Zipper Interactive and SCEA deliver one hell of a sequel.
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: November 20, 2003
It's doubtful that anyone, even people at SCEA or Zipper, could have guessed how well the original SOCOM. It's now the number one online console game (a fact that Sony is all too happy to make abundantly clear), tens of thousands of players continue to log in and play for hours at a time, and it pretty much single-handedly put PlayStation 2 online gaming on the map. It was the killer online app that Sony needed, even though the online was only a portion of the product. In truth SOCOM sold well for a very specific reason: it was a damn good game. A little rough around the edges, sure, but still a solid experience.

The sequel manages a very impressive fate indeed. It improves on every major aspect that made SOCOM so good. Better enemy AI, better squad AI, better voice recognition, better level design, better mission variety, better graphics and sound, and better online maps (for those that would argue the last point, every map from the first game returns with slight upgrades for those that prefer it old school). However, SOCOM II is technically more of the same without any major advances to the series, something that keeps it from being a marked advance in what the first game started.

There are still two reasons to buy SOCOM II, and by themselves the game may not warrant a purchase, but if you're a gamer equipped to experience both parts (read: you have a Network Adaptor and a broadband connection), it's definitely a case of the whole being greater than the sum of it's parts. To really get the most out of the game, you'll have to digest both parts in more or less equal servings. The offline portion of the game is challenging enough (more on that in a second), and provides more than a few hour of practice before you get online - and you'll need it because SOCOM's current online play feels acutely similar to Counter-Strike on the PC in how hardcore some of the following can get.

Before we delve into the single player portion of the game, it's important to point out a very key peripheral. While it might seem trivial, the trio of different headsets available right now (the flimsy one that shipped with SOCOM, the upgraded and far nicer Logitech version and the co-branded SCEA/Logitech model issues recently that offers an inline mute and volume control) are necessary equipment. You can accomplish the commands you'd do vocally by stepping through the menus, but what takes three or four or five button presses can be accomplished with a single button and a phrase that takes a second to speak. It's far, FAR more effective and infinitely more immersive to play the game this way.

Throughout 12 missions taking place in Brazil, Albania, Algeria and Russia, you'll lead a squad of three SEALs into seriously hot spots. Tasked with everything from breaching a stronghold to escorting a target to their escape to taking out tanks to assassinating the heads of crime syndicates, SOCOM II does a better job than its predecessor in mixing things up, though it does have the same learning curve which can often mean lots of trial and error to complete missions. This also means you'll hear the same briefings and comments from your team, which can quickly begin to grate.

Fortunately, getting your squad mates to shut their yaps and get to shooting is easy enough. Minor changes in the layout and structure of the command system means you'll have to spend a bit of time with things, but now some of the formerly hidden commands for things like opening doors and breaching rooms are available from the menu (and, of course, via voice commands, which are far more responsive this time around). I did have a major beef in the way your squad would often bunch up in doorways, blocking you from following an enemy or avoid attack, so there may be times when you find yourself screaming more than orders into the mic.

Additions like turrets and improved AI response mean levels are far more action packed than the first game. It also means missions involving stealth will force you to take things far more slowly and really work out the paths you take through levels. Thanks to far more organic and downright enjoyable level designs, however, the way to do this often lies in a couple different directions. More flexibility keeps you reevaluating how to tackle some objectives, and in turn adds a more dynamic feeling to the overall game.

Online, things have gotten quite a bit of clean up work. Better ladder systems, easier setups for clans and groups, and a cleaner interface get you into the game with a bit less clutter. Once you're in the same oddly mixed pace of sneaking and intense firefights are every bit as addictive, and it's incredibly fun the first couple times through to revisit the first game's online maps to see what's changed. Some of the additions are subtle, others will have you completely relearning quiet spots through the maps. The addition of weapons like RPGs make things more complicated when playing online especially, but it's a toss-up as to how well they're received on a given map. Snipers are one thing, but catching a long-range rocket to the face tends to give one a feeling of a cheap death.

If any one area of the game got the most subtle tweaks that made the biggest difference, it's in the graphical overhaul. While the same muted palettes will still make you squint a bit, it is markedly better and the more organic feel of some of the levels - particularly the Brazilian ones - feel fantastic. Texture detail and variety are an improvement over the first game, and it's obvious that Zipper was able to build upon what they learned while making the first game to make things prettier the second time around. Character models boast slightly better animations with more variety and smoothness, though aside from vocal changes and different weapons, the addition of foreign special forces groups like British SAS and Spetznaz are mostly just cosmetic.

The one area I'd hoped would get the biggest overhaul, the framerate, is still painfully inconsistent, and nearly always averages a sub-30 level, giving things a slightly choppy effect. There are moments when things get smooth, and it's then that you wish things were like this all the time, but with all the geometry the system is pushing, it's almost enough to let it slide. Almost.

With so much input from actual SEALs, the first game was able to capture some fantastically realistic sound effects. Ironically, because so much of the SEAL experience is about getting in and out without commotion, there isn't a lot of ear candy while you play. The conversations from locals in their own languages continues to be a nice touch of authenticity, and the same familiar effects like ringing ears after close proximity explosions just hammer home why this is one of the best sounding games on the PS2.

The soundtrack this time around, while still offering plenty of punch, seems a bit too clich├ęd when compared with Jeremy Soule's work on the previous game. Balance issues also mean the music can overcrowd briefings and comments from squad mates, which gets rather annoying. In fact, the overall sound balance seems a bit off at times. It's a minor gripe, since most of the music is still fun to listen to, but a better job of smoothing things out would have been nice.

With lots o' goodies to unlock, a solid single-player experience and robust online support, SOCOM II is a fantastic way to show off Sony's online offering. It lacks any of the faults of EA Sports' attempted Nation gimmick, yet offers nearly as much tracking information for those that need it. If you're looking for a solid, realistic approach to a squad-based shooter, SOCOM's still where it's at.
The Verdict