When it comes to online gaming Sony has always played second fiddle to Microsoft's Xbox. With popular multiplayer franchises like Halo, Far Cry and Call of Duty, it's no wonder that most of the first-person shooter fans have migrated to the Xbox and Xbox 360. But Microsoft doesn't have the monopoly on great online action games, as proven by Sony's wildly successful SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs franchise. I had a chance to sit down with the newest installment of this long-running series and from what I can tell this version of SOCOM will be the best one yet.
SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs - Combined Assault is the fourth installment in the five year old series. It features everything that made SOCOM 3 so much fun - huge levels, a diverse group of online modes, 32-player support - and goes one step further to add an amazing cooperative mode that brings four players together to defend freedom and kill some terrorists.
The levels in Combined Assault are extremely large, to the point where it's not hard to get lost while searching for your next target. Thankfully you have a helpful map to guide you on your adventure, but all it takes is one look at that map to make you realize just how vast these levels really are. In each area you will have a number of missions (and side-missions) to complete, many of which are open-ended and can be tackled in a number of different ways. Players don't need to do all of the missions in each level, but prepare to be judged if you fail to save a hostage or disable the enemy communication set-up.
If you've played previous SOCOM outings then you will have no problem jumping into Combined Assault. Zipper has managed to tweak some of the controls to make them a little more user friendly, but by and large everything has been left just as it was in SOCOM 3. One of the biggest technical differences comes in the way of communication. Ever since the first game back in 2002, SOCOM has always offered you the opportunity to talk with your teammates, but this time around you won't need to hold the button down to get your point across. This has been one of those improvements players have been demanding for five years, and it's good to see that Zipper finally listened.
The single player level I played found me in the middle of a snow-covered mountain in southern Adjikistan, a fictional country created specifically for Combined Assault. My mission was to locate survivors and demolish a helicopter. Along the way I was told to take out as many enemy soldiers as I could and disable their radios so that they could not call for back-up. Not only was the level I played extremely large, but it also featured mountain tops, deep valleys and even a full village. The map tells you where everything is, but how you go about getting there is entirely up to you.
From what I could tell the enemies in Combined Assault are a bit smarter than they were in previous SOCOM games. Instead of just standing out in the open the enemies scattered realistically and gave me a real challenge. Sony suggests that enemies will now act differently depending on what weapon they are carrying, so players will need to be a bit more calculating this time around. It's also worth noting that enemies will react when they see one of their peers has been shot, so it's important to stay in the shadows and use suppressed weapons in order to get the job done without being detected. As always, SOCOM is not the kind of game where you can just run into a situation and expect to kill everybody in sight.
As with SOCOM 3, players that own both the PlayStation 2 and PSP will be able to use a feature called "crosstalk." This allows you to complete missions in the PSP game, Fireteam Bravo 2, and have it effect what happens in Combined Assault. In each game you play as a different squad of SEALs, this means that you can take out enemies on the PSP game and when you play the PlayStation 2 title those enemies will already be taken care of. How this feature will work through the entire game has yet to be seen, but from what Sony is suggesting this could be a really cool feature that gives SOCOM fans yet another reason to pick up the PSP game.
With all new vehicles, open-ended missions and huge levels, it's easy to be excited about this upcoming SOCOM game. Throw in the ability to play cooperatively with four players through the story mode and you may just have Sony's best online game yet. I can't wait to get my hands on the finished version of Combined Assault, because from what I can tell this is going to be one of the best multiplayer games of the year. Expect a full review in just a few weeks.