While we've had to wait a while for its release (North American gamers received SOCOM 3 late in 2005), Zipper Interactive's latest SOCOM title has finally arrived in Europe. SOCOM is far and away the most impressive online military combat series on the PlayStation 2, and SOCOM 3 very much builds on what has gone before it. This isn't a complete reinvention of the series, but it's essential for fans and even manages to cater for people looking for some substance offline.
The single-player game takes place over three campaigns as you command your small Navy SEAL team and tackle enemies over a number of locations. The combat feels as solid as ever, with tight movement and aiming controls, plus plenty of more complex controls accessed using the Dual Shock 2's less well-used buttons. These include commands for the team or two-man groups, numerous view modes, stance position and pressure sensitive grenade throwing. If you're a long-time SOCOM fan this latest instalment will feel like an old friend, but newcomers will need some time to take everything in.
Additions to the game are few, but have a big effect. Transport vehicles change the gameplay quite dramatically, making larger maps possible. Sadly, while you can take the gunner's position, your AI team mates don't seem to have driving licenses, meaning you have to continuously switch positions in order take out sporadic groups of enemies as you move from one key location to the next. Vehicle controls are simple, with nothing much more advanced than brake and accelerate needing to be learnt, and team mates do on occasion like to get in the way of your moving vehicle, but it's still a solid addition to the series.
A less obvious addition, but one that has a large impact on the gameplay, is the ability to swim. Many of the levels feature lakes or rivers of some sort that can be used to mount a stealthy assault on the target. While you can't fire a weapon while getting your feet wet, you are much harder to spot while swimming neck deep in water, and a handy submerge command will see your character sink under the surface and out of view for as long as you can hold your breath. It's not as if swimming hasn't been done in video games before, but it adds a new dimension to SOCOM's gameplay.
Missions see you and the team carrying out various Navy SEAL tasks, such as destroying missile launchers and taking out radio communications, and all the usual destroy/protect missions that are seen in almost every military combat title released. Missions often span numerous objectives and cover large amounts of virtual land, but the game uses a checkpoint feature to help prevent too much gameplay time being wasted if you die. These checkpoints also replenish your ammo and health, making the game relatively simple, but also eliminating potentially annoying low ammo situations.
SOCOM 3's single-player campaign is the most impressive of the series, with some smart cutscenes and a few nice PSP link-up features, but the real heart of the game still lies online. Up to 32 players can play together in numerous game types, and many of the vehicles from the single-player game are also drivable online, making for an online experience that comes close to the classic Battlefield series on the PC. Previous SOCOM games were limited to 16 players online, and the increase here makes for more exciting gameplay. There's a nice selection of maps to choose from, plus they can all be played at night, making for a completely different feel to combat.
Performance online is solid, with lag being minimal, but unfortunately it's really hard to find people playing the new game types. You can take part in smaller games, but hardly ever with the full 32 players. With the series having a strong fan following, most of the regular players stick to the modes that were featured in the previous games. There's good reason for this, as the Demolition and Suppression modes are great fun, but it would be nice to see a few of the other game types become popular.
In comparison to the previous two SOCOM games on the PlayStation 2, SOCOM 3 looks great, but put against the best looking games on the system, Zipper Interactive's third effort looks more than a little rough around the edges. The biggest plus point undoubtedly comes from a lengthy draw distance and some impressive explosions, but textures aren't pretty and the environments and character models aren't exactly bursting with polygons. The frame rate holds up for the most part and there's widescreen support, but PAL users have to make do without a 60Hz mode.
If SOCOM 3 lags behind the times a little in the visuals department, it makes up for it with some very impressive audio work. Voice work in cutscenes is top drawer and weapon and explosion effects all sound great. The musical score is a tad generic and could have been lifted from any military-based shooter, but it fits. As ever, SOCOM 3 players make good use of the PlayStation 2's USB headset, with far more people talking online than in any other online PlayStation 2 title. The headset can also be used to issue commands in the single-player mode, but as in previous titles, it's a bit hit and miss.
SOCOM 3 is pretty much an extension of SOCOM 2, but when you've got a winning formula, why change it? Compared to recent releases like Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter for the Xbox 360, the combat feels a little old, but it still works well, offline and online. With support for up to 32 players online there's nothing quite like this for the PlayStation 2 or on consoles in general. For SOCOM fans the decision whether to buy or not is obvious, and newcomers could do far worse than playing SOCOM 3 online.