SOCOM 3: U.S. Navy SEALs First Look

Sony and Zipper Interactive unveil the third entry in the acclaimed PlayStation 2 shooter franchise.


SEATTLE--Following up on a successful game is always a chore. But when your game is the third entry in a series that broke new ground on a console, the stakes are much higher. Such is the case with SOCOM 3, the third entry in the SOCOM franchise, which began in 2002 on the PlayStation 2. The two previous third-person military action games have met with critical and commercial acclaim and have managed to evolve into one of the most addictive online game series for the PS2. At a press event today, reps from Sony and Zipper unveiled the third entry in the series, SOCOM 3: U.S. Navy SEALs, and gave us a first look at the single-player experience with a demo version made especially for the event.

SOCOM 3 looks like it will be the most ambitious entry in the popular shooter series.
SOCOM 3 looks like it will be the most ambitious entry in the popular shooter series.

The event began with a presentation from Zipper Interactive president Jim Bosler, who reflected on Zipper's history, citing the Washington-based developer's growth to a 90-member staff, which is a marked change from the 40-member team that worked on the original game. Bosler also discussed the SOCOM franchise's continued popularity, reflected in sales of more than 6 million combined for both games and in consistently high multiplayer attendance since SOCOM II's November release last year.

Creative director Hardy LeBel was next up to discuss the three goals that have driven the team while working on the third installment in the series. The first is the team's hope to continue moving the series forward in terms of innovation, which is a tall order given the high standard set by the previous game's groundbreaking introduction of voice recognition and online play on the PlayStation 2. The second is their desire to beef up the single-player game and put it on par with the game's multiplayer experience. Finally, the third goal is related to the game's settings--to continue to avoid real-life hotspots and to offer variety to the experience.

With the team's vision established to those in attendance, lead designer Travis Steiner took over and went through a special demo that had been prepared for the event. The demo offered a controlled and linear "Whitman's Sampler" of the new gameplay elements in SOCOM 3. It was made up of situations you'll experience in the game but showed them in a more concentrated form that isn't entirely indicative of the final product. Steiner's overview of the level covered the three pillars that are central to the SOCOM 3 experience: authenticity, the desire to make a great console game, and technical innovation.

The demo began with a quick peek at the new OCM interface, which is being designed to keep you in the game. The OCM will be overlaid onto a gameplay screen and will let you check out and prepare for your upcoming mission without having to leave the game to go to a new menu. Because the interface is laid over in-game graphics, you can choose to look around with the PS2 analog stick. While the view was pretty barren--all we could see was an empty airplane hangar--the final game will let you see your fellow SEALs as they wait with you.

The screen also showed off the new weapon customization feature, which lets you attach more than 21 accessories at set points to the game's arsenal of 31 weapons. Customizing your weapons will afford you more flexibility when preparing for a mission, although there will be some drawbacks. For example, while you can trick out an M4 assault rifle with grenade launchers and the like, you'll have to be careful since they'll affect your weapon's performance and your movement depending on how heavy all the tweaks are. But with more than 900 possible weapon configurations, we expect that you'll find a good weapon configuration for your individual play style.

We got a look at one of the other major tweaks to the game, improved AI, which is reflected in both your fellow SEALs and the enemy AI. As far as SEALs go, you can expect them to be easier to command, thanks to the inclusion of context-sensitive commands that will let you command them to "move to" specific spots by simply aiming your reticle and pressing X. Your comrades will also be smarter about how they move and behave, although you'll be able to override that when necessary. To combat your smarter enemies, plan on facing foes who'll try to flank you and coordinate attacks on you and your crew, using every scrap of cover they can find.

The new additions to both sides will be balanced in all areas. Both sides will gain new weapons and the ability to drive different vehicles. As far as weapons go, while the terrorist's gain an RPK, the SEALs gain an M5 airburst grenade launcher, which is currently our pick for "best weapon ever." This slick piece of hardware will let you fire off grenades that can be targeted and set to detonate near your foes, which lets you take out baddies with an impressive flair.

Improved enemy AI will make your enemies harder to kill than ever. Fortunately, your SEALs are smarter, too.
Improved enemy AI will make your enemies harder to kill than ever. Fortunately, your SEALs are smarter, too.

The addition of vehicles to the SOCOM experience is a welcome one that appears to be working well. SEALs will be able to use Humvees, light strike vehicles, and SOC-R assault boats. Terrorists will counter with technical trucks, T72 tanks, and speed boats outfitted with machine guns. You'll be able to appreciate the enhanced AI in the game since, in keeping with the game's heavy squad-based focus, riding in vehicles will require you to coordinate with your squad. While some of the vehicles you'll come across will accommodate the whole gang, such as Humvees, others won't. As a result, your AI-controlled buddies will fend for themselves and commandeer their own set of wheels and follow you. When riding in a vehicle, you'll have the option to switch positions between driving or manning the turrets.

One of the coolest additions to the experience is the ability to swim, which adds a whole new dimension to stealth missions. The addition is most welcome (and a little overdue considering these are Navy SEALs, after all) and will give you even more options when trying to complete your objectives. You'll be able to wade into the water and swim wherever you need to go, but you'll also be able to stop and submerge yourself to avoid being spotted.

Guns Ablaze

The final tweak is the inclusion of a save and checkpoint system that will help make your experience in the game even more seamless. Save points will let you save your progress, while checkpoints will be spread throughout the game and will serve as continue points if you should fall during a mission. The points will let you pick up your game from the last checkpoint as opposed to having to restart. The one catch is that they'll only work for as long as your PS2 is running. If you choose to quit your game, then you'll have to restart from the last proper save.

Vehicles will play a big role in SOCOM 3's action.
Vehicles will play a big role in SOCOM 3's action.

Following Steiner's look at the new features in SOCOM 3, art director Russ Phillips showed off the research done for the upcoming game, which required a trip to some of the different countries represented in order to get photo reference materials to create art and to record audio to give the areas in the game some local color. You'll find three new areas--Morocco, Poland, and Bangladesh--all of which have been fleshed out by the research. Based on the early look at various areas set in each country, we have to say we're impressed by the subtle touches used to bring them to life.

Once the formal presentation was over, we were given the chance to get our hands on the single-player demo that had been shown and to try it out for ourselves. The first part of the demo begins with you and your team pinned down by enemy fire and receiving instructions from HQ. The sequence lets you get a handle on the context-sensitive commands and marvel at the new SEAL and enemy AI. Once you've taken out your foes, you can hop into a nearby Humvee, which will seat your whole posse, and race off down the road to your next objective. As you make your way through the rough terrain, you'll encounter some resistance that you can deal with by manning the turret at the top of the car. An unexpected obstacle we encountered was a sandstorm, which obscured visibility, requiring us to switch to our thermal vision and take out some opportunistic baddies trying to use the storm as cover.

In talking with members of the team, it sounds as though dynamic weather is one of the elements they are working hard to integrate to make the action even more dynamic. But as cool as it would have been to zip through all obstacles with the Humvee, which runs over people real nice, we hit a twofold roadblock in the form of a broken bridge and debris in the road and had to leave our Humvee. After a brief segment that sent us wading through some water, which we used to mask our approach and kill our foes, we hopped into a boat and set off down the river to our next destination. As with the Humvee, we were able to switch between driving and shooting.

Once we made our way to the right spot, we disembarked with the crew and went into a nearby compound and dealt with well-armed opposition. This sequence let us use the grenade launcher, which was, as we mentioned, very sweet. You'll be able to fire grenades at people, which will detonate when they strike their target, or you can set the firing range and launch grenades that will slightly overshoot and detonate at a set range. Once we got into the main courtyard, we hoped to quietly reach our extraction point, but instead we met with quite a bit of opposition that forced us to man nearby turrets to help hold off the waves of enemies advancing on our position. In classic fashion, our boys arrived in the nick of time--complete with rocket-firing helicopters. Once all the opposition was cleared, a cutscene played that showed the gang heading out.

The demo took roughly 20 minutes to play through and hummed along at an impressive clip, despite being a very early work in progress. While it wasn't indicative of how the final game will play, reps on hand noted that the final game will feature stealth gameplay that will require a methodical approach, and the demo did a fine job of showing off the new features.

From a technical standpoint, the game looks sharp and shows off new character models and animations that have been redone from the ground up. The environment we saw was a slick showcase for the game's new streaming technology, which will allow the areas to be roughly six times larger than the ones seen in SOCOM II. The special effects have also been improved and do a fine job of offering an immersive experience. The thermal vision effect is nicely done and features good color gradation.

The team traveled to several countries to collect reference material for the new environments.
The team traveled to several countries to collect reference material for the new environments.

The audio we heard was easily on par with the high standards of the previous entries in the series. The voices from your team and from the assorted enemy non-player characters sell the whole experience admirably. The sound effects, easily one of the strongest aspects of the previous games, are realistic. The miniguns, for instance, give out a truly satisfying roar that we seriously dug.

While all those on hand would only coyly respond that details on SOCOM 3's multiplayer modes were forthcoming, we're hopeful about the direction the game is headed in. The single-player portion has a solid assortment of new features, and Zipper's ambitious (actually, borderline insane) dedication to innovation and to pushing the limits of the PS2 should bode well for the upcoming game. SOCOM 3: U.S. Navy SEALs is currently slated to ship this fall. Look for more on the game in the coming weeks and at this year's E3.

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