Gray and Brown (With Video Review)
The problems begin in the game's single player campaign. You play as NATO's Ops Com, or Operations Commander, and are immediately thrown into conflict in an unnamed Asian country with a largely faceless terrorist group. As if the muted grays and browns of the game's environments didn't look bland enough, the game never takes the time to explain where you are, or even who you and your squad mates are. A little bit of the Ops Com's history with the region is revealed later in the game, but it feels forced and overdramatic, like a soap opera. The fact that Zipper couldn't be bothered to give their settings and characters the dignity of their own names just goes to show how little effort has been put into making SOCOM 4 stand out. A generic tone hangs over the game like a dark cloud, and it never dissipates.
Other than the ambiguous nature of the game's story and the generic manner in which it is executed, the single player is serviceable. The controls have been intelligently thought out (which is a first for a SOCOM game on the PS3. Zing!), although you can't blind fire, and the levels themselves are designed well, with multiple opportunities for flanking built into most encounters. This is important because, like previous games in the series, SOCOM 4 has a pretty in-depth set of squad commands. In most missions, you'll get to command two squads of two using the D-Pad's left and right buttons. This can allow for some fairly elaborate flanking strategies. Further depth is added to the formula in the form of each squad's strengths and weaknesses. The Gold Squad, for example, is best at long range, silenced kills. The Blue Squad, on the other hand, is equipped with assault rifles and shotguns, making them the go-to for close encounters. In theory, this would prompt you to carefully plan out each assault before pulling the trigger. In execution, it's much more efficient to simply run in guns blazing and let everyone handle themselves.
A handfull of stealth missions serve to break up the shooting, and while the first of these is a welcome distraction, they can later become frustrating. Typically, being spotted means an almost instantaneous death. A stealth meter on the side of the screen shows how visible you are to enemy sentries. The meter will skyrocket if you walk too fast or step into the light. The most effective way to best the stealth sections, then, is to go prone and crawl through the entire level. It's cool that you can drag enemies' bodies into the shadows after silently killing them (a feature that wasn't even present in the last Splinter Cell game,) but by and large these levels serve to frustrate more than entertain.
SOCOM's bread and butter has never been single player, though. The online multiplayer is where SOCOM 4 sinks or swims, but in this case it's really more of the former. Zipper, of all developers, should be at the forefront of multiplayer gameplay, given their pioneering role in the genre so long ago. Instead, if anything, they have revealed themselves to be content with wallowing in the past. Sure, it's impressive that they've squeezed 32 players into their online modes. But the boring design of the single player carries over to the online realm. Even in the objective-based modes, matches seem to lack a sense of direction. Everybody just mills about, shooting whoever happens to fall into their crosshairs.
Speaking of the crosshairs, SOCOM 4's are unusually large. Even when you stop moving, the reticule seems elephantine in comparison to most games. This isn't much of an issue in the single player, where you'll be facing off against AI enemies of middling intelligence. Online is a different story altogether. Trying to pick off enemies from a distance with anything but a sniper rifle is a tedious affair. Equipping scopes to your weapons will allow you to slip into first person for a bit more precision, but the transition in perspectives feels a little jarring. It would've been much easier if Zipper had just made the reticule smaller, or even included an option in the menus to change its size. As is, it feels bloated and unwieldy.
The game's multiplayer modes, while numerous, don't do much to encourage precision or teamwork. Other than the standard Team Deathmatch, there are some territory-based modes and some classic SOCOM-styled no-respawn variants, but the one that stands out most is Bomb Squad. In this mode, one player is randomly chosen to embody the bomb technician, an armored soldier with extra health and some seriously heavy weaponry. This chosen player is the only one who can defuse three bombs placed around the map. The enemy team's job is to, you guessed it, defend those bombs. In theory, this would prompt the attacking team to defend their bomb technician, but in reality he doesn't need much protection, and the mode devolves into 31 people wandering around aimlessly while one guy gets the fun of completing the objectives. Other objective-based modes play out similarly, because the game doesn't give you any points for capturing territories or anything like that, so there's little incentive to do anything but cap fools.
The final nail in SOCOM 4's coffin is a bad multiplayer user interface. The UI feels a decade behind most of today's leading shooter franchises thanks to a lack of kill cams, and it's odd to see that after completing a match, you can't check the previous match's scores while you wait in the lobby for the next bout to being. Even the character and gun customization feels like a backwards step from MAG. While Zipper's last game allowed for tons of flexible customization, SOCOM 4 throws a couple of gun mods and character skins at you and calls it a day.
A cooperative multiplayer suite also exists, and initial impressions are somewhat lukewarm. It seems as if your team must be committed to working together, or die alone. Unfortunately, I couldn't get into any matches. Every time I tried to join a match in progress, I was met with an error message. Even when I tried to create my own match, it simply wouldn't work. The game didn't offer any explanation or error message. It just didn't work. From what I've heard, the co-op is SOCOM 4's best mode, but with company like the drab single player and dated multiplayer, that's not a big compliment.
SOCOM 4 is a game stuck in the past. Its dated design and drab world are terribly generic by today's standards, and none of the multiplayer features stand out enough to redeem it. Coupled with some strange issues, like an awkwardly sized targeting reticule and the lack of blind firing, these design philosophies make Zipper's latest tough to recommend.