You'd think Zipper Interactive would be able to breathe a sigh of relief with SOCOM 4. Last year the Sony-owned studio released MAG, an enormously ambitious first-person shooter that somehow managed to pull off online multiplayer matches with as many as 256 players at once. One year later, it's a slightly different story with SOCOM 4, where you'll instead find 32-player matches designed to foster the sort of tactical close-quarters combat for which the game's Navy SEALs are so well known. Should be an easy transition, right? Well, not when you have fans as ravenous as SOCOM veterans. It's a series whose roots stretch to the early days of online console shooters, and the SOCOM fan base is understandably sensitive about any sort of changes that Zipper might have in mind.
So how is Zipper approaching this latest game in the long-running tactical shooter series? The strategy, it seems, lies in balance and choice. On the one hand, you've got new features borrowed from other modern shooters--things like regenerating health, the ability to snap to cover, and a leveling system that earns you new weapons and upgrades as you gobble up experience points on the battlefield. But for every one of those changes, you'll find a thread that leads right back to the tactical roots of the series. It's there in the way you take far less damage before dying than most shooters. It's there in the way you're rewarded for reviving a fallen squadmate. It's there in the way you can dance on dead enemies. All right, so maybe that last one isn't exactly tactical, but…it was in the older games, and it's here too. Trust us. We did the robot on a dead insurgent and earned 10 experience points for it.
Then, there's the idea of giving players a decision in how they want to play the game. For every game mode in SOCOM 4, you can play with either the standard set of features or by using the Classic game mode variant. Classic takes you back to the early 2000s by removing some of those aforementioned additions, like regenerating health and snap cover. What you've got instead is a game with no respawns, a finite health bar, and a palpable tension as your number of teammates dwindles down to nothing. When looking for a match online, you've got the choice to look for Classic matches or you can look for standard matches. Your call.
Among the game modes that those Classic rules can be applied to is a new match type called Last Defense. This is a territories mode where you've got a pair of teams and three neutral capture points spread across the map. Once one of the teams manages to successfully hold down all three capture points, it is given a two-minute window to assault the enemy team's base. If the assaulting team is able to plant an air strike beacon within the enemy team's base in under two minutes, it gets to wildly fire off a few rounds in victory. If it doesn't, the capture points reset and the struggle begins anew. What we liked about this mode was the dramatic shift in tempo as you move from the three main capture points to assaulting the enemy base within a narrow window of time. The game tends to go from a cautious, measured game of tug-of-war in capturing and recapturing those control points to a mad-dash scramble to plant that beacon in the other team's base. Definitely a nice way to end each match on a dramatic note.
Other modes in the game include Suppression (team deathmatch), Uplink (assault an enemy's base and make off with vital intel), and an as-yet-unannounced fourth mode. All of the game modes work on all nine of the game's maps. There seems to be a pretty good mix of location types in there, ranging from wide-open jungle settings to dense urban warzones. One highlight was a map called Rush Hour, which despite its name does not actually feature Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan. Instead, you've got an intriguing map layout where a demolished and tangled freeway system provides all sorts of bizarre routes around the map--a pretty decent approximation of an M.C. Escher drawing as far as online shooter maps go.
As for how the game plays, there are certainly some issues present, but in the few hours we spent playing it, SOCOM 4 multiplayer was largely an enjoyable experience. Small things like not being able to throw grenades while crouching behind cover or an inconsistency in which objects can be vaulted over and which can't made moving around the map a little awkward. But overall, we had a good time with the game. We especially enjoyed the way SOCOM 4 lets you play it how you want, whether that's going with the default gameplay options or sticking to the Classic mode variants. No matter which side of that divide you happen to fall on, you can expect to see the game released on April 19.