E3 2002: SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals impressions

We check out Sony and Zipper Interactive's highly anticipated online game for the PlayStation 2.

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SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals, the upcoming PlayStation 2 action strategy game from Zipper Interactive, will mark several firsts for that console. It will be the first video game to be based on the SEAL branch of the US Navy. It will be the first realistic military strategy action game for the PlayStation 2. It will mark the first time Zipper has created this kind of a game for a home console. Most importantly, however, SOCOM will very likely be the first game released for the PlayStation 2 that will take advantage of the upcoming broadband adapter for the system. Aside from a peek at the game at last year's E3, Sony and Zipper have kept quiet about the title. That silence ended on a recent trip to visit Zipper's offices in Washington, which found the developer very chatty about its upcoming game. After talking with the team and spending some time with the game (both off- and online), we have to say SOCOM is really shaping up well.

The game puts you in the role of a member of the elite Navy force and challenges you to work your way through a variety of missions set in locales throughout the world. The missions will involve objectives like search and rescue, escort duty, and demolition, to name just a few. The catch for many players accustomed to blazing through mission-based shooters by themselves is that you absolutely must function as part of a four-member SEAL team. Rambo-esque heroics will usually result in mission failure and the death of you and your team. SOCOM's emphasis on teamwork and realism set it apart from the pack of "run and gun" games. You'll also learn to make choices carefully, as you won't be able to make your way through carrying an arsenal of weapons. Instead, you'll start missions with a weapons complement tailored to the mission, and you'll be given the chance to pick up enemy weapons as you go through the level. It offers a very different playing experience, forcing you to use your head and be a bit more methodical in your playing, which is cool.

The biggest adjustment for new SOCOM players will likely be working within the game's team mechanic. Your team of four will be split into two-man teams. It will be up to you to issue orders and make the best use of everyone. The multitasking is extremely challenging, especially when all hell is breaking loose around you, but it pays off. To make things a bit easier on you, your AI buddies aren't stupid. They'll defend themselves and act independently if need be. You'll also find that ordering your teammates around will be much easier when you use the headset that comes with the game. While the headset is primarily used to talk to other players when playing online, the unit can also be useful in a single-player game thanks to some impressive speech recognition. If you choose to use the headset in a single-player game, it will relay radio messages to you and allow you to command your team using simple voice commands. The voice recognition technology Zipper is incorporating into SOCOM is truly impressive, and it worked quite well as we were playing. The only hitch was that we hadn't memorized all the military jargon to direct our team, but other than that, the headset is a very cool feature that we hope other developers choose to take advantage of.

SOCOM's core gameplay is essentially the same in both the single- and multiplayer modes in that you'll be working as part of a team. The control is tight and responsive, letting you access weapons and accessories or talk to your team on the fly without too much trouble. Each level will be introduced by a CG sequence that moves the story along and a real-time fly-through that shows you your objectives. For the most part, stealth and efficiency are prized above insane bloodbaths. The multiplayer mode offers several game types and lets you play as a SEAL or a terrorist. Winning conditions will include things like rescuing hostages or wiping out everyone. While such things may be old hat on the PC, they're a welcome new experience on the PS2.

Graphically, SOCOM looks good. The characters are modeled well and feature a great deal of detail. They're a bit blocky, but it's not horribly distracting. The various levels your missions are set in feature nice detail and interactivity such as the ability to use foliage for cover. The graphics engine manages to perform admirably even when the screen is jammed with players and weather effects. Online weirdness doesn't seem to impact gameplay that much in SOCOM when playing over broadband. While lag teleportation happens a tiny bit, it's doesn't affect the gameplay much.

In terms of sound, the game serves up a number of ambient sounds to help clue you in on where you are and what you're doing. The shouts from your teammates and enemies alike resound in your headphones as you try to complete your mission and keep them alive. The various guns have unique sounds that are suitably loud.

So far, SOCOM is looking cool. The headset adds a level of depth to the game, and it works well with the team aspect. We found the game to be playable and very fun with a group of people online. SOCOM: US Navy Seals is slated to release this August exclusively for the PlayStation 2. Look for more on the game from this year's E3.

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