Mar 25, 2011

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SOCOM 4 Dancing Its Way To Victory: Beta Impressions

SOCOM 4 Dancing Its Way To Victory: Beta Impressions

Zipper’s SOCOM franchise has been a fan favorite since the original SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALS released on the Playstation 2 in 2002.  The last title in the series, Confrontation, however, left a sour taste.  SOCOM: Confrontation, developed by Slant Six, received extremely negative reviews when it was released in 2008.  With SOCOM 4 releasing within the next month, does Zipper show that the franchise is returning to form?

For the beta, Zipper has given players access to two maps, Assault and Battery and Port Authority.  Assault and Battery features a jungle setting, while Port Authority takes place in a shipyard. These two maps demonstrate what will hopefully be a variety of level designs, and both of the beta maps are surprisingly large. These large maps allow for 32 players to fit without a sense of crowding or getting killed every five seconds, unless you are that bad. As I was playing however, I did discover that there were not a lot of spawn-camping deterrents, so this might be an issue that will be addressed by Zipper when it proves to be a problem.

The beta gives players six different character options for SEALs and six for Insurgents. The character list has space for 12, so it would be a reasonable expectation that the retail version has at least that many character options for online play. One of the best aspects of the beta was that Zipper gave gamers a variety of toys to play with, with a total of 32 guns spread across five different groups: shotguns, sub-machine guns, assault rifles, machine guns, and sniper rifles. Each of those 32 guns also has five levels of progression, with each level providing a bonus for that weapon. Puzzling, though, is the decision to remove pistols from the game completely.

Zipper has clearly put in extra work into making sure each one of these guns has a unique identity. Gun accuracy is quick to deteriorate when firing in longer bursts. Once you start firing at the enemy, it becomes harder to follow him with your cross hairs while maintaining a constant rate of fire. This makes the use of light-machine guns much more difficult. The days of killing someone across a map with a sub-machine gun are over.

After players join a match, gamers can choose a primary weapon and a backup. If you so choose to, you can select a sniper rifle as your primary weapon, and a sub-machine gun or assault rifle as your backup. Also allowed are two types of equipment such as one claymore and one concussion grenade. There are eight different types of equipment, including gas grenades, fragmentation grenades, concussion grenades, mines, claymores, PE4 charges, and smoke, so the game offers a wide variety of customization.

SOCOM 4 does introduce new some features, including a cover system.  If a player is standing beside a wall or crate, simply hitting circle will engage the new cover system.  The cover system seems to be an alternative to lean, a feature noticeably absent and one many of the older SOCOM fans will miss.  The good news is that the cover system is simple and well done.  Players will be able to peek around corners and over short objects, much like the cover system in Killzone 3.

What many SOCOM fans have feared is that Zipper has created this game with Call of Duty fans in mind, and that is understandable, as many shooters have gone the way of Call of Duty. This concern should be put aside, however, as the beta illustrates that Zipper has added a classic version of each game type. When playing the classic game types, gameplay slows down, as gamers tend to be more cautious with one life. The inclusion of a health bar in classic mode should also put veterans at ease. Players’ screens will not be flooded with blood, which is one element that makes the game unique. It is a nice change of pace, and old and new fans should find the classic modes appealing.

The standard mode picks up the pace, with players rushing to their doom, blood covering your screen, unlimited spawns, and yes, air strikes. It is also interesting to note that friendly fire is on in every game type within the beta, and I have no evidence to say that a friendly fire “off” mode will be provided in the retail version. In case you are wondering, you will be able to do the dougy over your enemies corpse, because victory dances are alive and well in SOCOM 4.

Throughout my play through, movement in a match often felt clunky in tight spaces, which is more of an issue for this game, because unlike Call of Duty and Battlefield: Bad Company, SOCOM is a third-person shooter. In larger areas and rooms, SOCOM‘s controls handle well after tweaking the sensitivity, though, so this issue shouldn’t be a problem for anyone.

While I was able to play the demo at PAX East, this beta looks to be a newer build than that one. Perhaps it was just my television being better than the 12″ one they had at their booth. Either way, the levels are bright and the character models are good. Minor clipping does appear to be a regular occurrence at this point, but it doesn’t take away from what was an overall quality experience. More importantly, SOCOM 4 maintains a steady frame rate and I detected no lag. It seems Zipper learned a lot from MAG about minimizing lag .

Often one of the most overlooked aspects of any online video game are the menus and stat tracking. SOCOM 4 excels in both aspects. The menu system is easy to navigate and looks good, but the stat tracking is a real gem. Zipper is tracking every statistic imaginable with this game, including the number of times you have done a victory dance or killed a chicken. On top of that, it appears as if the stats update immediately after you exit a game. While this might not seem like a big deal, DICE has yet to perfect the technique of a reliable stat system in Battlefield: Bad Company 2. The game also keeps track of co-op statistics separately.

Heading into the beta, I was a little skeptical of SOCOM 4, but it is proving to be a good source of entertainment. Overall, the game plays and looks great, and the number of customizable weapons and load-outs only boosts the fun-factor. Zipper is hoping to grab both the SOCOM faithful with classic modes, while also reaching for a new audience in its standard game play modes, and the beta shows Zipper succeeding on both counts.

Unfortunately, Zipper has not given access to the single-player, which is a shame, because that was my favorite part of the first three. Gamers will be forced to wait until the full game comes out to play the 14 missions contained in the single-player.  A second beta will begin Tuesday, March 29 for PlayStation Plus members and those with codes. Stay tuned to VividGamer.com and our twitter for a chance to win one of several SOCOM 4 beta codes!

SOCOM 4 will be hitting store shelves exclusively for the PlayStation 3 April 19.