Thanks largely to the popularity of the PlayStation 2's online services stateside, the SOCOM series has always sold well, and carries significant clout as a series in the US. Here in the UK it's faired slightly less successfully. Though SOCOM has always enjoyed reasonable critical success and healthy sales on these shores it has never established itself to the same level that it has managed elsewhere.
While the previous online emphasis of the titles is undoubtedly to blame, many have sighted SOCOM's complex, fiddly nature as part of the reason that UK gamers have had less time for it than its rivals. Until now the franchise has always been a very competent squad-based action game; albeit one with a fixation on elaborate controls, intricate team commands, overwhelming weapons options, and a dizzying array of strategic options.
All that makes it rather surprising that the latest SOCOM and the series' third instalment on the PSP has opted to move things far further towards strategy, and away from action completely. Those expecting something simple and immediate for the PSP should look elsewhere as in essence Tactical Strike is actually an RTS. It is just presented from the typical viewpoint of a third person action shooter.
Here you have no direct control over one lead soldier, instead issuing commands to a squad of four men subdivided at different times into various units. Inevitably this means plenty of time spent flanking and stealthily creeping, but in fact there is a great deal more to completing the newest release from developer Slant Six Games. From breaching doors in a myriad of ways to rescuing hostages and staging set-piece attacks, there is a wealth of possibilities on offer here.
The basic system for plastering so much strategy onto an action game's perspective and the slightly limiting button set of the PSP is actually really impressive, and initially it's a very appealing prospect. Using the L and R buttons you can hop through various team members' perspectives and units. From there you can issue near countless commands that can roughly be broken down into firing, moving, grenade throwing, and scenery interaction.
Take firing for example. As well as simply highlighting a target and giving the attack command, you can order to lay fire on a broad area to cover several enemies, you can place stored fire commands individually with each unit before synchronising their attack from different places, and you can provide suppressing fire, before you've even unearthed a fraction of the other strategic options. While it's not a complaint, the slightly laughable speed at which the tutorial's voice over rattles through instructions gives a good impression of just how much is squeezed into this game. The female voice artist recording the vocal track sounds like she's about to explode when she tries to detail escorting injured allies, and it's rather hilarious to take in.
Everything points to Tactical Strike being a brilliant fast paced strategy game that combines intricacy with the intensity normally associated with traditional third and first-person military games. However, a few simple problems go some way towards stopping the latest portable SOCOM from being the game in the series that could have truly broken the UK market.
Since games sprung into the third dimension camera troubles have caused thousands upon thousands of column inches of moaning reviews, but here more than most other places they deserve such harsh appraisal. The camera is bad enough on its own, but leaping from one squad member to another is a nightmare. Strategy games are the titles where broad clarity of vision is perhaps of most importance, and here that clarity is terribly realised.
Similarly, the movement cursor that lets you place your units is clumsy and unreliable, and coupled with the camera, positioning troops, seeing round corners and scouting situations can become hugely frustrating. There's also the issue of some especially unkind save points, often positioned an hour apart, which, along with some particularly harsh restart spots that send you huge distances back, makes for some of the cruellest handheld gaming in years.
Visually Tactical Strike is a little better. While it's not the best we've seen on the PSP, the game is attractive and technically solid. It might lack the polish of the recent PSP military adventure from Sony, Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror, but it's still a good looking game with occasional flourishes of style.
In the end, there's a great idea at the heart of Tactical Strike. A considerable multiplayer mode and truly excellent musical score round off a nice package, but Tactical Strike isn't quite the amazing new direction for real time strategy it could have been. Still, if you aren't easily frustrated, have a fair degree of patience, and are a fan of games that require you to stretch your grey matter, this could be worth a good chunk of your time.