The SOCOM games from Sony Computer Entertainment America and developer Zipper Interactive have consistently shown that the PlayStation 2 is fully capable of delivering a robust, lively online shooter experience. These games have always been focused on multiplayer, and with each of the three installments on the PlayStation 2, the online game has improved significantly. But after three great games in three years, the room for improvement has diminished with each new installment. It's perhaps not entirely surprising then that with the fourth game in the series, SOCOM U.S. Navy SEALs Combined Assault, leaves the standard online gameplay completely untouched. Instead, it focuses on creating a lengthy and engaging campaign that works great as a single-player experience but can also be played cooperatively online. The result is a new SOCOM game that offers great value for returning SEALs and new recruits alike.
The story campaign takes place entirely in the fictional country of Adjikistan. The 18 missions take you from snowy mountains to crumbling cities and seaside industrial complexes. The mission parameters are varied and, for the most part, well designed. Each mission has several primary objectives that you must complete, as well as optional secondary and bonus objectives. You complete these objectives to earn badges, as well as unlock new weapons and extras. The objectives require you to do things like neutralize all of the enemies in a specific area, demolish enemy structures or supplies, capture enemy officers, gather intelligence, and so on. As you play, you'll gather information that sheds light on the story. It's this context that will go a long way to keep things interesting as you make your way through each mission.
You're given a bit of freedom in the way you tackle the campaign. For one thing, you can choose the order of the missions that you play. You're usually given two or three missions to choose from, which makes the progression of the campaign slightly less linear. However, it's not completely open-ended because you still have to complete every mission to beat the game. The missions themselves are similarly flexible. The levels are large and open, which means you can move about freely to complete the objectives in any order. However, some objectives aren't available until certain conditions are met. Also, the levels are fairly expansive, but one look at your tactical map will reveal an obvious logical progression through each level. As a result, each mission will feel very much the same each time you play it. Even so, it's much less constricting (and more fun) than simply running from one end of a level to the other, killing everything that moves.
The basic gameplay in Combined Assault is very similar to the previous SOCOM games, with a few minor but appreciable tweaks. Before each mission, you can choose your gear to suit your needs. There are plenty of machine guns, rifles, pistols, grenades, and nonlethal weapons to choose from for your mission. You'll find that having the right equipment for the job is essential. Once you're loaded up with an arsenal of high-tech tactical treats, you can set out on your mission. The gameplay sticks closely to the sneak-and-shoot style of previous SOCOM games. In most missions, it behooves you to keep your distance from enemies and pick them off one by one before they're aware of your presence. If you prefer a more kinetic experience, you can rush in guns blazing. However, rushing in is often a good way to get killed. It only takes a few shots to kill you so, of course, you'll want to be sure to eat as little lead as possible. If you do happen to get shot and not die, you can use a medkit to restore about half of your health. You only get a few of these at the beginning of each level though, so you have to use them wisely. SOCOM vets need not worry because even with the medkits, the underlying tactical combat in Combined Assault is as satisfying and challenging as ever.
You're accompanied on each mission by a team of three SEALs. Your squad mates are controlled by the game's artificial intelligence, but you can issue commands by using the Team Command menu. You can bring up this menu with the circle button; then choose which SEALs to order and what orders to give them. There are command options for just about every situation you'll face, but pulling up a menu in the middle of combat isn't an ideal way to issue orders. Thankfully, you can issue just about any commands you'll ever need with a single, context-sensitive button. You can simply aim at any object or area and press the L2 button to issue commands, such as opening a door, planting a bomb, taking down an enemy, or moving to a specific location. This system is intuitive and easy. Unless you want to get into advanced tactics, you can easily play through the entire game without opening the Team Command menu once. You can still use a USB headset to issue voice commands to your team, but that option feels antiquated because it's much easier to just aim and press a button.
The only problem with the team command system is that the artificial intelligence isn't always responsive. As a result, you'll find that it's easier to simply do everything yourself rather than relying on your team. Doing that, however, defeats the purpose of having a team at all. Sometimes it does come in handy to have a team that you can send into a room to clear out enemies or send out into a clearing to draw fire for locating your enemies. But for the most part, you don't have to pay attention to your teammates at all as long as they stay alive. If all of your teammates are killed in battle, you automatically lose the mission. This can be frustrating, but usually the artificial intelligence is at least sufficient enough to keep your teammates out of harms way. Your teammates also have problems just moving around at times. There are pathfinding issues that will cause your team to get separated from you. In close quarters, such as narrow hallways, your teammates will bunch up and be unable to move. Even worse, they'll get in your way so that you can't move either. These problems are more exaggerated on certain levels. When they do occur, however, they can be very frustrating.
The artificial intelligence of the enemies is just as intermittently frustrating. Because you'll spend a lot of time picking off enemies from afar, their behavior is often a nonissue--they'll just stand in one place and wait for you to shoot them in the head. But sometimes, you'll have no choice but to engage enemies up close, which is when the weak artificial intelligence becomes apparent. You'll frequently see enemies run right up to you as if they're begging to get shot. Even worse, you might see an enemy running in place up against a wall or standing there looking oblivious as his buddies get picked off less than 10 feet away. At other times, enemies will be a bit too smart. Somehow they'll know exactly where you are regardless of how stealthy you've been up to that point, which means they'll start shooting the instant you peek out from behind cover. The enemies do put up a good fight once in awhile, but that's more a matter of positioning and numbers than actual intelligent behavior.
Of course, the artificial intelligence becomes less of an issue when you play the game online or via a local network with friends. You can play cooperatively through the entire story campaign with up to three other players, or you can jump into a specific level for some instant action. You also have the option to take some of the missions from the game and remix them by setting different starting points and assigning a number of generic objectives, such as "diffuse the bomb" or "capture the hostage." The online co-op play works well, and it's a fun way to play through the game. The only problem is that none of the story missions are designed to promote teamwork. It isn't difficult to get through an entire level with a team of inept computer-controlled characters. So when you have four live players going through that same level, there's not much required in the way of cooperation or tactical planning. That said, it's still more fun to play with real people. If you have a decent team with you, it can help alleviate some of the frustrations that you'll run into when playing single-player.
If co-op isn't for you, the classic SOCOM multiplayer is included in Combined Assault. You'll get access to all of the maps and modes of SOCOM 3. In fact, the classic online modes in Combined Assault are compatible with SOCOM 3. This means that there are already plenty of people playing, so you're guaranteed to find plenty of matches online. But if you're new to the series, you'll likely end up playing against a lot of very experienced players right off the bat, which could be a bad thing. It also means that if you already own SOCOM 3 and aren't interested in single-player or co-op modes, there's no reason for you to buy Combined Assault. The classic modes support up to 32 players online, with seven different game types and 22 maps. You can also create clans, set up friends lists, check out leaderboards, and so on. There's a ton of content here, even beyond the classic online game. So regardless of your experience with the previous game, you can easily spend a very long time with Combined Assault.
As if the lengthy campaign and feature-packed online play weren't enough, Combined Assault also makes use of the cross talk feature. By completing objectives in both Combined Assault and SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Fireteam Bravo 2 on the PSP, you can synch your game data to affect the missions in each game. For example, in an early mission in Combined Assault, you have to approach a downed chopper and blow it up. The chopper, however, is being guarded by enemies that you have to take out. In the PSP game, there's a mission that takes place in the same location. One of the bonus objectives is to reach a ridge above the downed chopper and snipe the enemies guarding it. If you complete the objective, you can then synch up your game data. Once your data is synched, you can play the same mission in Combined Assault. In the same mission, you'll get a message saying that the enemies guarding the chopper have been cleared, making it easier for you to proceed. It's a novel idea and really doesn't have a significant impact on either game, but it's still an interesting bonus for people who own both games.
The presentation in Combined Assault is largely the same as it was in SOCOM 3. There's less variety to the levels because Combined Assault takes place entirely in one country. That said, the levels are still large and well designed. Also, the draw distance is sufficient to make sniping possible from great distances. The character models all look good, but they animate stiffly and often clip through parts of the environment. Too often you'll see arms and guns magically appearing through walls or characters twitching oddly as they move around. Interestingly, the level of violence has been scaled back for Combined Assault. There's no blood this time around. Even though you can still get instant kills with headshots, the enemy reactions aren't much different whether you shoot them in the feet or the face. The blood spray isn't quite an integral part of the SOCOM experience, but it might come as an odd omission if you've played the previous games. Technically, Combined Assault performs well. The frame rate rarely ever dips at all, even during the most intense firefights. When it does slow down, it's always brief and not pronounced enough to significantly impact the game.
The sound in Combined Assault is good, with a wide array of weapon sound effects to make those firefights especially loud and satisfying. There's also a lot of voice over in the game. Although it's not of a particularly high caliber, it works well in the context of the game. The music is all dramatic, orchestrated stuff that picks up to celebrate your triumph when you complete an objective. It's exaggerated and a bit too much like something out of a U.S. Navy commercial, but it fits the game just fine.
SOCOM U.S. Navy SEALs Combined Assault introduces a solid new campaign and a couple of gameplay tweaks to the SOCOM formula. As the fourth game in the series, however, it doesn't have a tremendous impact. Even though it definitely has a "been there, done that" feel to it, Combined Assault is still a great game and offers a ton of content for the price. Even if you already own SOCOM 3, the single-player and co-op gameplay make this game worth a purchase. If you don't own SOCOM 3, then you simply won't find a better value in any online shooter on the PlayStation 2.