By Joseph Luster

Could SOCOM 4 have been released at a worse time? Probably not. The latest in Sony’s exclusive line of tactical third-person shooters had the misfortune of coming out right around the time of Playstation Network’s notorious shut-down at the hands of hacker community “Anonymous,” rendering its chief feature, online play, utterly useless. At the time of this writing PSN is back up and running for the most part, and reviewers were able to get their hands on the game a bit before all the ruckus, but the damage a month or so of no online play takes on a brand new title like this is difficult to properly quantify.

SOCOM 4: US Navy Seals

Without PSN up and running, the first month of the game’s release left players to soldier through the 14 missions available in the campaign by themselves. SOCOM 4: US Navy Seals starts off with some promise, putting us in the shoes of Ops Commander Cullen Gray. Along with a small squad of teammates, Gray must contend with both native rebels known as Naga and the mercenary group ClawHammer, taking the fight through cities, jungles, villages and … more jungles. The story is a fairly phoned-in aspect of SOCOM 4 and, in this age of countless me-too modern military shooters, I found it increasingly difficult to care about what was going on in the first place.

I’m not even convinced the characters care about what’s going on, regardless of the occasionally dramatic cutscene. That’s fine, I’m here to shoot things and control squad mates, and that’s precisely what SOCOM 4 does, well, fairly competently. The game opens with a handful of back-to-back scenarios that offer increasingly complex tactical opportunities, and it’s all explained pretty thoroughly, with ample hand-holding prior to letting the player loose. Once the basics of control are explained, they get into the nitty gritty of ordering your squad to move forward, hang back, take out enemies, etc. Things get more interesting when another squad is thrown into the mix; perfect for setting up ambushes and flanking large groups of enemies.

This all works great at first, but there are certainly some AI issues when it comes to getting your squads to do precisely what you want them to do. This is exacerbated further as the firefights get hairier, often turning strategies into “use AI teammates as human shields” while you hang back and pick off enemies from behind cover. It’s been a while since I played the original SOCOM games, but their very particular style of realism has faded some at this point. Instead, developer Zipper Interactive—who has worked on every SOCOM since the first hit Playstation 2 in 2002—seem to have taken some steps back to accommodate the modern era of shooters. Maybe it’s perceived that what SOCOM came onto the scene with originally is no longer quite as novel, but it would have been nice to see them go further in the direction of realism and more in-depth tactics rather than falling closer in line with the pack.

There are some nice diversions peppered throughout the campaign. The occasional stealth mission puts you in control of Forty-Five, a female team member who specializes in sneaking around all Metal Gear Solid style. There are still frustrations present, and you’ll definitely be doing sections over before you realize the trick to getting through them, but they serve as nice breathers between all the pounding, cover-based firefighting.

But enough about the solo action. That’s never been SOCOM’s specialty, and that remains the case in this installment. However, thanks to an equal number of changes made to the online experience, the same will be said by some in regard to the multiplayer. The effect Call of Duty has had on the industry looms large here, with additions like kill streak rewards and moving spawn points making things feel just a little too close to Activision’s juggernaut. I personally enjoy those features in other titles, but I’m also of the mind that SOCOM should do what it does best rather than spinning itself into yet another indistinguishable twitch-reaction shooter.

Gone are modes like Breach, Demolition, Control, and Convoy, as all new modes have been planted in their place. Last Defense has players capturing neutral sectors of the map; Uplink is like Capture the Flag except you’re downloading data from enemies; Bomb Squad involves either disarming or protecting bomb sites; and Suppression is a classic deathmatch-style battle. These plus a high level of game mode customizability mean that no one is going to be hurting for something to do online here, but it’s a shame that a lot of that SOCOM magic got lost along the way.

Though I didn’t get to try it out for myself, great things have been said about the way that SOCOM 4 utilizes Playstation Move motion controls. Outside of Killzone 3, that’s a rarity for a shooter like this, so anyone with access to Move controllers might want to give that a shot. All in all, SOCOM 4: US Navy Seals is far from a terrible experience, but it’s one that long-time fans of the series should be wary of before diving in headfirst. Let’s close this as it opened, with a question. Would this title get any attention without the SOCOM name attached to it? Probably not.

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
System(s): Playstation 3
Available: Now

Magicka: Vietnam

Here’s something a little different that was difficult to pass on mentioning due to concept alone. Magicka: Vietnam imagines the war-torn jungles of Vietnam in a much different context … one that involves wizards. And goblins. Yes, this isn’t your typical Vietnam-based action game, but who can resist the promise of unleashing Napalm magic on the “Goblin-Cong” forces?

Magicka: Vietnam was released as the first full expansion to Arrowhead Game Studios’ Magicka, an isometric action-adventure title with a heavy focus on wantonly casting lots and lots of powerful spells. As such it’s fast-paced and full of water, fire, lightning, and other destructive types of spells making your foes go pop across the map like blood-filled water balloons.

The Vietnam expansion comes pretty cheap at $4.99, and all Magicka players in a session together will be able to play it as long as the host has purchased the DLC. Magicka isn’t a very costly title as is, so it might be worth a shot for anyone interested in mixing war with wizards in a loose, humor-infused manner like this.

Publisher: Paradox Interactive
System(s): PC
Available: Now

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