Version tested: PlayStation 3
Usually when the European release of a game is delayed, it causes gnashing of teeth and curses spat at whichever fiendish publisher has so callously disregarded our proud continent. In the case of SOCOM's PS3 debut, we should probably be grateful. When it launched in the US last October, the internet was set aflame by furious players who found themselves stuck with something that was pretty much broken. Game-breaking freezes, constant network disconnections, and a multitude of other annoyances all conspired to leave faithful fans brimming with vocal and very legitimate grievances.
There are no such technical problems for SOCOM's arrival on European shores; the fatal bugs having been ironed out in the withering heat of American fandom's baleful glare over the last five months or so. This doesn't mean that the game is cause for celebration however. SOCOM Confrontation is hopelessly out of time, an entry in a series that last made an appearance in the dying days of the previous console generation, and which arrived last Friday with most of its unique selling points long since co-opted by dozens of alternatives. Many things have changed since SOCOM 3 in 2005. Unfortunately, SOCOM isn't one of them.
Curiously, the game has gone multiplayer-only and it's from this decision that most of the problems stem. Back in the day, the SOCOM brand pioneered online console gaming, bringing a taste of what the PC boys had been sampling to the PlayStation crowd. When a title with that sort of heritage announces that it's ditching the single-player aspect to concentrate on multiplayer, you'd be forgiven for expecting something ambitious, something that really takes advantage of today's always-connected HD consoles to kick the console online experience up to the next level.
What we actually get is a game that feels depressingly like the multiplayer component of any third-person shooter, with it's solo half crudely lopped off and nothing to replace it. In fact, it's hard to find a single aspect of Confrontation that PS3 owners can't already enjoy in other, often better alternatives.
Matches take place between a variety of elite military units and the crude but effective mercenary forces ranged against them. You have one of each character type to play with, and the customisation options are broad and generous. Not only can you edit your weapons and equipment, from a wide selection that is thankfully available to all from the start, but you can also customise your character's appearance and uniform from a selection of presets. It's not the most flexible tool - certainly nothing to compare to the sort of face-making features found in EA Sports titles - but in a genre where such personalisation is rarely offered, it's deserving of praise.
The effect your choice of beard has on gameplay is minimal, but you do need to pay attention to your combinations of weapons and armour. Strap your guy into the strongest body armour, give him a kickass M60, and he'll be one hell of an opponent. He'll also move like a snail. Strip back the armour, swap to a submachine gun, and you're able to nip about much more nimbly, but will die much quicker under fire.
In fact, there's a good chance you'll die quickly anyway. SOCOM's hardcore user-base ensures that headshots are standard practice, and since three of the game's seven maps are drawn from previous games (Crossroads, Frostfire and Desert Glory, since you ask) the odds are already stacked against the newbies.
Not that the software itself seems terribly bothered about attracting new players. Confrontation is often a fussily obtuse game, with a stark 1990s PC-style lobby system, key features hidden behind unintuitive menu options and a penchant for tangling your fingers in a needlessly complex default control layout. The on-screen info offers precious little guidance as to what game modes actually entail or where mission objectives can be found, meaning that matches with veterans are a closed shop of ruthless efficiency while new players run around asking for directions over the headset. There's hardcore and there's just plain impenetrable, and Confrontation too often opts for the latter.
Unfortunately, it's not as if the modes are anything out of the ordinary to compensate. You simply get the usual spread of deathmatch and objective-led missions, all of which can be mixed and matched with the various maps on your own saved playlists. Most of the maps come with two sizes - a cut-down version for 4-on-4 or 8-on-8 play, and a larger version for the full 32-player 16-on-16 extravaganza. Things have been scaled down from the sprawling maps that sometimes made the later SOCOM entries on the PS2 more of a hiking simulator than a shooter, but there's still not a lot of flexibility for those wanting to create more intimate matches for small groups.
The in-game action is far from awful, but it's nothing particularly special either. The detail of the maps is rather let down by the slightly boxy character models and the rudimentary animations don't do much to sell the immersion. Invisible walls crop up in unlikely places, and your elite military specialist can be stymied by something as simple as an ankle-high barrier. Even when you allow for the fact that the game is far from a run-and-gun shooter, simple movements such as jumping feel stiff and awkward. Technical rough edges aren't confined to the gameplay either. Loading and initialising the matches is slow, while clan and tournament options are still being rolled out.
Weapon equipment selection is carried out via a clumsy selection wheel, called up with the circle button. There's a quick-swap option mapped to L1, which automatically switches to the last item selected, but for moments when you need to do more than just hop from primary weapon to grenades and back again, it's a needless fumble in a game where any delay can mean death. Given that most matches follow a strict "no respawn" policy, it's incredibly annoying to be sniped by a spawn-camper (there seem to be plenty of them about) while still trying to find your feet, and then have to wait ten minutes to rejoin the action.
Despite a five-month wait, and a 153MB patch to download, SOCOM Confrontation still feels like a half a game, released half-finished. It's unclear if the change from original developer Zipper Interactive to a new team at Slant Six (creator of the most recent and equally limp PSP entry in the series) is at fault. Certainly, asking the Canadian developer to carry the SOCOM torch into the PS3 era hasn't paid off. Even with the more egregious bugs fixed, this sparse offering does little to justify its existence. Just seven maps, only four of which are new? Absolutely no offline options, not even a practice mode against AI bots? The same old capture-or-destroy objectives we've hammered through in dozens of games over the last few years?
If this were simply the online portion of a complete shooter package it would be disappointing. As a standalone multiplayer product, and a next-gen evolution of a pioneering multiplayer series, it's unforgivably light. Where is the map-editing option to rival Halo 3's Forge? Or something to rival the perks and rewards of Call of Duty's ranking system? These are games drawn from the supposedly dumber end of the shooter market, yet they still effortlessly outclass SOCOM's PS3 debut in both fresh ideas and intuitive implementation. In 2009, ticking the basic multiplayer boxes just isn't good enough any more.
Remove brand loyalty from the equation and between the existing online pleasures of Warhawk, Killzone 2, Metal Gear Online, GRAW2 and Rainbow Six, with the promise of even more realistic and tactical games such as Operation Flashpoint and ArmA 2 in the near future, it's hard to imagine why any PS3 armchair soldier would want to invest too much time in a game this small, ordinary and generic. When a bundled Bluetooth headset is the most compelling reason to pick up a new SOCOM game, you know something has gone horribly wrong.
5 / 10