Review: SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Fireteam Bravo 3

SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Fireteam Bravo 3
Developer: Slant Six Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Genre: Tactical Third Person Shooter
Release Date: 2/16/2010

AUTHOR’S NOTE: We received word about Sony’s registration policy for PSN play after this review went up, and after the game was released. For our full stance on this, please refer to my Unbranding the Sheep article from Saturday, February 20th

Despite spending four years in the service, I really don’t know too much about the Navy SEALs. For one, I spent most of my time on an Aircraft Carrier, so there weren’t many Seals around. Secondly, when SEALs were around, we stayed the hell away from each other; they typically stuck to their clique. Whatever the reality of being a Navy SEAL is, I can at least assure people that it’s not what you see in movies or games, which are used more as recruitment tools than accurate portrayals of how the military works. I dislike the fact that videogames, especially games like America’s Army, are being used to recruit people to actually kill others, particularly because the perception of military life is always as different from the reality of it as it is in this idiotic Air Force Reserve ad they showed during halftime of the Super Bowl.

When taken purely for what they should be, however, military games are still fun. Afterall, who doesn’t like shooting terrorists/Communists/whoever it is we hate this week? It’s worked since the 80s, and what are most army games if not the evolution of Commando? You can have it include as much propaganda as you want, the name of the game is still the same: we’re good, they’re bad, they have to die. I also generally like less realism in my shooting games than a lot of people nowadays. Therefore, I’ve never really been high on the SOCOM series. Why fart around with such an emphasis on teamwork and stealth when I can get another game and just go blowing up things?

When I received the PSP version of Fireteam Bravo 3, I was intrigued, but cautious. I typically like my shooters of the mouse + keyboard variety, whereas the PSP doesn’t even allow for a double-stick shooting method. Would lock-on gameplay be sufficient? Can Fireteam Bravo 3 live up to the SOCOM name?

Story/Modes

The story for FTB3 involves the fictional country of Koratvia, a former member of the Soviet Union. Someone in the country is planning on using WMDs, and it’s a matter of national importence to send in four SEALs on a covert mission to gain information from a former KGB agent who knows what’s going on. Without giving too much away, the story has a similar narrative style to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 1 in both story execution and the way it involves the SEALs in question. This time around, the seal team is led by Wraith, who has appeared in previous games and teams up with Sandman, Raven and Toro, the last of whom is the standard FNG. The story has it’s moments, and has enough going to keep most people interested, but it isn’t as climatic or interesting as MW1’s story, nor is it as introspective or political as that of FTB2. In short, it’s a vehicle to get the action moving, which it does a good job of.

In terms of modes, the standard campaign is eight stages long, with each stage being anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes long. There’s also a custom mission single-player mode that lets you decide different parameters in the stage, from what the goal of the stage is to enemy density to what kind/how strong of an enemy you’re facing, or even if you want your AI SEAL partners or not. Depending on how high the difficulty is, you get a higher reward of Command Equity (CE) points, which can be used to buy weapons for the campaign, or on items to customize your multiplayer avatar.

Best of all, both the campaign and custom mission modes are available for multiplayer cooperative play as well, via both the Playstation Network and Ad-Hoc Wi-Fi mode. The game plays much differently when playing cooperatively with other people. In single player mode, you are the leader; what you say goes, and your team will follow suit. Online, everyone has to work in tandem, and though I ran into few problems, I was also playing against other journalists that got the game early; anyone randomly jumping into a match is probably going to end up dealing with at least one tosser who thinks “teamwork” is equivalent to, “X TO SHOOT! X TO SHOOT! YAY ME.” Still, being able to go through missions with a team is a great way to expand on SOCOM’s inate gameplay, especially when considering the fact that SOCOM has been based around team-based tactical gameplay since it’s inception.

There are also competitive modes, also over either Ad-Hoc or Wi-Fi. Competitive modes support up to sixteen players, for various modes ranging from standard deathmatch modes to positional holding stages. My personal favourite is Leader, where the goal is to keep one member of a team alive. This plays up SOCOM’s team-based focus, and forces everyone to work together well. Everything else is negligible, especially considering SOCOM’s gameplay, which I’ll go into in a bit.

Overall, the story for the campaign is workable, and the options for anyone with wireless internet capabilities are outstanding. Furthermore, the custom missions make up for the fact that the campaign is short. For a PSP game, this is a nice package.

Story/Modes Rating: Good

Graphics

The graphics in FTB3 are a mixed bag. On the one hand, player models look good, and the environments look nice for a PSP game. On the other hand, the amount of polygon clipping is immense. There are times when I’ve died where my character’s entire arm and part of his head have gone through the ground. Player animations are pretty good, and enemies die differently depending on how they’re shot, whether it’s a headshot, body shots or a stealth kill. One thing that annoys me isn’t so much with graphics as it is with physics. If your three AI buddies have spots under cover and you move into their spot, you’ll roll off of them, and they will magically switch places with you without moving a muscle. I thought that was a little weak.

The story is told via cutscenes, which are outstanding for a PSP game. No graphical clipping, and only a bit of jagged edge. What most impressed me is that the gun you and your team are using are seamlessly integrated into the cutscene with no issue (such as trying to hold a grip that doesn’t exist). This is most apparent if you’ve picked up a gun with a laser scope. If you’re the only one with a scope, this becomes more obvious.

Graphics Rating: Enjoyable

Sound

FTB3 makes all the noises you’d expect a war game to make: guns sound authentic, teammates communicate well, and the enemy even talk in what sounds to be pretty authentic Russian. One issue I have is that a lot of the same lines are repeated very often throughout the game. While this is understandable, hearing Toro go, “Tango Neutralized!” gets to be a bit much after awhile. One thing I like is that your mates change how they communicate based on their orders. If you’re ordered for stealth, they’ll make sure to speak lower until other orders are given, or until they start taking on fire. What bothers me about stealth sounds is that they not only still talk, but sound like they’re still talking over their radios. Stealth is supposed to me stealth. Speaking at all is against regulations (hand signals are supposed to be used, but on a PSP game, this is unrealistic to wish for), and speaking over an unsecure medium such as radio is flat-out wrong as those communications can be intercepted. In terms of how the guns sound, I don’t know *how* authentic the guns sound – I was a Machinist’s Mate, not a Gunner’s Mate – but each gun does have it’s own resonance. Considering how much effort went into the guns themselves, I would have to assume that they sound accurate as well.

Any music that’s played is standard operatic fare that is used for suspenseful purposes. Take the music played during tight sequences in the movie Pearl Harbor, and you have an idea of the music used in FTB3.

Sound Rating: Enjoyable

Control and Gameplay

One of my biggest concerns coming in was how action would work. As I’ve stated numerous times in the past, playing shooting games with a control pad makes me feel naked. I assumed coming in that not even having a right analogue stick would make things even worse. Thankfully, Sony’s control scheme makes sense, and makes the game work.

Aiming at a person is done with the R button. Accuracy is determined by the gun’s stats, distance, add-ons (like a suppressor that could cut a weapon’s effective range), how fast the enemy’s moving, how fast you’re moving, how long you’ve been locked on and had your aim steady… it sounds like a lot, but in execution, the game actually plays well. Nine times out of ten you’re going to be using an automatic or semi-automatic weapon, so it’s as easy as holding the R button to lock on, firing until the enemy dies, and pressing it again if any other enemies are nearby to repeat. For what it’s worth, the system works well. I’m a little disappointed that it takes a long time of keeping aim to ensure a headshot, but it actually adds a bit to the stealth aspect of the game, as it’s best to aim for headshots when you’re sneaking around with a suppressed pistol. The negative aspect of all of this is that shooting from the hip is useless. You have to be aiming at someone, or you’re not going to hit them. This is supposed to be mitigated somewhat by pressing up on the digital pad to zoom in, but that doesn’t help accuracy any more than locking on would, and the cons, becoming stationary, and having to have another button click to be able to move again, far outweigh any positives. There are two points where you’re going to have to zoom in to do someething right, and we’ll get to those in a bit.

One major issue I have is the use of cover. If you watch your AI partners, they lean around corners and use cover well, as if they were “snapping” to it, ala Gears of War. As Wraith, you can’t really do this. You can use the triangle button to stand, crouch or lie down prone, but even crouching down, you’re vulnerable if you have short cover like a jersey barrier. It’s reassuring that most enemies aren’t going to kill you unless they’re unloading a full clip into you at once, but the cover issue could have been fixed by implimenting something from GoW.

As noted, you have three AI partners with you, and they’re outstanding. They follow orders well, and can cover for you in a pinch. Anyone thinking of the AI partners in games like MW1 where your partners are more or less for window dressing will be pleasantly surprised here. If you need to go reload or recover life, you’ll often notice that your three partners have either taken care of the enemy or are in the process of it. They also get into position very well, meaning that in a firefight, you’re only responsible for part of the area instead of having to play the hero. Even further, even if one of them gets taken out, you or a teammate can revive them to half-life with a simple button press (though if you die, it’s game over). What’s best about this is that your teammates are very good at reviving downed teammates and covering for anyone that’s reviving. The team element of FTB3 is extremely well executed.

It’s a good thing teammate AI is so good, because the AI of the Russians isn’t nearly as good. Stealth aspects absolutely blinker them; I’ve made audible noise trying to sneak through grass or bushes, and they don’t notice. Furthermore, there are times when three of them will be looking the same way, I’ll take one out in open space, and no one even thinks to turn around. Wouldn’t you think stabbing someone would make a *slight* sound that would be noticed by trained guards that are supposed to be on patrol? As it is, even enemies in a firefight have problems noticing you sometimes. I’ve had instances where I’ve walked across an enemy’s field of vision while he’s fighting someone far away, walked right up to him, and just butt-ended him to death. This doesn’t improve much on higher difficulty settings, either; the only real differences between Lieutenant (default) and Admiral are that you die quicker, and aiming accurately takes longer. Some AI tweaks were in order.

Team commands are given by holding down the circle button. It’s important to note that you have to *hold* the circle button, otherwise you’re going to tell your team to move ahead of you. This has blown my cover on a few occasions. Once you get into team options, they’re plentiful, though the only ones you’re going to use a lot of the time are telling your team how to move (usually switching them to hold their position if you need to do some one-man wetwork) or telling them whether or not their weapons are hot (firing at will). As stated, your teammates follow their directions to the T, and once you learn how hard you have to press the button to get into that screen, you’re fine. My issue is that a lot of buttons have multiple uses, and they sometimes get crossed up. They packed a lot of gameplay into this game, but there just aren’t enough buttons to handle it.

I’m almost required to talk about the fact that you can arm gun turrets in this game, but unless you’re playing multiplayer, there’s no reason to even bother; by the time you can reach a turret, any tangoes in the area are gone. Furthermore, controlling them is annoying, and runs into the same problem as firing from the hip does. In short, they’re worthless from a player’s perspective.

Playing online is fine, but it does cut the gameplay in half, as any pretentions to stealth go out the window. Playing against human players who actually know what to look for turns every fight into a battle for finding cover and blowing everyone away. Stealth doesn’t come into the equation. It’s like playing Team Fortress 2 as a spy against a team with six pyros who are doing nothing but spy checking. You’re not going to get anywhere, so just change classes/roles.

Overall, the gameplay from FTB3 feels dated, but it works well. Controls take a little getting used to, but once you’ve got the basic functions of aiming, firing and strafing down, you’re set. The pros outweigh the cons.

Control and Gameplay Ratings: Above Average

Replayability

The custom missions add a layer of replayability to the game due to the fact that there are now a nearly uncountable number of ways to play the game, in addition to the online options. However, the fact that there are only nine environments in the game to play on hurts things.

With that said, I still look to play the game even after I’ve beaten it on every level. I still call up custom missions, still look to earn CE points, and when the game is released next week, I’ll be looking for other people to play against as my schedule dictates. In short, despite the fact that I’ve done everything I can until the general public gets the game, I still want to pick the game up and play it.

It’s up to the player as to whether or not the custom options and CE incentives override the lack of maps. For me, they do.

Replayability Rating: Good

Balance

The difficulty curve for FTB3 at all difficulty levels is solid. The game is fairly easy in the beginning when you’re only fighting a few enemies at a time, but gets much harder later on as you’re fighting against large swarms of enemies, and even against an armored vehicle and a helicopter. The balance of enemies is nice, as they get stronger as you get further into Koratvia. It’s the fights with the APC and helicopter that are problematic.

The issues with these fights is that you have to use an RPG-7 to take them out. This means you have to find the gun, switch it out with your primary gun, arm it, hope you or someone else don’t get blown away first, come out from behind cover, and shoot. Shooting is made infinitely harder because this is about the only gun in the game that does not lock on, so you have to zoom in, aim, fire, pray you hit, zoom out, either reload or get more ammo, and repeat. While doing this, you’re naked, with no cover, and probably with a teammate that badly needs a medic. They’re the most frustrating fights in the game, even moreso than the end-boss that can blow your team to shit with one well-placed shot.

I talk about them in Balance because they make the difficulty curve spike significantly. These parts, and a few choke points in later stages when you hit gun turrets and pillboxes with no way to get around them. You have to run behind cover, hope you or someone else don’t get blown away, and hope you can hit a far away shot on a hidden opponent. If these spikes could have been smoothed out, we’d be looking at a higher rating in this part.

Balance Rating: Decent

Originality

There’s not much original here. Just about everything in FTB3 has been done by other games in some form. SOCOM is one of the innovators of the team-based tactical shooter, but other games are more to move things forward now.

With that said, FTB3 is less about innovation in this round than it is about execution, the latter of which it does extremely well. Considering how poorly Tactical Strike did both commercially and critically, they made the right choice to focus on executing what they needed to do to make a good game instead of trying to push a half-baked envelope.

Originality Rating: Poor

Addictiveness

FTB3 isn’t the type of game that sucks you in for hours at a time. Unless you’re playing online, the gameplay sessions are one or two missions at a time, tops. The gameplay within those two missions is good, but after a couple of missions of running around, playing stealth, shooting people and fulfilling whatever my mission was, I found I was ready to move onto something else.

Addictiveness Rating: Mediocre

Appeal Factor

SOCOM has been a big name since the first PS2 game in the series, but few things have happened since then to take off the sheen of the name. Most notably, other shooters caught up tactically. Call them wannabes if you want, but the things SOCOM innovated – tactical action, a reliance on proper teamwork, and the use of headsets in console gaming – are all being done by other franchises now. In short, SOCOM is no longer a AAA title, especially after a couple of missteps.

However, even if it’s not top-tier, it’s still a notable name. Furthermore, the market for anyone looking for a good action/shooting game on the PSP is very limited, because what’s around is either not very good, or Metal Gear Solid. Sony is treating this like it’s a big release, and for PSP gamers, it is.

Appeal Factor Rating: Good

Miscellaneous

FTB3 does a lot of things right. It provides a fairly good story, good action that doesn’t trip over itself, some excellent online options, and a desire to keep playing the game even after it’s finished. I really like what Sony’s done here, especially as their first step into this franchise on the PS3 was online-only, which leaves a lot to be desired for anyone that likes playing single-player.

Sony hasn’t exactly been batting 1.000 with their big PSP releases lately (Hello, Gran Turismo), but I’m pleased with FTB3. They took a limited system and made a game that shouldn’t work well in 2010 work.

Miscellaneous Rating: Good

The Scores
Story/Modes: Good
Graphics: Enjoyable
Sound: Enjoyable
Control and Gameplay: Above Average
Replayability: Good
Balance: Decent
Originality: Poor
Addictiveness: Mediocre
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Good
FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME


Short Attention Span Summary
SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Fireteam Bravo 3 is a good tactical shooting game for a system that shouldn’t be able to put out a good game in that genre. The gameplay is solid, the story is good, and even after beating the game, gamers are going to get a lot out of their purchase.

It’s not a system seller, but FTB3 is a good game for a system desperate for good action games.

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