SOCOM 4 Revealed
Your PS3 is about to get tactical
Article From IGN
In the beginning, videogames offered only one story. Survive and kill. It's the story of war, and we're endlessly fascinated by it. It's on our televisions and our movie screens. It's in our blood.
But there's more to the story of battle than just pointing and shooting, although for a while that's all gamers really demanded from a war game. Having a gun in your hand and a friend at your side was all anyone really needed at first. But that's changing. Games are growing up. The developers at Sony's Zipper Interactive know it, and they've taken that knowledge deep into the heart of their new project, SOCOM 4.
The SOCOM series is a PlayStation-exclusive powerhouse most known for delivering an intense, engrossing online multiplayer experience. Although the first three main games in the franchise did have single-player missions, the focus was always squarely on network play. The strategy has worked well for the studio over the years. When SOCOM 3 was released on the PlayStation 2 in 2005, we named it our favorite online PS2 game, and the series overall has sold 12 million copies around the world. Zipper has been so dedicated to online multiplayer, in fact, that its most recent game, MAG, didn't even have a single-player mode. So what's all this about story, then?
I recently visited Zipper to take an early look at SOCOM 4, and I'd hardly sat down before they started talking about the story they wanted to tell. But before we dive into those details, let's get one thing sorted out straight away. Like its predecessors, SOCOM 4 is a squad-based, realistic, tactical third-person shooter. If that sentence just made you fall slightly asleep, shake it off because this installment promises to be far friendlier to new initiates than earlier SOCOM games. Zipper wants to make SOCOM 4 "the pinnacle of tactical shooters" on the PS3, says lead designer Travis Steiner, but it also wants to build a rich narrative around it.
That starts with the main character. His name, well, I don't have any intel on that yet. Zipper simply calls him the Ops Commander. He's the leader of a 5-person NATO special forces squad deployed near the Strait of Malacca, a key global shipping lane that connects the Pacific and Indian Ocean between Malaysia and Indonesia. He quickly finds himself in a world of pain when the rest of the NATO forces in the area are annihilated. It's up to his team to sort it all out. At his side are two Westerners -- Schweitzer and Wells -- and two South Korean operatives, Chung and the mysterious Forty-five. The latter is the first female combatant in a SOCOM game. Here's hoping she got her nickname from her weapon of choice.
Zipper assures us Forty-five isn't just a pretty face. Ed Byrne, SOCOM 4's creative director, says she's a "vital character" in a story that aims to go beyond the typical bounds of military shooters. Byrne and company aren't releasing too many specifics about the tale just yet, but they did spill a few details. The mission unfolds over a six-day period in two main acts. In the beginning, the squad faces an indigenous revolutionary group called Naga. But as the story progresses, the characters discover there's more to the conflict than meets the eye.
The events take place in Southeast Asia, but Zipper is quick to point out that you'll see more than jungles and beaches in SOCOM 4. Expect to train your sights on mountains, small towns and massive cityscapes as well. And unlike previous SOCOM games, the single-player mission is designed to be a seamless in-the-field experience. That means there's no choppering out to a cushy battleship in-between missions to load out your team and regroup. The weapons and supplies you have with you at the beginning of the mission are all you get from HQ. Like a true special forces team cut off from the outside world, you'll need to requisition supplies in-theater. Hooah.
To help build a believable story, Zipper put the SOCOM 4 actors on a sound stage together and captured their movements and dialogue digitally as they performed each scene. Naughty Dog used a similar approach with Uncharted 2 in order to achieve more natural interactions among on-screen characters. The Zipper devs didn't show any acted scenes during my demo, but they did say that all cinematic scenes are in-engine. That means you won't see sharp cuts to flashy pre-rendered cutscenes; story moments will blend in and out of gameplay.
The SOCOM 4 single-player campaign is built around 14 missions that unfold over about 12 hours of play time. And although Zipper is trying to make SOCOM 4 more accessible to new audiences, that doesn't mean it'll be a cakewalk. The team says they've focused intensely on artificial intelligence this time around. Don't expect dumb enemies to present their heads to you for easy popping. They're programmed to use suppressing fire, flanking and bounding maneuvers, and cover. Enemy commanders will even call in airstrikes on you (if you leave them alive long enough).
Luckily, you'll have tactical options of your own. In SOCOM 4, all your orders are handled through the new Command Mode. Hold down a button and choose a direction on an analog stick, and you'll be able to set waypoints for your team members, issue squad commands, set behaviors and even command your squad to take out multiple targets on the way to an objective. All of these choices are no more than two clicks away, and there are no sub-menus to take you out of the action.
All the commands in SOCOM 4 are given in real-time and are issued based on what your Ops Commander can see – so you won't be bringing up full-screen maps and ordering your squad around as little colored squares and triangles. As the Ops Commander, you'll be able to see points of tactical interest in Command Mode that you might not see in regular mode. Things will slow down slightly, and the screen will go a bit gray as you make your choices, but the bullets will still be flying. Zipper wants to keep you on the field and in the action at all times.
Sometimes that action will be in the form of a full-on firefight. Other times, you'll go in silent and undetected. And just because your team is alone on the battlefield, that doesn't mean you won't have support. You'll be getting intel along the way, and you'll even be able to call in airstrikes and strafing runs on enemy targets.
In a brief demo of a mid-game level of SOCOM 4 called The Slums, I saw a strafing run in action, and it devastated the poor enemy saps holed up in a cluster of wooden buildings. The environments in SOCOM 4 are destructible, and building materials flew in all directions as a series of explosions ripped into the landscape.
When they weren't exploding, the enemies were behaving fairly intelligently, moving from cover to cover and attempting to flank the Ops Commander and his squad. Zipper only showed a small taste of SOCOM 4, and I didn't get to kick the tires. But for being in a pre-alpha state, the game looked sharp. The audio effects and environments were impressive, and the screen was refreshingly clear of clutter.
Zipper's already dropped a lot of info about SOCOM 4, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions. At this point, you're probably asking yourself, "Why the heck has there been no mention of multiplayer yet? Is this a SOCOM game or not?"
Rest assured, there will be multiplayer in SOCOM 4, but Zipper's not talking about it yet. All we know is it will be "an all new experience" that supports up to 32 players online. When asked if there would be co-operative play, Steiner simply said, "We don't have any announcements yet about further online play." So if you're a SOCOM fan who's psyched about online multiplayer, stay tuned because we're thinking the team has a lot more to say on the matter.
The fact that Zipper's mum on multiplayer out of the gate should tell you just how seriously it's taking the single-player, story-driven segment of SOCOM 4. The team told me their overall goal is nothing less than to evolve the series in every way, from the new narrative approach in the campaign to an innovative multiplayer experience that will satisfy series die-hards and draw in new players.
To achieve the latter, the development team said they've basically shaved the rough edges off the SOCOM experience. For example, the Command Mode is designed to be as deep or as shallow as the player wants it to be. On easier difficulty levels, you could theoretically go through the whole game without touching the Command Mode. But more challenging modes and approaches will require serious tactical thought.
Longtime SOCOM players know that Zipper put the series on the back burner somewhat after the release of SOCOM 3, handing the reins to other developers at times while it worked on other projects. Dedicated SOCOM fans will likely be glad to head that the Zipper team is back. But will they recognize their favorite series once it takes its new direction?
"If they were able to play it without knowing what it was, they'd know it was a SOCOM game," says Byrne.
SOCOM 4 is aiming for a Fall 2010 release date, and we're expecting to hear a lot more about the ambitious project in the months to come. Will the multiplayer feature classes and leveling? Will usable vehicles be back? Will we be able to tackle the campaign online with a group of bloodthirsty friends? So far, the team's lips are zipped.