There are some things that always get boys excited, whatever their age. Besides the words 'free beer' and 'teen bikini contest', mention of any special forces unit seems to have the same response, in this case the hallowed US Navy SEALS. Before we start, I should point out that SOCOM stands for Special Operations Command, and is a branch of the US Department of Defense. Right, now that we have cleared the geekery aside, what's it all about? You got it - US Navy SEALS. It follows in the vein of an increasing number of Special Forces tactical games, and like most predecessors, leads towards stealth. Think Rainbow Six, but much better.
There are two things that set SOCOM aside from predecessors. Firstly, it was launched as the flagship online game, using the network adapter (sold together as part of a bundle, or separately) - more on this later. Secondly, it comes with a headset, so you can issue commands to your teammates. And this is where the excitement really begins. The headset (Logitech, naturally) consists of a single earphone and boom mic, it is both comfortable and adjustable, so everyone from Pinhead to David Coulthard should be ok. Using the headset you can issue voice commands to your AI teammates in single player mode, or talk to fellow players online (I would imagine that 90% of players will play single player until the price of broadband drops a little...). The voice recognition works, is simple to use, and can cover a range of options - the you select the command options on the screen as you speak, you say the word, you get more choices, just like the Windows Start button. As you learn the set up, you can rattle off commands whilst concentrating on the action. Control of your player involves using almost all the controller buttons, so like most games of this ilk, sit down and play it siege style for weeks, otherwise you'll forget. Controls are logical, and do enable you to do everything you want. Combined with the voice control, it means you can attempt such greats as the classic pincer manoeuvre and so on.
Graphics are good, not as good as we see on similar contemporary games on the PC, but they do the job, and satifyingly well. The should has to be one of my favourite parts, however. Normal game sounds come through the TV speakers as normal, but the headset earpiece will provide radio comms from teammates, HQ and so on. With this barrage of noise you are immersed in the atmosphere of the game, and it really does suck you in. Of course, the ability to play with the network adapter adds a new dimension to gaming and Sony have done it right - it is simple to get playing through your existing broadband connection.
So there must be problems right? Of course. The emphasis on stealth means that the ammo loadout is on the minimal side. Standard is 3 mags for the HK. I wouldn't set foot out there with only 90 rounds. I'd take 6 mags because you never know what is going to happen. Perhaps the graphics don't allow them to add extra leg pouches or whatever. I guess it keeps the gun bunnies off the trigger. At any rate, there is always the option of using the knife for the silent kill. This is quick and efficient and the option automatically appears if you are close enough to an enemy and have remained undetected. You also get the option of picking up other weapons from those you shoot.
Another ubiquitous problem appears in AI. This comes up so often in military games: you set the AI high, and the player dies again and again. Make the opponents dumb, and the game is really easy. Finding the balance is a constant battle. In SOCOM the enemy react well, the AI problem rests with your team members in single player mode (or if you have particularly stupid online team members). An example: I issued the voice command 'Bravo, deploy frag'. On receiving the order, the highly trained elite Navy kick-ass SEAL got out a grenade, bounced it off the wall and let it kill both himself and his buddy. Bravo. I mean, we all joke about Americans and all that, but this is ridiculous. I failed many missions trying to get my men to do something useful. In many cases, I dropped the stealth, told everyone to stay and went solo, with an AK. Kill kill kill, blood blood blood and all that. Sometimes speed and brutality work
Overall, this is a good game, but there is a possibility that it could be better. My suspicion is that the developers know this, and SOCOM 2 is already slated for November 2003 (original was released in June 2003). It seems that as well fixing the bits that were not so graphically refined in the first game, they are adding and improving, and looking to give the gamers what they want - more urban areas, improving the AI, and the most important - they're adding more guns. Obviously, the global experiment to see it SOCOM would fly as a single player and online game has worked, and Sony are willing to pour more money into it. Gawd bless 'em. With the imminent release of SOCOM 2, make the tough decision, either hold fire and get the new version, or second hand original ... or jump right in? My advice is go for it now.