Summary: The first SOCOM was the first US Navy SEAL game to feature the input from US Naval Special Warfare. It became the most popular online console game of all time, and a Sony technological demo. With SOCOM II, Sony promised improvements across the board in both graphics and the balanced gameplay between entertainment and realism. Does SOCOM II still have what it takes to capture the interest of even the most die-hard of PC gamers? Yes.
Protectors not Aggressors
As a true warrior who fights with his intellect as much as he does his brawn, it is hard to imagine someone with more lethal potential than a U.S. Navy SEAL. These soldiers can be asked to undertake the most complex and difficult of missions in the most remote and heavily guarded of locations. They are trusted to finish the job through personal ingenuity, creativity, and skill. In Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, Navy SEALs were instrumental in securing much of the country's oil infrastructure to avoid ecological catastrophe and in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM in Afghanistan, Navy SEALs captured and eliminated numerous Taliban and terrorist threats. When it looks too hard to do, you call the SEALs.
SOCOM II: The Game
With that thought in mind, let's move on to the new PlayStation 2 game, SOCOM II: U.S. Navy SEALs. As a videogame, the goal in Sony's SOCOM series of games is entertainment not simulation. Nonetheless, the SOCOM series of games is privileged among games in that it is developed with the cooperation of Naval Special Warfare Command. Like the original, the single player missions are designed with scenarios and stories that put forth realistic goals, with a plausible sequence of objectives. In the game, blitzing the enemy with your Glock Model 18 and making as much noise as possible isn't going to work, but itís still fun. This is a game that requires you approach the mission with some mindfulness and care.
By working with Naval Special Warfare Command, Sony and Zipper Interactive have done their best to incorporate and honor some of what it means to be a Navy SEAL, while making sure that the priority is still a fun videogame. If you want to know what being a Navy SEAL is like, don't play SOCOM Ė work on being able to do push-ups until your friends are tired of watching you.
The original SOCOM was also a Sony technological showcase. They introduced broadband Internet play for the PS2, voice command technologies, Dolby Pro-Logic II, and progressive scan video. With SOCOM II, it seems like Sony Computer Entertainment America has made this series its own flagship title much as the Japanese PlayStation division has made Gran Turismo its own flagship title.
With SOCOM II, Sony adds DNAS (Dynamic Network Authentication System), a more robust Internet gameplay infrastructure, LAN support, and support for the upcoming internal Hard Drive. More importantly, SOCOM II has also concentrated on improving the underlying game itself and the sequel features significant improvements to the gameplay and graphics.
SIDEBAR: The Trident is the insignia of the US Navy SEALs.
It is inevitable that we compare the PS2 graphics to PC graphics. Since the PS2ís introduction in the GeForce2 era, PC graphics have experienced exponential growth in performance and capability. That said, the PS2ís graphics remain competitive but it is starting to show its age. The shimmering of polygons is slightly distracting on the PS2 when compared with the anti-aliased PC graphics, even in 480p mode. Still, SOCOM IIís environments have increased in polygon complexity and now contain more vivid textures.
Shrubs and bushes in the environment are still made up of a plane of 2D graphics instead of a true 3D bush. This can make battle within the tall grasses a little more difficult. Water effects in SOCOM II are reasonable, but again are becoming limited by the PS2. Fog is used very effectively in SOCOM II to prevent any pop-up and does add to the richness of the scenery.
Compared to SOCOM I, SOCOM IIís characters have more detailed facial expressions and textures, so not all enemies look like each other. Some of the 3D errors from SOCOM I, when parts of your body would be rendered past a wall or when you could see through a wall because of imprecise 3D calculations are improved.
The flashbang effect in SOCOM II is also significantly cooler. In the past, a Counterstrike-esque flash to white and then fade was used. In SOCOM II, the flashbang effect has a high-contrast burnt film look. Remember when Gran Turismo introduced the sun flare instead of the lens flare? SOCOM IIís flashbang effect is going to set the ball in motion for cooler and cooler effects in the future (imagine motion blur). In addition, the residual effects of flash bang are more prolonged with your field of view not normalizing for a few seconds.
Pixel shader-like effects are used for thermal vision and a new nightvision mode. Both of these effects are similar to the style used in Splinter Cell. Where SOCOM II goes further is implementation of pupil lag. When you go to night vision mode, it initially starts off very bright before your characterís eyes get used to the light. Likewise, when you go off night vision, everything is black before your characterís pupils have a chance to adjust to the low light conditions again. Very cool. Memory limitations have your opponents ďfading outĒ after some time though rather cooling down.
It is clear that SOCOM II takes the PS2 hardware to its limit. This is still better than some 3D games on the market today, but it isnít the best. Compared to SOCOM I, you will have little trouble agreeing that the graphical environments are better. What is more difficult is trying to break which individual improvements have made the most difference.
SIDEBAR: Another example of a cool effect pioneered on the PS2 was Metal Gear Solid 2ís rain effect
While the PS2 has DTS output capability, SOCOM II does not. With a Dolby Pro Logic II decoder, however, the ambient game sounds are still pretty well represented in the rear channels. The sounds of the weapons are still as realistic as in the first version and the music is noticeably better.
Voice recognition is slightly different than in the first version. A few of the voice commands have changed, so commands that worked before like ďlow profileĒ are replaced by ďget down.Ē In addition, you need to refer to your entire SEAL team as ďfire teamĒ instead of just ďteam.Ē These are slight differences but ones that can be a little frustrating if you are used to the original version. Voice recognition itself works similarly to before, with decent accuracy, but you will still need to repeat some commands a few times before your team understands.
A nice addition is the ability to lead more than just SEAL members. British SAS can now join your team and the players will respond to you in the appropriate accent. Speaking of the voice acting, SOCOM II is even better than the first, which featured native speakers for the foreign languages. This time, Michael Clarke Duncan even lends his voice to the team.
The soundtrack is also excellent, incorporating Hans Zimmer-like tunes. The intro is a clone of theme from The Rock with just enough changes to make it unique. As you progress further in the game, you will be able to access the soundtrack feature of SOCOM in the options menu allowing you listen to the music at your leisure.
SIDEBAR: Unfortunately, SOCOM II does not have a documentary as the first one did
Remember how ďrun and gunĒ didnít work well in SOCOM I? Well it works even less well in SOCOM II. In the first SOCOM, you could still beat the level with this technique, with SOCOM II the objectives are such that you would fail the mission immediately, or be dead before the first waypoint.
Although the game features 12 single player missions, the same as the first game, these levels are far more intricate. It is almost impossible to accomplish any mission on the first try unless youíre maintaining complete situational awareness and never lose your patience. The locales include Brazil, Russia, Albania, and Algeria, there are also urban environments along the lines of Splinter Cell.
The bad guys do not yet work as a team to defend their base or to attack you. They are basically firing at everything that moves. On the other hand, your team members are slightly improved from the first. We notice that the team works much better as a group, and Boomer is no longer on Able team. Unfortunately, weíve had Jester fall off tall buildings or choose not to run away from a grenade he incorrectly threw. Youíd think that ďrun away from grenadesĒ would be a simple rule to program.
The accuracy of the weapons is similar to the first SOCOM. The view through the scope is now a little blurrier, a purposeful change to make the game more realistic. When switching to scope mode, it takes a second for the image to come into focus, and there is more haziness in the eyepiece. Itís also more realistic and you cannot zoom through the bushes and see your enemy as you could in the original SOCOM. An additional view is a thermal view that gives you an infrared image of the environment.
Weapon choices have now increased as compared to what was previously available. When you work with SAS or Spetznaz, you have options to use international weapons as well. Realism of the weapons is also improved. In game switching of firing modes from single shot, to triple shot, to full automatic is slower than before, making the game more difficult. The rocket launcher is also really cool, especially in multiplayer. In order to preserve weapon balance, not only is your ammo severely limited but you also have to be completely stationary to take the shot. The rocket launcher is considered an accessory such as a grenade, so youíll still have a regular rifle and pistol. Turrets are also in the game and make for important defensive stations in multiplayer.
Scoring at the end of missions is now subdivided into more categories which makes is clearer what tasks were left incomplete or where improvements can be made.
The missions are now much more complex in terms of length and need to meet major objectives. Many times you will immediately fail a mission if the enemy detects your presence. Stealth in missions remains extremely important, which requires a patient player. Running and gunning is fun, but you rarely can beat any levels doing that. Even on levels that call for all enemies to be neutralized you need to go through the mission deliberately and controlled or youíll fail.
SIDEBAR: Donít even think about getting SOCOM II without using a USB headset. Playing SOCOM without the headset is like playing DDR with the gamepad.
Sony has advertised that your teammates are now much more capable compared to SOCOM I. This is true to a certain extent. Boomer has retired and you have Jester as your partner now. Your teammates now have improved aim and are a little better at remaining out of site. The one thing that they donít yet do very well is cover your back as you run around. If you give them a target to take out, they can do it, but they donít see every enemy that you can see. When they do see an enemy, they are much more intelligent. They will remain silent and only fire when there is an imminent threat, they wonít reveal your position accidentally. When asked to breach, bang, and clear a room, the team will deploy a blue chemiluminescent stick to indicate that the room has been cleared.
One aspect that can still be improved is that your team often gets in your way as you try to quickly exit a room through a narrow door. Another issue is that your bravo team sometimes gets left behind as they donít do a good job of keeping up with you when you run around too fast. This is actually realistic as you need to be responsible for your teammates and canít just assume that they can keep up. A separated team is a vulnerable team.
Enemy artificial intelligence is supposed to be improved as well. This isnít that noticeable though, as they canít see you 15 feet away if you are lying prone, and they still arenít as good at sniping you as you are them. In the higher difficulty modes the snipers are much better than the original game. It isnít that difficult for you to pull off a single, lethal headshot, but when you are being shot at by a sniper you have an opportunity to fire back.
That said, enemies are much more likely to shoot as soon as you are seen and they will also hide and camp in the foliage. In close combat, enemies wonít hesitate to rifle butt you and take you out, so you just canít blindly run past doors. Unlike MGS2, however, seeing their comrades down doesnít always trigger the response youíd expect.
SIDEBAR: You can even call for air support in certain missions
SOCOM made its mark in the industry as the most popular online console game ever. SOCOM II beat its predecessorís record in just 2 days after release. Although SOCOM II offers a superb first player experience, many people will be buying the game solely for the online mode.
As a broadband only game, SOCOM remains one of the best since it ensures that someone with a slow connection wonít crash out the game or lag everyone out. The ability to talk to you fellow gamers with the headset adds to the camaraderie and improves teamwork. Due to the quality level design, teamwork will in fact be something youíll see more often.
When hosting your own game, you can now do PC-esque things such as choosing the map rotation, or selecting which weapons are available, or in the Suppression maps you can even allow respawning making it like a Deathmatch. Scoring is based upon a chess scoring algorithm to help rank online players.
In addition to online play, SOCOM II supports LAN play with other PS2ís. The use of the Ethernet connection is much more convenient than the Firewire interface. It is a little slower at 100MBps vs 400MBps, but for games this should be more than enough. So you can now hold SOCOM II LAN parties; the PS2 is much more convenient to transport than even the smallest computer case. Unfortunately the same canít be said about TVs. Maybe if you had cool LCD TVsÖ
SOCOM II also features support for the 40GB HDD coming out in March. Itís unclear what it will take to use your own IDE hard drive with the PS2 or if that is even possible, however the plan is for Sony to use the HDD to allow downloading of new levels. I donít think Sony has decided whether or not these levels will be free or not. The level load times in SOCOM 2 are as slow as the original, and there doesnít seem to be a plan to use the hard drive to load games, like in the XBox.
Excellent Graphic Design: The PS2 was announced in the US at GDC 1999, the same event that NVIDIA announced the TNT2. Knowing that the PS2ís hardware capabilities arenít up to the same level as that from a modern PC, itís downright impressive that SOCOM IIís graphics are well designed enough that after you get into the game, you never stop to think about the look of the game, but are instead focusing on the mission at hand.
Excellent Voice Acting: Even though SOCOM II only features one recognizable voice (Michael Clark Duncan), the use of native speakers for the foreign language characters adds significantly to the experience. It's a simple concept, but still rare in today's games.
Awesome Technology (For the PS2):For the first time, I really think that cheating will be controlled on an online game. Not only has DNAS proved to be challenging to crackers, but Sony is willing to ban users for a wek if they are detected.
No headset included: The original SOCOM bundled a basic headset. With SOCOM 2, unless you already own the original game, you'll have to spend a little extra on the souped up headset.
No split screen co-op mode: The number one challenge in the single player is taking care of your fireteam. They're fairly smart, but you wouldn't trust them with your life. A split screen cooperative mode would really enhance the fun factor of the game, or at the very least, a co-op LAN mode. Maybe SOCOM 3...
No 16:9 mode: Progressive scan display mode is a great idea, but it would be even better if an anamorphic 16:9 mode was available as it is in GT4. 16:9 TVs are getting more and more popular, and we're approaching the time period where it makes sense to start including 16:9 modes in console games.
SIDEBAR: Do you know a Navy SEAL? Are you SURE? http://www.authentiseals.com/
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