The SOCOM games have met with mixed success in the UK. While hugely popular in the US, over here the lack of a significant PlayStation2 online community, and SOCOM's insistence on complexity, has left many Blighty gamers apathetic to the merits of Zipper Interactive's Navy SEAL shooter.
While the focus in SOCOM has always been on online play, there is a substantial single-player campaign that is an essential training-ground for anyone new to the series, as the online games are fairly tough, even at noob level.
The reason for this is the complexity of the squad-based shooter. SOCOM has always projected the image of being a military simulator, and this time around the series has become so engulfed in detail it will be fairly off-putting to all but the most dedicated fans of military accuracy.
Playing through a campaign mission with three sidekicks, there are all the usual options to send orders to your team, sweeping through levels and picking off enemies, but something does not sit right. Your opponents themselves are thinly spread, extremely well camouflaged, and often hidden in the game's thick fog of war, meaning you will regularly have to attempt a mission countless times to learn rivals' positions.
All to often after playing through a level for the umpteenth time, just as you reach a new area you are sniped from an unknown angle, meaning you'll have to play to that point again several times to work out the best way of tackling your unknown assassin.
Additionally, the in-depth weapon customisation screens rather exclude the casual gamer with a lack of knowledge of military hardware. Before starting a mission you can select two weapons and two additional items, such as grenades and medikits, for each team member, along with a host of sights, scopes and bolt-on accessories for your guns. The problem is that the weapons you select have a substantial impact on the game. If you know your M4 from your HK5, then selecting your arsenal will be a pleasure, but for those with a less thorough knowledge of tools of destruction, SOCOM: Combined Assault can quickly suck you into a vicious circle of trial and error, seeing experimentation with different combinations of weaponry you don't fully understand.
There is also so much going on, especially in terms of team commands, that the control set-up is one of the most complex of the genre. It is in no way badly designed, but just rather overwhelming for the SOCOM virgin. Which brings us to the crux of what will make you either love of loath Combined Assault; namely, that it is a game almost exclusively for serious fans of military endeavours.
If you are familiar with the jargon and technology of conflict, you will likely enjoy the latest SOCOM very much indeed. Its wealth of customisation and technical accuracy, combined with its sombre realism and simulation feel will thrill many gamers, but for those whose knowledge of the world's armed forces stops at Medal of Honor, it can be a painfully slow and frustrating experience.
Online the game is great, especially using the optional communications headset, with plenty of well-considered game options from the competitive to the cooperative, and a huge amount of variety and depth, but all are again cursed by the rather limiting prowess of the PlayStation 2. Unfortunately messy visuals and a lazy fog of war make spotting enemies and reacting to your surroundings a little infuriating at best.
Whilst the whole package is graphically very dated and lacking in originality, there is an undeniable depth to this tactical shooter that knows exactly what its target demographic wants, and it's nice to see Sony continuing to support the PlayStation2 online community. However, both military enthusiasts and connected gamers are likely more than ready for a next-generation experience.