Previews

Is SOCOM 4 a new breed of tactical shooter?

We go hands on with Zipper Interactive's PS3 squaddie

SOCOM 4: US Navy Seals Special Forces marks developer Zipper Interactive's return to one of its landmark series on PS3 and with final code inbound we decided to take a quick tour of duty through the single player game ahead of its full release on April 21st.

In spite of its Navy SEALs heritage, SOCOM 4 sees you take the role of NATO ops commander Cullen Gray, leading a series of small spec ops units in the midst of a bloody coup in the Malaysian-Sumatran Strait of Malacca. With a NATO task force hit hard by a surprise attack and all hell breaking loose as the prime minister flees the country, brutal rebels known as the Naga led by one Bagesh Lazard attempt to seize power and make the Strait their own.

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Naturally no lantern-jawed ops commander is going to stand for that, even if it's just five men (or rather four men and one deadly lady) versus the entire Naga army. So armed with two squads, an assortment of heavy and stealth weaponry and some cunning squad-based tactics, Cullen sets out on a six day mission to defeat the Naga, topple Lazard and restore peace to the region - mainly by carving a bloody swathe through it.

Prior to deployment each mission in SOCOM 4 is preceded by a short load out section where you can choose different guns, grenades and equipment for your character. Even early on, there's plenty of evidence of the levels of customisation you'll be able to enjoy later in the game, with additional suppressors and grips for your rifles and machine guns, which you'll upgrade by outstanding performance during each mission. But for the moment, the limited selection of default MP5s and M4s just have to suffice.

Rendezvous, SOCOM 4's second mission, sees you sent to hook up with any surviving elements of a Korean unit whose military transport plane has been shot down behind Naga lines. Cullen, accompanied by blue team (two salt of the earth British heavy-weapons lads - they're apparently localised for different versions), stealth their way through the opening minutes, crouching and moving slowly through the high grass to avoid detection and knifing the occasional unwary sentry when his back's turned. It's an early pointer to the contrasting mix of stealth and action you'll experience throughout SOCOM 4.

Beyond the plane's crash site, the first battle proper proves to plenty satisfying as you take part in a full stand-up fire fight against the Naga surrounding the Korean survivors. SOCOM 4's new cover system works well, allowing you to duck in and out and exchange rapid fire with your adversaries, while destructible scenery and some interesting cover choices make for a good tactical battle. For precision shooting, there's even an effective iron-sights FPS view to go for those vital headshots which build up your weapon skills and unlocks.

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After the Naga finally succumb, you first encounter Lieutenant Park or '45' and Corporal Chung the Korean duo who'll form your gold team, specialists in the dark arts of stealth and infiltration. Naturally there's a bit of verbals from the rather feisty 45 at first (or Park as she insists on being called) but when Cullen fills her in on the overall SNAFU-ed up tactical situation, she reluctantly agrees to fall in - at least for the time being.

With both blue and gold teams now firmly under your command, SOCOM 4 really starts to get into its stride as you carefully move each team forward, scout for cover and get to grips with all the finer tactical elements of the game. It's quick and easy to set a series of waypoints for your team to follow and you can also 'paint' enemy targets with your reticule for gold to take out silently, while a go command chooses the precise timing. One carefully planned manoeuvre later and a passing Naga patrol are ambushed perfectly with blue suppressing at medium range, gold's snipers dropping the leader and you, as commander, mopping up any survivors.

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