Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Year: 2003
Developer: Zipper Interactive
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PS2
Metacritic score: 87
VGAChartz sales to date: 2.94 million 

Unless you're prepared to go through Hell Week, Socom II is the closest you'll ever come to being a Navy SEAL (fun fact: except for the word 'Navy' the full title is entirely made of acronyms, anyone know what they stand for?).  This 3rd-person tactical shooter puts you in the boots of a SEAL team leader and challenges you with shutting down an Albanian weapons smuggling syndicate, ending an armed revolution in Brazil, disrupting a coup in Algeria and preventing a rogue nuclear attack on the U.S. by a Russian terrorist group.  All in a day's work for the most elite special forces soldiers the world has ever seen.  Thankfully, you'll be backed up by a capable fire team whose intelligent AI does justice to the discipline of real-life SEALs.  The game strives to be true to life at every turn and received extensive input from Naval Special Warfare Command (the U.S. Navy even earned developer credits for their effort).

Sandstorm tasks the SEALs with infiltrating a desert terrorist compound and blowing up a communications setup.  Use the load screen briefing to study the map and plan your attack or defense.  
The lengthy single-player campaign consists of 12 missions spanning four distinct deployments, each drawn from the types of conflicts SEALs actually engage in.  Before each mission you'll arm yourself with primary and secondary weapons based on real-world armaments (though some have altered names for legal reasons) and up to three tactical items such as scopes, silencers or grenades.  Success is entirely dependent upon how well you can use the elements of stealth, surprise and tactical firepower to lead your fireteam to achieve the mission.  Your three AI teammates can be controlled through voice commands to perform such actions as follow waypoints, take cover, silently take down individual targets or breach and clear rooms.  Your team's ability to engage the enemy using tactical force to overcome superior numbers will determine whether you can complete the primary, secondary and hidden objectives in each mission.  Accomplishing these will often provide intel or other advantages in further missions.  

While Jester kicks in the door, use voice commands to order fireteam bravo to deploy a flashbang allowing you to take out the target without killing the hostage.

While the single-player portion of the game is truly excellent, it's the multiplayer that kept players coming back right up until the servers were shut down in August 2012 (more on that later).  Using the PS2 Network Adapter and the bundled headset you could play online in 8v8 matches of elimination, demolition, breaching an enemy compound and rescuing hostages or protecting VIPs from assassination.  The game plays much like Counter-Stike in that death comes quickly and the penalty is sitting out until the round ends.  There is an extensive armory of smg's, assault rifles, pistols, shotguns and sniper rifles along with a full compliment of grenades and other tactical items.  Gear, including unlockable skins, can all be adjusted in between rounds or scavenged from dead players during a match.  With 22 different maps across a variety of terrains, each with a unique layout requiring different tactics, there were ample opportunities to experiment with the huge inventory.  The dedicated servers, voice chat, ranked lobbies and robust clan systems made it a favorite among competitive gamers and a close-knit clan community developed around the heavily team-based combat.  This is an online experience just as Earth-shatteringly good as Battlefield 1942, Call of Duty 4 or the aforementioned Counter-Strike.  

Use C4 to infiltrate the compound while evading enemy fire.  Plant and defend the bomb to take out the comms room and end the airstrike threat.

So why didn't Socom II spawn an endless series of sequels and imitators like those games did?  Critics raved about the multiplayer and declared graphics, gameplay and controls to be major improvements on the already strong first title.  While the sequel didn't manage to sell as many copies, it still lands just outside the top 50 best-selling PS2 games and created a loyal following that still begs for a true sequel nearly a decade later.  This is a rare instance when neither positive critical reception, a dedicated fanbase or even successful sales were enough to stave off consignment to the dustbin of history.  What the hell went wrong?

Online loadoats could be detailed from camo style to voice type and switched up between matches to take into account the terrain type.  Weapon and gear profiles could also be saved but those could be switched up between each round to adjust strategy on the fly.

While the game did sell, an additional headset, network adapter and broadband connection were required to experience the phenomenal multiplayer and get the most out of the game.  Online gaming was old hat to the PC crowd, but on consoles the concept was still in it's infancy.  The Socom series was one of the first to offer online play and in the absence of Xbox Live or PSN backbones Zipper used the PC model of lobbies and dedicated servers.  This fostered a vibrant clan community that encouraged long-term play but could also be intimidating to newcomers.  Players in ranked servers expected their teammates to know what they're doing, so it was wise to learn the ropes in the unranked respawn lobbies first.  The focus on tactical gameplay may also have given it primarily niche appeal, but regenerative health and rapidfire respawns weren't yet mandatory in all shooters so this may not have hurt too badly.

Extraction was one of many unique multiplayer modes that demanded close teamwork to lead the hostages to a heli pickup as the SEALs or prevent their escape as the terrorists.

The next outing on the PS2, Socom 3 was released towards the end of the systems lifecycle and despite earning similar reviews fell quite short of sales expectations.  Most criticism centered around the graphics which failed to keep pace as the console aged, but the fanbase particularly disliked the inclusion of vehicles into combat.  While the huge variety of vehicles was fun to pilot, they had a major impact on the feel of multiplayer.  The use of vehicles allowed for much more expansive maps and played more life Battlefield in addition to the smaller, more tactical encounters the series was known for.  Many within the existing community found the new gameplay out of place and felt the wide open maps and increased 32-player games exposed weaknesses in the game's draw distance and frame rates.  A significant number of players opted to continue playing Socom II right up until Zipper's closure forced the servers to go dark at the end of August 2012.  Zipper released one final Socom for PS2, the middling Combined Assault, along with a handful of releases for the PSP which were better received, but none could recapture the appeal or commercial success of the first two titles. 

Whether by land, air or sea no place in the world is inaccessible to a Navy SEAL.  But when it comes to use of force they prefer the tactical advantage of small arms to the overwhelming force of vehicular combat, and gamers expected the action to reflect that.

The Socom series made two appearances during the current console generation, but only one was handled by Zipper themselves.  Shortly after Zipper was bought out by SCE to become an in-house studio for Sony the Socom brand was handed off to developer Slant Six.  There efforts on the PSP titles were viewed positively by critics and fans, and when it was announced the first PS3 release would be heavily based around the formula set by Socom II the internet exploded with cautious optimism that we were finally getting the much-desired true sequel to Socom II.  In many ways Confrontation delivered on this promise by offering the same team-based, tactical combat the series was known for in a presentation highly similar to Socom II, right down to the layout of the HUD-display. 
But numerous technical flaws and network glitches triggered an intensely negative reaction from gamers and reviewers unable to play the game.  Without a single-player campaign, there was nothing players could do except loudly complain on every Socom message board across the internet.  Once players could finally get online they found persistent lag, unstable frame rates, numerous missing features that were listed on the box (including the critical support for clans) and a cornucopia of gameplay bugs.  Slant Six struggled to release a series of patches over the next few months and the game eventually came closer to fulfilling it's promises, but the damage was done and sales never recovered.

The inclusion of fan favorite maps like Frostfire and Crossroads (above) in Confrontation were much appreciated, but couldn't offset how rapidly stale things felt with only 7 maps to choose from.

Zipper made one final attempt with Socom 4, this time developing the game themselves and determined to incorporate lessons from newer online shooters.  The graphics were given a visual update, a story driven single-player campaign was added and there was a much greater emphasis on action over stealth and planning.  But once again PSN network failures prevented players from getting online during launch week, this time due to the infamous PSN hack starting on 4/20/11.  Despite the low bar set by Confrontation, Socom 4 still managed to disappoint with it's cheesy single-player campaign, poor controls and new focus on run-n-gun combat.  It was pretty clear that Zipper had tried (and fell well short) of aping the Call of Duty formula, losing any meaningful connection to the Socom series in the process in much the same way Socom 3 had done.  When considered alongside the lack of a lobby system, poor voice chat, and limited clan support many within the existing Socom community felt betrayed by what they viewed as shallow appeals to the casual gaming crowd.  Once more they dug in their heels and decided to stick with Socom II despite being over 8 years old at this point.

The underwhelming response to Socom 4, coming on the heels of poor sales by Zipper's online 1st-person shooter MAG, spelled doom for the studio and Sony announced their closure in March 2012.  This also meant the dedicated servers for Socom II which Zipper had continued to operate would finally be shut down.  Anyone looking to scratch their itch for tactical online combat must now turn to Confrontation, which is thankfully much improved since it's very rocky launch.  With Zipper shuttered and no Socom projects anywhere on Slant Six's horizon the future looks pretty grim for this once-great series.  If Sony ever does hand this franchise off to someone knew, there is a sizable fanbase always hungry for more with still-active communities begging for an HD port of Socom II.  Looking at the 1st-person action shooters popular on Xbox Live and PSN, it's easy to see why a so many gamers interested in teamwork, strategy and tactics feel left out in the cold.  Once you've spent time playing as the most disciplined, most professional, most highly-trained special forces soldiers on the planet, everything else just seems like child's play. 

We're serious Sony, give us a proper Socom or this will be one hostage not even Liam Neeson can rescue
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