrity. There’s an experience and leveling system but I couldn’t find any indicator of what I’d gain for further levels, so it’s a hard sell for pushing through the online.
Some of you are probably reading this and assuming that I hated SOCOM IV with every fiber of my being, but I don’t. It’s just a second-rate offering in an overcrowded genre. Maybe if good-to-great shooters weren’t coming out in multiples every month SOCOM IV’s flaws wouldn’t seem as glaring, but they are. Online competitive multiplayer has some interesting takes on classic modes, but mediocrity seeps from every other pore. I wish the fans the best and I hope they enjoy every moment of the latest game in their favorite series, but for everyone else I suggest you just go back to playing something from the mountain of superior shooters.