Unbranding the Sheep – Why I Almost Pulled The SOCOM Review

Last Friday, I reviewed the new PSP game SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals Fireteam Bravo 3. I gave it a fairly positive write-up, and had no problems getting into the online component of the game, even if there was a sparse number of people due to my review going up before the game’s release. With that said, I haven’t picked the game up since I finished it last week.

I have a nasty taste in my mouth right now, after the game’s release on Tuesday. One that not only is probably going to keep me from picking it up ever again, but nearly caused me to do something I’ve never done: retract my own review.

After the game’s release on Tuesday, an article came up on IGN explaining how Sony was fighting piracy within SOCOM. Their new way of fighting piracy involves having to register the game via the Playstation Network in order to use the online component of the game. For digital copies (i.e., mine), this is done automatically, but for retail, UMD copies of the game, this requires a code enclosed within the game, not unlike what I’ve found before for the Live Season in recent versions of NBA Live. Here comes the problem: the code is a one-time use, and costs $20 to replace. Even considering its recent price drop1, this means that in order to buy SOCOM used and get full functionality, it would cost $52.99. This for a game that, while above average, is only worth the full $40 to truly dedicated shooter fans.

Here’s where I got upset: we didn’t know anything about this. As I stated, my copy of the game is digital, so I had no clue about the code. NO ONE knew before they put their reviews up. In short, Sony pulled a fast one, and then spun their way out of it while talking to a friendly site that parroted its take on “fighting piracy” (more on this in a bit). I felt that my review of the game had been compromised.

So what does one do when they feel their review of a game isn’t accurate anymore? To me, it was simple: you pull it, and post a retraction notice.

I figured this wouldn’t be popular with Alex or DJ. Alex is of course our Editor in Chief, and DJ is our PR rep, or more specifically, the person who gets us games from Sony. Nobody in charge likes hearing the word “retraction”, and Alex was no exception. In his explanation to me, he told me that this technically couldn’t be done because I’d reviewed a new, digital copy of the game – one that isn’t affected by this since you can’t sell bytes used – and therefore, since this can’t be taken into account in a review of the game itself, I technically couldn’t even dock the score2. I COULD – I had the option – but it wouldn’t be right, and would cause more journalistic harm than good. After awhile, I had to begrudgingly agree with Alex, partly because every time I’ve gone against Alex’s advice has turned out poorly for me.

He did say it would be good “UTS fodder”, though. Not exactly the most comforting term I’ve heard used about my work, but I work with what I have.

As a reviewer, this gives me a pit in my stomach. I feel like we – the reviewers – got taken for a ride here, and it reflects in my review. My fear isn’t for people that went out and bought the game on my review this week. My fear is about someone a year from now, looking at a used UMD in Gamestop for this game, and deciding to buy it on my review. The chances of that are remote, especially considering our standing among the IGNs, Kotakus and Gamespots of the industry, but the chance is there that someone’s going to read my review, buy the game, find out that there’s a $20 kicker to enjoy the other half of the game, and feel betrayed. Maybe I’m naive, but I take that seriously.

As a pro-consumer journalist and a consumer myself, this makes me furious for a number of reasons:

* First off, shame on IGN for not calling a spade a spade. The title of the article is “SOCOM Fights Piracy On PSP”, which makes it seem like it’s with Sony’s efforts to combat piracy. It’s a line that could have been written by a PR hack. Furthermore, the questions served up were mostly softballs. Why wasn’t Sony pressed about the timing, or the lack of an announcement before release? Give credit to them for asking how fans would react, but if they didn’t ask that, or if it got edited out, this article would have been a journalistic catastrophe. In short, this reads to me like a piece intended to keep Sony happy. The headline of which is most infuriating because…

* This is NOT a fight on piracy. Sony already fights piracy via their constant, agonizing firmware process. This is a fight against the second-hand market. Every big-name publisher is trying to find a way to kill the second-hand market so that every sale of a game at least sees some profit. On the surface, this is reasonable, as companies don’t see any profit from second-hand sales of games, but the only way companies are going about this is to once again take rights away from the consumer, while turning purchases of tangible media into nothing more than the purchase of a license. It’s taking away the ownership of the game away from the person actually spending the money. This line of thinking isn’t going away, either; Electronic Arts is trying the same thing with Project Ten Dollar. For John Koller to say that this is a fight against piracy is disingenuous, and that’s being nice. Speaking of Electronic Arts…

* This is NOT the same as Project Ten Dollar; it’s much worse. For one, EA was very upfront about their intentions. We knew how the Cerebus Network worked before Mass Effect 2 was released, and furthermore, the service gives gifts within the game. It’s rewarding people for buying the game. Sony didn’t mention a single thing, waited until they were asked about it post-release3 to say something, and were ready with PR babble. Furthermore, there is absolutely NO value-add with this. The Cerebus Network gives players things to use within their game. SOCOM adds an unnecessary hurdle to use a major part of the game, doesn’t give the player anything, and takes it away from anyone ignorant enough to purchase the game used.

* Comparing to the Cerebus Network again, the entirety of Mass Effect 2 can be played even if it’s bought used. In SOCOM, the loss of online play, as mentioned, literally takes out half of the game. The campaign, not counting the tutorial, is only eight missions, and there’s only so long someone can play custom missions for CE Points; to get the most out of the game, online play is required. By locking up half of the game without telling us ahead of time, Sony is flat-out lying to us about the DRM – and yes, it IS DRM – within their game.

* In the IGN article, Mr. Koller spun his way out of most of IGN’s questions by either not answering them or bludgeoning them with the P-word, an admirable job considering the fact that Jim Reilly couldn’t have made it any easier on him if he was giving him a foot rub while asking him these questions. However, no amount of positive spin can make his answer to the last question any easier to swallow. When asked how consumers will react to this, John goes onto say that we’re going to be HAPPY about it, with his reasoning being that by charging pirates and/or second-hand purchasers to go online, Sony is fighting the good fight, and therefore making it possible for them to bring us more AAA titles for our enjoyment. Where did Mr. Koller do his market research, an S&M club? For him to say that this sequence of events is something we’re going to be gung-ho about shows that Mr. Koller is out of touch at best, and lying to our faces at worst. Thankfully, most comments on articles dedicated to this are rightly calling this as bullshit.

Anything that causes people to potentially pay for something they purchased twice – especially for a struggling franchise on a badly struggling system – is sure to leave a bad taste in the mouths of the people Sony relies upon: their customers. To do that, and then lie to them about why they’re doing it, is blatantly disrespecting them, and leaves lasting discontent.

It also leaves me with a review I badly want to forget ever happened.

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1 – Despite being out three days, SOCOM has already seen a used price drop, going down $2 to $32.99. That still leaves the cost for anyone that buys a used PSP game at above $50, and the sell-in value has probably plummeted as well. Worse, Gamestop’s drooling, minimum wage help is either too ignorant or too lazy to inform their shoppers that they could be about to buy a half completed game.

2 – I might not be able to dock the score in the actual review, but I can sure as hell can do it here. Miscellaneous – our personal slant on the game – just plummeted down to “Worthless”, our lowest grade. Also, Modes goes down to “Mediocre”, since online play features so heavily. Due to this, I have no choice but to call the game “Decent” instead of “Above Average”; it’s still not *bad*, but this affects how I see the game in those two areas significantly.

3 – In fairness to IGN, it’s possible that the article in question was embargoed by Sony until after the game was released.

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Christopher Bowen is the Associate Editor at Diehard GameFAN, and was previously a columnist at Not A True Ending. Having worked in the IT industry as a network security engineer for over five years before coming to DHGF, Christopher brings a unique, pro-consumer perspective to his work. His thoughts on how the gaming industry works behind the scenes, and how it affects the everyday consumer, can be read every Saturday at Diehard GameFAN. In addition, he writes DHGF’s weekly Nintendo and Playstation Network download wrap-ups every Tuesday and Friday, respectively. Follow Chris on Twitter, or email him with questions and feedback.

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