SOCOM: Tactical Strike (PSP)
The operative word in the alphabet soup that is SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs: Tactical Strike's title is "tactical." For better or worse, it is not a shooter. This may come as a surprise to fans of Sony's successful SOCOM series. But if you go in expecting something between a real-time strategy game and a third-person action game, you can't help but admire Tactical Strike for trying something different -- and, more importantly, succeeding.
The pacing is definitely not that of your average shooter. It's tense and methodical, even plodding at times, with occasional bursts of chaos and panic. It's about planning how and where you'll move the four men of your team, usually in two-man groups called elements. You can control them as a single group, or even split them up and move them as individuals. The analog stick controls a little cursor called a "movement skimmer.' When you let the skimmer sit for a moment, you'll see a ghosted image of where your men will end up if you give them that location as their destination. Press a button, and they make their way to the destination.
This is largely a stealth game, so you can usually see enemies long before they can see you. Therefore, a significant part of the gameplay is deciding when you're stealthing and when you're shooting. Shortly after the game's release, Sony's PR department emailed game reviewers to remind them that soldiers in Tactical Strike won't fire their guns unless you give them permission. Far be it for most game writers to actually, you know, read the manual before playing the game.
To be fair, the perception of the SOCOM franchise could be an issue. This has been the shooter franchise of choice for each generation of Sony's PlayStation. It gave them a healthy online presence on the PlayStation 2, and they've done an admirable job carrying it over to the PSP. But Tactical Strike introduces the twist that you're not shooting. Just as you don't actually move your men so much as give them a destination, you don't actually fire the weapons so much as give them a target. Even then, if you haven't flanked your enemy, you're going to be in for a long, drawn-out exchange of gunfire. Better hope you brought along a few grenades or some extra ammo.
You could call this a paradigm shift from a shooter to a real-time strategy game played on a tactical level. Gamers who tried Pandemic's Full Spectrum Warrior (sadly, there weren't many of you) will feel right at home. But nearly everyone else is going to have to make a mental adjustment. It's a bit disconcerting that when you snipe, you're simply watching the scope zoom in and score a perfect headshot every time. No aiming required, even if you're looking down an aiming interface. You're a bystander.
For the most part, the game will feel awfully easy because if you're doing well, you'll take out your enemies before they can return fire. However, Tactical Strike isn't above scripted tricks such as having you be ambushed by 10 guys spawning out of nowhere no matter what you do. There will be a few save-and-reload slogs at these points. There are also some cheap sequences where you have to defend someone hacking a computer or turning a switch while bad guys attack wildly. Many of the challenges outside the storyline involve dropping you into the middle of a heated firefight and forcing you to figure out the best solution to a tactical FUBAR. Think of them as chess puzzles, but with guns.
Between missions, there's plenty to do in terms of configuring your team's loadout, doling out experience points among different skills, and even unlocking weapons. Unfortunately, a lot of the detail in these parts of the game feels beside the point. It's hard to see how the various guns make any difference, much less the amount of skill points a character has for marksmanship or a given type of weapon. There's very little feedback about how much damage you're doing, or how accurate your soldiers are, or how stealthy they're being. In fact, it's entirely possible the skills in the game do absolutely nothing and are simply there for a kind of placebo effect.
There is a good variety in the locations as the storyline progresses. The graphics and animation do a great job, and the weapons even have a nice hearty sound. The multiplayer is particularly good because it plays exactly like the single-player. Each player controls a group of four guys. There are a variety of mission types, from VIP escorts to deathmatches to assault/defend scenarios. The online lobbies have a steady population of players, and it's easy to get into a game using the PSP's infrastructure mode. On one hand, it's got all the conventions of a typical shooter's multiplayer support. But on the other hand, it doesn't play like a shooter, relying more on strategy than reflexes. For multiplayer gaming, Tactical Strike is unique and gratifying.
Ultimately, though, whether you like it is going to be a matter of taste. For some people, this might feel like watching while the characters play the game. But if you can adjust to a shooter that doesn't play like a shooter, or if you don't mind a real-time tactical game in which the action is mostly out of your control, or if you can get into a stealth game with heavy firepower, then there's nothing quite like Tactical Strike. Score another unique success for Sony's PSP.
This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.