SOCOM: Special Forces has tedious AI, bland level design and mission structure, but has great audio design and co-op.
Forces is set in the future, and follows a four-man NATO Operations team who are tasked with thwarting a revolutionary from seizing control of an unnamed South East Asian county for its water supply, which will blight the economical climate in the process. Players assume the role of Cullen Gray, the Commanding officer of the squad and along the way will meet two more members of a 45th Division, Forty-Five and Chung. The story is hugely forgettable, with uninteresting characters and a plot twist that is as cliche as action cliches can be. If you've seen your fare share of military movies or played dozens of games of this theme, you'll know whats coming. However, dialogue is strong and Forty-Five is a good character; a refreshing take on military characters. Aside from her, there isn't much connection to the squad, so you don't have any feelings if any of them met an end.
The world of Special Forces feels authentic thanks to the superb sound design. Bullets fly left right and centre and are bolstered by terrific sound effects. Whether it's the sound of your teammate's rifle, a grenade exploding in the distance or the squish of an enemy's head as it blows off, SOCOM sounds great. The game isn't exclusive to sounds, either; voice acting is outstanding, with the solid dialogue to compliment it. Enemy chatter is good, but mid-battle taunts can get repetitive. Still, the sound really helps the presentation. The orchestral score is brilliant, giving that extra feeling of military intensity and war and stands up against the rest of the audio design really well.
As SOCOM veterans know, this is a third-person shooter that relies on squad commands and the correct use of them. Firstly, you have three men with you through the game, with a second squad joining in the second mission and beyond. The button configuration for these commands is relatively good, save for some confusions which I will talk about later. Gray can order his men to advance and seek the enemy position, and flank them or open fire upon contact. They can also be issued to seek cover while you move into position, and then advance further as you get a good fix on targets. This mix of strategy in battle is actually really good and sells the environmental design well, as good use can be made of it.
Squad commands aren't just for opening fire, though; your squad can take cover and hold that position until you give them the signal. Meaning, if there is an incoming enemy patrol, your team will be in a position for an ambush and, upon giving the go order, they will have the jump on them. It's better when you have both squads. Having Blue team on left and Yellow on right is awesome, because you can lay low and snipe while they take out enemies below.
You can also link commands together. For example, you can move your team to cover and instead of giving a separate order, you can link two so that they will take cover, and then automatically move into the given position. However, when you use the sprint command (tell your team to move quickly into position), this means you must press the left d-pad button twice, but this links commands, and it becomes confusing and cumbersome.
There are lots of weapons for use in Special Forces. Gray will have a vast selection upon default, but more can be accessed by picking up weapons in each level and carrying them to the end of the mission; others can be accessed by advancing the story. There are five different class types - Machine Guns, Sniper Rifles, Assault Rifles, Shotguns and Submachine Guns. There are the usual suspects (M4s, LMGs, Pump-actions etc) and all are somewhat fun to use. Using them efficiently will unlock MODs. MODs are unlocks that are accessed by gaining necessary kills with that weapon. Headshots fill up the meter quicker, so be sure to aim for the head. There are upgrades like sights, grenade attachments, silencers and muzzles. These add a better dimension to the game, meaning you can go in guns blazing or quietly. There are five levels to achieve, meaning you will have a great arsenal upon hitting each weapon cap.
These options are granted, given the necessary choice in each level. There are oftentimes two paths to advance. Guns blazing is usually the way to go for many, but stealth can be used if there are more patient players. Gray can crouch and go prone, which makes sneaking past guards easier. Stealth is good, for the most part. Moving slowly through vegetation can be good fun, and enemies respond to movement correctly, again for the most part. However, there are times when enemies spot you instantly or spot you from a distance away. One minute they could be talking, the next they are rushing the cover. This makes you question whether the stealth system is refined enough - evidently not.
There are times when stealth is mandatory. Forty-Five has a set of stealth-only missions set at night, commanded by Gray. You take on her role and guide her through enemy-filled environments to a given objective. Night time levels show the potential of this stealth system, especially when used right. Stealth kills can be used when close to an enemy; a quick way to dispose of a hostile. However, there can be times when Forty-Five can be spotted behind cover, which can be annoying. Other times, she won't be noticed whatsoever. The most frustrating part, however, is the instant-fail scenarios. Forty-Five must usually get to the objective without being seen. And, given the inconsistency of the system, failing can happen infrequently. Even trying again and on a different path won't work, as you are usually limited to a linear path, as other routes are intentionally heavily guarded.
Special Forces' game mechanics are solid yet problematic. Gunplay is fun enough and gunning down enemies with shotguns and sniper rifles is definitely fun, in tandem with squad commands, but there are some issues. Firstly, aiming can be iffy at times. When I shot a sniper in the head, the collision detection wouldn't register and he continued to fire. Other times I would melee an enemy without touching him and he would die. Even armored enemies die in one melee hit (which is very weak) which is a bit silly. Like I mentioned, melee isn't great, and its animation is dated. Stealth killing is average, and unsatisfying; feeling more of a chore than anything else. Secondly, there are some seriously frustrating difficulty spikes in the game. One mission has you defending an objective, with a barrage of attacking enemies both left and right, with a helicopter to add salt to the wound. This is also worse because of the questionable cover system, Sometimes, cover is great - popping in and out is effective and useful, but there are times when you can get hit from cover, even if your head is plainly out of sight. Also, most of the cover is annoying, as it is very small (wooden logs, pieces of concrete etc) and hard to use.
Another problem is the level design, which is average at best and can only be described as uninspired. Most of the environments are filled with repetitive cover and architecture, and you'll see these in later levels. The layout of each mission is bland, following a tiring pattern of clearing an area, advancing, and doing the same again until extract. Night time missions feel cheap, because of the intention of strict stealth and the lack of gameplay opportunity.
Speaking of cheap, the enemy AI is really bad. Sometimes, they are surprisingly resilient, taking cover and outmaneuvering your squad. Most of the time, though, they are flat out idiotic. They run out of cover and charge at you, blindly ignoring your fire and making your fourteen-long missions feel annoying. Enemies also flank in numbers, and keep following the same route or pattern as their squadmates. Enemy spawning is tedious and infuriating, as you can waste ammo on enemies, and the next corner is full of a half dozen more soldiers who kill you instantly. Regenerating health isn't great, and only taking a few bullets to die can be equally frustrating. The AI feels really cheap, as they bombard you with grenades and blindly advance on your position.
Squadmate AI is decent, but nothing amazing. Commands to fire at the enemy are usually effective and they can be lifesavers most of the time. However, there are times when they stay in the same position if they are getting shot at, and run into your line of sight, incapacitating them in the process. Also, when you issue them to fire at an enemy, they usually miss them altogether. I commanded Forty-Five to kill a single enemy, and she missed completely. The rest of the camp was alerted and made the mission more problematic.
Missions are laid out into a debriefing before the mission. Then, you are given your weapon loadout menu and after that, there are cut-scenes before the mission. There is a mission complete screen at the end and it follows the same thing each time. This structure gets repetitive and makes the story feel less cohesive as a result. However, cut-scenes look slick and the cinematography is tight and engaging.
Enemy variety is also lacking. For the majority of the game, you will face the regular South Eastern fighters resembling rebels. You'll come up against militia, and the later levels contain armored enemies with shotguns. Aside from those, there isn't much distinction in the way they move or act, but just a different outfit.
Visually, Special Forces isn't doing anything amazing. There is nice colour to the jungle-esque environments and dilapidated city streets and some textures look good, but there is pop-in and some minor but infrequent framerate drops in heated battles. Animations are decent but the character models are absolutely fantastic, and really bring the authenticity to a whole new level. The facial expressions are precise and really show the possibilities of technology without the use of things like MotionScan. Motion Capture is also good, but environments suffer from aliasing and backgrounds appear washed out. Vegetation looks good, but there is also some clipping and the aforementioned collision detection issues. There are also some nice particle effects and ADS mode is cool when aiming.
Special Forces' campaign is around six hours long. My playthrough lasted just over six-and-a-half hours, but some of that time was contending with problematic AI and the difficulty spikes. There are intel items to find, three in each level except the tutorial, and another strange set of collectables that I won't spoil. Trophies are fun and there is the Elite difficulty, which is significantly challenging. The game also has a Custom Campaign mode, where you can select specific criteria for a mission. You can select a Takedown mission (eliminate a commander) for a defend mission and can add the enemy amount (Low, Medium, High) and the difficulty, as well maps that are taken from the single-player campaign. These co-op missions can also be tackled online with three other players, and it is a fantastic mode. Instantly more fun that single player, this mode requires teamwork and is a fun but challenging mode.
As good as Custom Campaign is, I would have liked more modes and maps, which would have made this part of the game stand out more. As it is, as well as being short, its just a minor distraction, but has potential to be great.
There is also multiplayer. Multiplayer consists of 16 vs 16 battles across a handful of maps that are mixed in size and it is relatively good, although it can't hold a candle to other third-person games such as Uncharted, Gears or Grand Theft Auto. There are four game types - Suppression (regular team deathmatch), Uplink (capture the flag type mode), Bomb Squad (search and destroy but with multiple bomb sites) and Last Defense (capture sectors of the map to locate enemy HQ). These modes are good, but are severely lacking in innovation. There are just not enough modes to satisfy, and most players will probably lean towards Suppression anyway, but SOCOM can't compete with Call of Duty or Battlefield with the content at hand. Multiplayer has the usual loadout spawning and upon dying, you can spawn on squadmates.
I enjoyed my time with SOCOM: Special Forces, but at the same time frustrated. The nice visuals, great sound design and solid gunplay are par for the course, but the boring story, awkward level design and bad AI had me disappointed. Disappointed because this could have been a top-tier shooter for Sony. As it is, it's a good shooter, but not exceptional. You'll definitely have some fun with Zipper Interactive's latest, especially in it's multiplayer and Custom Campaign, but the single-player campaign has the above flaws and is short, lasting only six hours. If your a shooter fanatic, you'll find appeal. Others could just buy Uncharted or Ghost Recon.
Presentation 5.5 - A boring, cliched miltary story.
Graphics 7.5 - Fantastic character models look great, but the environments and animations aren't anything special.
Audio 8.5 - Great voice acting and sound design.
Gameplay 7.0 - Initially fun shooting mechanics, but the level design and AI become repetitive.
Replayability 7.5 - Fun co-op and decent multiplayer.
Overall - 7/10