Version tested: PlayStation 3
Despite selling about 12 million copies over its decade-long history, nobody in the real world has ever heard of SOCOM. In fact, we'd hazard a guess that great swathes of those who've played the series don't even know what it stands for.
Neither do we. It doesn't matter. All you need to know is that it's a third-person tactical shooter with a chequered past, and Special Forces arguably represents its stab at the big time. It's immediately clear that the developers are going for the full Hollywood effect, as you've barely learnt the controls when the game's first exploding helicopter lands at your feet.
For reasons explained by earnest cut-scenes and interminable briefings from what appears to be Lorraine Kelly, you're somewhere in South East Asia, and there's a war going on, ostensibly against "farmers with shotguns". You (primarily) play Cullen Gray, a middle-class buffoon with more than a whiff of rugger and a yard-of-ale about him. As such, he's the leader of a pair of two-person units, and you can tell he's in charge as the rest of the squad are either Northern, non-white or female.
The token woman is the so-called "45", a perennially frowning firebrand with whom you somehow engender a frisson of sexual tension despite fundamentally divergent principles. As for the rest of them, for all their input they might as well be the dancers who stood at the back in East 17. Largely mute, the Geordie one does occasionally manage to muster the line "I might be crazy but I'm not stupid" when you point him in the way of danger.
Telling Gold Team and Blue Team where to stand and who to shoot is largely the extent of the tactical mastery involved, and it occasionally works, enabling you to flank the enemy while your drones draw fire. More often than not, however, the s**t hits the fan in spectacular fashion, forcing everyone to run for cover and simply try to survive.
Coming under heavy fire exposes the vagaries of the rudimentary cover system, with you inadvertently popping in and out of cover in the heat of the battle, and frequently shooting chunks of the scenery instead of the enemy. At least you're not alone, as your team-mates are often to be found filling the walls with lead. Perhaps to level the playing field, the enemy AI is equally moronic, and soldiers will simply run at you in a straight line with little regard for self-preservation.
Missions mainly involve following waypoints through the jungle until you come across the enemy, and you can also call in the odd air strike to get rid of tanks and frigates. Choppers make sporadic appearances, and there's the obligatory mission where you find a handily discarded rocket launcher and attempt to take one out of the sky while it continues to shoot at you despite having been on fire for 10 minutes. It's in situations like this that the third-person view and flaky controls stymie the experience, and you simply find yourself spinning round around in circles while your team-mates casually look on.
As a change of pace, four of the 14 single-player missions are stealth affairs featuring only the enigmatic "45". They certainly add some variety, and not a little tension, but if you hate stealth games you might be perturbed to find them holding up your progress through the game.
There's one in particular that will have you grinding your teeth in despair and hurling invective at the screen as you restart for the umpteenth time. Incidentally, don't hold back on the cursing; there's plenty of foul and abusive language in the game, with even the reserved Gray at one point moved to woodenly utter, "Son of a bitch!"
In general, the missions are a mixture of the forgettable and those that you'll remember for up to five minutes. And if you want to attempt them using the power of Move, be our guest. SOCOM: Special Forces is fully compatible with the Move controllers, if not necessarily their natural home. There's a reason why every bespoke Wii/Kinect/Move title is a chimp-friendly non-game, as Special Forces ably proves, offering an experience akin to plaiting snot while wearing gardening gloves.
Perhaps wary of this, developer Zipper Interactive was heavily involved in the design of the Sharp Shooter accessory, a plastic gun that you tuck your Move controllers into and point at the screen, firing off rounds like Alan Partridge in an arcade. Apart from the embarrassment of being caught wielding a throbbing pink weapon, it definitely works, although it's certainly an acquired skill, albeit one that may not be fully acquired before your weak, atrophied arms start aching. By the way, for the full interactive experience, the game can also be played in stereoscopic 3D.
As is the burgeoning trend in shooters, the single-player is a brusque affair that can be torn through over the course of a weekend. The SOCOM series was something of a pioneer in terms of online PlayStation shooting, and this obviously hasn't been neglected here, with five-player custom co-op missions alongside competitive multiplayer. There are a variety of new modes, notably Bomb Squad, whereby you have to protect a heavily armoured, lumbering bomb disposal expert. (And according to Zipper, they came up with the idea before they'd seen The Hurt Locker.)
Initially at least, the multiplayer and co-op can be chaotic, with lack of refinement in the control system proving costly. For instance, in order to heal an acquaintance you have to hover over him in pixel-perfect fashion, by which time you've been shot. Then someone comes to your rescue and gets shot, leaving you with the absurd situation of three soldiers lying on top of each other groaning. Presumably things will improve once everyone's mic-ed up and familiar with the maps.
SOCOM: Special Forces is not quite the unqualified success Sony may have been hoping for, proving a largely generic, intermittently glitchy experience. Despite being tortured souls, the leads are difficult to sympathise with, and each mission is approached with little more than resigned acceptance.
On the plus side, the visuals are reasonably impressive: the foliage is redolent of Far Cry 2, and film buffs will recognise the Kubrickian lighting in the missions set in the so-called 'magic hour' before dusk. The animations are decent, the scenery is pleasant, and there's a mildly bombastic score from the Skywalker Symphony Orchestra.
Special Forces is not without its moments of drama and excitement, but ultimately there is an overriding sense that you are simply going through the motions – Move or no Move.
6 / 10