"SOCOM," my new drunken American friend confided after I'd asked him why everyone seemed to love it so much over in the States, "ish the peak of going-around-killing-people on the Internet."
"With a PS2," he added, at which point I nodded rather unconvincingly. "But obviously we love running around shooting people so much here that we don't notice certain things. Like the graphics. Or the controls." Or that woman's foot, I pointed out, as circumstance quickly overtook the subject.
I'm not sure whether it's my British-stiff-upper-lip-wot-wot conservatism or my many years of playing Counter-Strike with a highly organised band of ruthless killers (a loudly organised band of ruthless killers, more like - I once had the volume up so loud on Roger Wilco I had "RUN WITH THE F***ING KNIFE" bouncing around my head for the best part of a week), but I've never quite gotten on board with SOCOM. I admire it because it's the closest anyone's come to doing something like Counter-Strike on a Sony system (Tom Clancy winning the Xbox battle on about fourteen fronts, naturally). But I never seem to have as much fun with it as I do anything on the PC, and I loathe Sony's tortured online service.
(Something SOCOM PSP didn't get off to a terribly good start with when I had to postpone this review for a fortnight because I needed another 12-digit code from Sony, and the only way they could provide it was in the post.)
Peculiar, then, that I've found this here Fireteam Bravo rather more enjoyable than its big brothers.
It's certainly not down to a dramatic shift in principles. SOCOM PSP is more of an emulation of SOCOM PS2 than a port, trying to cram as much action into the PSP's spread of buttons and limited processing components as possible and coming commendably close. On the single-player side, there's a reasonable campaign mode that sends you on a tour of various international terrorist hotspots and has you defuse bombs, shadow a few naughty foreigners and bump a fair few of them off while you're at it. There's also something called "Instant Action" that allows you to refill the single-player levels with new objectives and enemies to add to the game-length. Multiplayer, the game's biggest strength, offers a range of good team-based modes and even gets one up on SOCOM PS2 by allowing you to achieve more on your own if the group's full of incompetents - over the Internet as well as ad hoc wireless, with voice comms support through a bundled headset, too.
Perhaps - if it seems a bit weak then bear with me - it's the lock-on. In the absence of a two-stick system, Zipper has created a control system based around single-stick movement and turning, and an auto-aim using right-trigger. By pressing right on the d-pad you can also use a free-look, which is good enough to help when you need to do a bit of recon, and in order to avoid absolute unfairness Zipper's avoided putting enemies below your line of sight on stairs and things like that. Sensible design. It's by no means a perfect system, but it's good enough - and saddled with things like night vision and zoom and stealth stances to sidestep its shortcomings. In single-player, it also allows you to deal out orders to your squad-mate Lonestar by hitting circle and selecting using a radial, while obvious things (breach, defuse bomb etc) appear and can be activated contextually by holding circle over them. Online, voice comms deals with a scarcity of buttons and a lack of keyboard.
And it's here that the lock-on helps where you'd most expect it to hinder, because instead of simply removing the challenge it arguably intensifies it whilst levelling the playing field. You can still have twitch-kills with the free-look, but most people are using the lock-on, and so it's about positioning, awareness and solid team tactics. With well-designed levels and up to sixteen players in the game at once, staying alive's tricky but the fact that you're not being out-thumbed by somebody who grew up with analog aiming is a definite plus.
Naturally the single-player game benefits from it too, and the range of missions is enough to keep you interested, whether you're taking out critical enemies, rescuing hostages, defusing bombs or reacting to changes in objective by scouting for hidden intelligence or photographing clandestine encounters (although that's a bit of a push, since I'm actually referring to a bit where you follow an elder around a camp and snap him spouting alarmingly straight-faced crush-the-infidel rhetoric to his fellow Generic Arab Terrorists - this is game of wallpaper-narrative and it's best not to look too deep). Whatever you make of the context, the content's engaging - and the game's close relationship with SOCOM 3 means you can unlock things for use in that game and vice versa, as well as seeing that game's events from a different perspective.
So it may be that stuff that I like. It's certainly not the AI though, which is dreadful. Or the checkpointing, which is nonexistent. If Lonestar dies, it's game over - and he's about as smart as a brick. It's also a bit of a pain when you're searching a house for bombs to defuse and you miss one and fail that way, despite evacuating the place well in time and achieving all your other objectives. It's hardly about remaining covert - they'd probably notice all their dead henchmen and missing intelligence.
But actually, I think it's this that I like: SOCOM PSP is a simple, varied, and well put together game that works very well on Sony's handheld. Zipper may not have mastered being able to sidle up against walls and silent takedowns can be a bit impractical, but as a GI Thickhead playset goes it's got all the trimmings. You can pick all sorts of options in your pre-mission loadout, and pour over meaningless background intelligence while stirring music plays. You can view an overhead map at any time to see where waypoints and objectives are. You can use binoculars and the map to plan your approach. And, in particular, the Instant Action part of the game means that providing you get on with the core mechanics, (which are adequate at worst - the camera being a pain in the standard-issue cliché), you'll find a great deal more value in this than most of the other sort-of-ports you can buy for the PSP.
In other words, it screws up a few of the secondary objectives, but it still blows the dam. I doubt it'll ever be my favourite game series - and I'd still rather play Counter-Strike or Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter - but as a companion to SOCOM 3 it's as well executed as any SEAL team plan (the ones in the films anyway), and as a tactical action game, it's the best the PSP's got.