Sony has made a big deal of how SOCOM 4 supports stereo 3D displays and a PlayStation Move control scheme (see sidebar). Beneath these technological diversions lies a solid tactical shooter that innovates in much-needed areas while retaining some of the annoying and unforgivable problems SOCOM is known for.

Much to the chagrin of fans hoping for a better story, Zipper’s attempt to improve the single-player experience falls victim to a familiar enemy: lousy squad A.I. The story campaign starts out well enough, walking the player through a few simple engagements that introduce you to an improved control scheme (which fares better than many third-person shooters), and the various squad commands and advanced tactics available for taking on enemies. It doesn’t take long, however, for the increased difficulty to showcase the many flaws of your allies’ behavior.

During the single-player campaign’s 14 missions, your squad mates will frequently miss shots, fail to move to proper cover, and tip off your enemies before you’re in position. Even when they’re adeptly following orders, you’ll witness plenty of facepalm moments, as your allies walk into your line of fire (then swear at you for shooting them), saunter over live grenades, and block you behind cover like a bad Three Stooges routine.

A few stealth missions add variety, but become frustratingly difficult later on

The final few missions are a textbook lesson in frustration, and during some particularly heated firefights, I felt more like I was wrangling a group of toddlers than commanding a Special Forces squad that I was entrusting with my life. The fact that Zipper failed once again to improve the squad A.I. is particularly disappointing considering the fact that the story isn’t half bad. I applaud the developer for making at least two main characters that defy the machismo meathead stereotype that military shooters so commonly abuse.

Move Controls
While SOCOM 4 is one of the few “hardcore” titles to implement Sony’s PlayStation Move, I wasn’t impressed when playing the game with motion controls. The Sharp Shooter peripheral is heavy and cumbersome to use, even if the trigger action is admittedly satisfying. Even playing without the gun peripheral, I couldn’t find a scrolling speed for the camera that suited SOCOM 4’s fast-paced and highly lethal shootouts. Other players may have less trouble with Move after tweaking the camera options, but I doubt few will prefer it to the standard dual axis control scheme.

While the single-player campaign fell flat, SOCOM fans are more likely to focus on the multiplayer portion of the game, and this installment fares better than Zipper’s last PS3 outing, MAG. In addition to a competent leveling system and a satisfying collection of upgradeable weapons, SOCOM 4’s competitive multiplayer offers a variety of modes. While I enjoy creative modes like Bombsquad, which tasks your team with escorting a randomly chosen bomb technician to different explosive caches, too many of the game types lack respawning by default (you can turn respawning on in custom matches)*, and those that have them are prone to spawn camping. The 32-player count is impressive, but lag became an issue in some of the matches I played.

Out of all of SOCOM 4’s game modes, I probably enjoyed co-op the most, which allows five-player squads to play through a number of areas from the single-player campaign. Although your objectives are simplified (you’ll really only sweep areas for enemies and occasionally activate a switch), co-op emphasizes communication and teamwork in a way that NPC allies simply can’t achieve. The ability to create your own custom campaign missions with different objectives and enemy counts is a cool feature, but you can only choose from two goals, so things get old quickly.

SOCOM 4 sports a number of improvements, but likely won’t win over military shooter fans who are accustomed to a polished single-player experience in addition to addictive multiplayer offerings. Despite its shortcomings, SOCOM 4 is still a smarter shooter than the run-and-gun military alternatives on the market, and longtime fans of the series will likely be pleased – especially if they bring a few friends into battle.

*Statement added for clarification