Considering SOCOM spearheaded Sony's online gaming charge with the PlayStation 2, and continued to set the quality bar throughout the series' life on PS2 and PSP, we expected great things from its debut on PS3. Previous games had included a story-led campaign and an online component, so SOCOM Confrontation's move to online only got a lot of people very excited. Surely a series known for its superb online play would only get better if the focus was placed entirely on this aspect? So you'd have thought.
What we didn't consider is how the online shooter has changed over the years since SOCOM's last outing. Call of Duty 4 and World at War have more or less got the solider-based first-person shooter genre sewn up in the multiplayer space, the Battlefield series caters for bigger battles, Halo 3 has an abundance of superb community features, Killzone 2 has a novel game type system, and even Resistance 2 gets in on the act with its massive battles and unique co-op play. When you take a good look at the competition it's perhaps a little easier to see why Confrontation doesn't feel like we expected it to.
It's worth pointing out that almost all of the problems that plagued the late 2008 North American launch of the game have been sorted out. In the time the game has taken to arrive on the PlayStation Network in the UK (and at retail) numerous patches have turned a lame dog into a soldier ready for battle. During our time with the game we didn't experience any major issues: games were easy to find, lag wasn't an issue, and we weren't left for days struggling to connect to the servers. If you buy Confrontation now you can at least be safe in the knowledge that the game works.
It's when you actually start to play that things don't quite cut the mustard. Right from the off the game's menu system is confusing, and more or less the opposite of what we'd expect from a multiplayer shooter trying to get people to bite with its impulse buy price tag. This is far from an insurmountable problem of course, but it's not the best of starts. There's an element of character customisation to experiment with (more gear means you'll be slower, but better protected, while less gear means you'll be nippier, but more vulnerable) and then you're ready for battle.
SOCOM falls into the hardcore end of the multiplayer shooter genre, meaning that if you get shot you're likely to die very quickly. This isn't UT3, where you can bounce around and survive an onslaught of bullets, so the learning curve is steep. Your first few matches are likely to be dominated by you trying to get to grips with the complicated controls while being shot almost immediately after you make contact with an enemy. These opening few hours aren't what we'd call fun, and with the team-focussed play relying on others doing their job you'll soon start to feel like the kid picked last in a game of playground football.
Killing people is hard in Confrontation. With your average game comprising of teams of no more than eight players competing against one another (16 versus 16 games are available, but the maps are generally a bit smaller than in previous SOCOM games), you can go for rounds without notching a single kill as the team's front men mop up enemies before you've even had a chance to reload. Thankfully the game lets you know if you assisted on a kill, but it doesn't make you feel much better. Considering there are only seven maps here, with three of those being from older games in the series, and that the game has been out in the US for months, newcomers are in for a very hard time as they compete against what might as well be fully trained soldiers.
You will eventually settle into the game's hardcore style, perhaps even finding some regulars to play with so you can at least make the most of the game's voice chat - something that's essential if you're going to compete against the better players. The game modes, which cover the usual deathmatch and search/destroy formula are just as much fun as they've always been, but they are just that: the same as they've always been. Despite being on the newest console on the block, distributed primarily through the console's online service, nothing about SOCOM Confrontation feels fresh.
Sadly the same could be said about the presentation. The digital download excuse for the rather bland visuals might have worked had we not already seen the likes of Warhawk and WipEout HD hit the PlayStation Store over the past year, and for many people Confrontation will be a full retail product. It's not ugly, but the maps are blocky and uninspired. There's a definite CounterStrike vibe about the whole thing, but most PS3 gamers expect an awful lot more. A special mention must also go to the terrible loading time when you first load a map - for a game that's running completely off the PS3's hard drive it's bordering on unacceptable.
We remember sinking an awful lot of time into SOCOM and its sequels on the PlayStation 2. At the time this was the series that showed what the PS2 was capable of in the online arena, so its run of the mill debut on PS3 is more than a little disappointing. With so many high quality shooters on the market already, each trying to offer something that the others don't, all Confrontation really has going for it is its low price tag. For what was such a well respected series, that's really not good enough.