Just because the PSP is capable of displaying some fancy 3D visuals doesn't mean it was designed to play full-on 3D games. This is squarely down to one thing that's missing from the face of the handheld: a second analogue stick. Without this second stick you lose the ability to move a character in all directions while also aiming your weapon, and camera issues that can largely be controlled in console games rear their ugly heads. The task Zipper Interactive had to bring SOCOM to the PSP, then, wasn't an easy one.
Rather than seriously cut down the PlayStation 2 games to fit on the PSP, Zipper chose to build in an incredibly complex control scheme that uses every button on the controller and combinations of buttons. The basics are that the analogue stick controls player movement, but when the left shoulder button is held down you are locked into strafing. The right shoulder button targets enemies, while 'X' fires. All the other buttons handle weapon selection, stance, viewing mode and more. This makes for a game that certainly isn't easy to get into, but it works surprisingly well after the complexity has had time to bed in a little.
Even so, the game has been slightly dumbed down as a result. The targeting of enemies makes combat pretty simple, with little to no skill needed in most situations. You do have to do your own aiming in the free-look mode or when you're using a scope, but even this is made pretty simple if you lock onto an enemy before entering the new aim mode. These limitations of the control are acceptable given the hard job Zipper had in brining SOCOM to the PSP, but veterans of the series may feel that much of the challenge has been removed.
The single-player campaign is closely linked to that seen on SOCOM 3, with locations in Fireteam Bravo also cropping up in the PlayStation 2 game. Missions are pretty standard stuff, with a mix of recon and assault objectives, and a number of unlockables open up information in SOCOM 3 (when linked via USB cable), giving the team in the PlayStation 2 game advanced intelligence and the like. It's a nice touch that gives people who own both games a bonus, but won't annoy players who only own one of the two games. The campaign story is helped along with the aid of some impressive cutscenes, and while single-player hasn't been a major factor in previous SOCOM titles, there's plenty to enjoy in this PSP title.
Once you're done with the campaign you can tackle completed missions in the instant action mode. Rather than just letting you run through the same missions, the locations remain the same, but the objectives change, effectively giving you an alternative campaign. You can choose from five different game types in each map, and enemies are randomly placed, meaning you can come back over and over again and still have a slightly different experience.
Aside from the slightly dumbed down aiming system, the main problem with the single-player portion of the game is the enemy AI. The way enemies act once they know you're there is fine; it's if they spot you that's the problem. On some occasions they'll seemingly spot you from miles away, while at other times you can walk over to them from the side and they won't have any idea you're there, even if you've been making a fair amount of noise. Had the AI been slightly dumb all the time it wouldn't have been a huge issue, as the limitations in the control scheme would have balanced things out, but because they act fairly randomly it makes every encounter rather uncertain.
All this is really just the icing though. The cake is unquestionably the multiplayer component of the game, which features full infrastructure online play for up to sixteen players, as well as local wireless play. It's easily the most impressive online game for the PSP, and even includes voice chat while in game. Fireteam Bravo ships with a dozen maps that are fairly diverse and large. There are five set game types to choose from, but some maps are limited to certain types that work best. Your experience online will, as always, depend on who you play with, but the basic Suppression mode that simply has your team trying to take down the enemy, and the Extract game type that tasks one team with rescuing hostages, always make for fun games online.
Performance online is generally excellent and the lobby system works well, with players able to split into groups of the same spoken language to make for easier online communication. If you enjoyed the single-player campaign, the online mode won't disappoint. Controls are identical, but the human opponents remove the troublesome AI from the equation. The targeting system makes the game more about tactics than skill, and once you've adjusted to the differences between this and console third-person shooters you'll have a great time.
Fireteam Bravo's overall presentation is excellent, with the already mentioned cutscenes looking and sounding great. The audio throughout the game is superb, with great weapon sound effects and a fitting, if rather generic, musical score that accompanies the action. Sadly, the visuals aren't quite up the same standard. The SOCOM series has never been on the cutting edge visually, but the PSP game often looks incredibly rough around the edges. Environments are large, but polygon counts on buildings and enemies are low. Some good animations for your squad mates and fallen enemies help redeem things, but this certainly isn't a game to show off the power of Sony's handheld.
Considering games like this were totally out of the question on a handheld just over a year ago, having a game like SOCOM playable on the move and online is quite incredible. The whole package is undeniably ambitious and for the most part Zipper Interactive has pulled it off, but the complex controls combined with the dumbed down aiming make it less impressive as a game than its PlayStation 2 cousins. As an online experience it's unrivalled on the PSP or any handheld, and the single-player modes are good, but SOCOM isn't yet the complete package on the PSP.