The US Army has just launched another TV advertising stint that can see on YouTube. They seem to be aiming to snare people who play war-based videogames and want to take things to the 'NEXT LEVEL'. Is this really a wise decision, do you think? Surely it means five years from now the army will be full of people who keep shooting their own team and crashing vehicles all the time (waaaait a second). Still, if the US Army wants more soldiers, they should be specifically targeting people who love SOCOM: Combined Assault.
First of all, they're people already hardened to the monotony of war. Combined Assault adds nothing of significance to the offline campaign mode of SOCOM 3, just a few more pieces of equipment with awful names composed entirely of capital letters and numbers. The engine's the same as in SOCOM 3 too, but with the bloom removed now that it's gone out of fashion. The developers are encouraging people to think of this more as an expansion than a sequel, which makes it kind of like Burnout: Dominator. A nice, safe game that the team can churn out before the PS2 finds a home in the console graveyard, all the while being (presumably) hard at work on a next-gen evolution of the concept.
So at its core the offline game's completely unchanged. You're still the lead SEAL in a team of four, with loyal AIs taking up the other three slots. The mechanics are still a hybrid of high speed action and a Special Forces sim, where running in guns blazing with your team set to 'Follow' and 'Fire at will' is always an option for players who are bored of crawling along and calling out individual targets. Level design too is a cross between the linear, carefully guided stuff of 'pop' action games and wide open environments found in serious military games. In a way the series is kind of like the child of the old Rainbow Six games and Rainbow Six: Vegas, although that's a pretty horrible concept because - connotations of inbreeding aside - it's hard to personify Rainbow Six games as anything other than massive, creepy men. Let's move on.
This being the same game as SOCOM 3 unfortunately also means the, in no uncertain terms, routinely bent AI hasn't been fixed. Quickly running through the tutorial I was told to order my squad to move to checkpoint Delta. I told them to move to checkpoint Delta. Two of them moved to checkpoint Delta. The third eagerly sprinted off as fast as he could in the other direction and quickly disappeared into a bush. God forbid you're trying to order your team around using the inbuilt voice recognition and the headset sold with the original SOCOM. Telling your SEALs to breach a room once, then trying again, then a third time, then a fourth, until you're red faced with frustration and shouting so loud into the mike the game misinterprets what you're saying and one of your team throws a grenade against the shut door.
SOCOM's AI problems have always gone much further than that, though. Enemies alternately seeming to have the eyes of a hawk and a mole, people being shot at and not reacting, poor pathfinding, getting stuck. The whole gang's here. Which is exactly why Combined Assault fans are cut out for a career in the military! They're used to the unpredictability of the human race!
Another reason fans of Combined Assault would make good soldiers is their willingness to put up with pretty poor treatment. The campaign this time round just feels a little limper overall, and not just because of the removal of blood and the toning down of anything that could be considered politically incorrect (the whole thing takes place in the fictional country of Ajikistan). The story's less interesting than SOCOM 3 and the levels, objectives, bonus objectives, enemies, prisoners and hostages all blur together into one big brown blur. Inexplicably, the only colour in the single player comes in the form of delicious meats. Every level has a hidden sausage you can collect to complete the secret 'GET SAUSAGE' objective, with the ultimate goal of acquiring the elusive Sausage Badge.
(Joke about hiding sausages or sausage-chasing in the US army sold separately.)
But all these gripes about the campaign and AI can be swept aside if you're one of the few and the proud in possession of a modem for their PS2. SOCOM has survived as a licence because of the multiplayer and as ever it's at the forefront of Combined Assault. Fitting the 'expansion' label to a tee, anyone with Combined Assault can drop into games of SOCOM 3 no problem at all, but not vice versa due to the new maps, vehicles, weapons and equipment.
And finally Zipper has seen fit to include an offline co-op mode. There's no split screen (the frame rate sometimes struggles already) but a friend with a PS2 and a TV shouldn't be all that hard to find. It's certainly worth it. All the horrors of the campaign's AI glitches melt away when you share them with someone, laughing together at pathfinding which defines a vertical drop off a tall object as a path. Missions don't scale though, so you might find playing with the maximum of four human players a little pointless. Or you might find it a fun exercise in kicking ass.
Overall this is still SOCOM and it still provides pretty good online firefights with a good feel of teamwork and some nice variety. But it's really starting to look and feel kind of elderly now, so more than ever should you steer clear if you don't have the hardware needed to bring your PS2 online. And don't be tempted to get it for the 'Crosstalk' features if you own SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Fireteam Bravo Two (Good Lord what a name) for the PSP. Painstakingly completing bonus objectives in one to make minor changes to missions in the other is a fun concept, but one that needs better single-player than this to make it compelling.