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PSP Fanboy review: SOCOM Tactical Strike

SOCOM: Tactical Strike is one of the most compelling games of the year. With component cables in hand, never has a portable game garnered such a stunned audience. Friends and roommates would stare at the TV with the kind of attention reserved for games like Bioshock, Halo 3 and The Orange Box. It didn't matter that the game was running on a PSP: Tactical Strike is filled with more polish than average console games can dream of.

Slant Six Games' first foray into game development takes the SOCOM franchise to completely new places. No longer a shooter, the game turns into a tactical action game, akin to a real-time strategy game. SOCOM fans new and old may find the change to be jarring, and a bit disappointing. However, the game requires careful execution of masterfully thought-out plans, and the tension caused by the brevity of each battle has created a game more tense than anything the series has ever offered. Stealth is encouraged, of course, but there will be many battles where a barrage of bullets will be flying through the air, and the environment around you gets destroyed. An apt film comparison? This is Black Hawk Down: the game.

As mentioned in earlier write-ups, it takes a long time to get used to not only the controls, but the idea, behind Tactical Strike. We can easily see people spending a few hours trying to fully understand fully the mechanics behind the game ... and giving up. The in-game tutorial is helpful, but it will take a few levels to learn and master the techniques you have at your disposal. It's one of those games where you may want to simply start the game over, once that light bulb in your head clicks, and you realize exactly how to go about the game. There is a huge difference when you play the game, knowing full well how to do everything.

Players must understand the importance of the various squads at their command. Alpha and Bravo element must work together to make it through the levels alive. For example, when breaching a building, one may want to set Alpha element to breach with a flashbang grenade from the front, while Bravo element is signaled to storm in and eliminate the stunned foes inside. You can situate Bravo behind some cover, and signal Alpha to move ahead with cover. You'll see Alpha running to your marked location, as Bravo lays down some suppression fire at the enemies ahead. This is but a tiny fraction of what you'll be able to experience.

The game is so ideally mapped to the PSP controls. Because one never takes full control of an individual character, the lack of a second analog stick isn't missed at all. The shoulder buttons are used to switch command between the squads, although you can hold down L to have a single member do something else. Tapping R will switch between Alpha and Bravo elements, and it's incredibly satisfying to see fights unfold from multiple angles.

The face buttons are smartly used to bring up menus for a variety of commands. For example, X is used for attack commands, where you'll be able to line up a field of fire, provide suppression fire, and more. It's also used for breaching, where players will be able to breach with stealth, go in hot, or use one of a variety of player-equipped grenades. It's also used to set up computer hacks, bomb diffusions, and more. The Square button brings up inventory, where players can throw grenades, snipe, or even call in a (rather satisfying) air strike, provided they've remembered to equip it at the beginning of the level. Triangle brings up evasive measures, and is generally used to cancel a previous command. For example, you may have foolishly commanded your squad to run into a crowded hostile territory. Press triangle, and hope they haven't spotted you. Finally, O is used to move around: with stealth, or with speed.

What makes attacking so appealing, and so successful in Tactical Strike, is the ability to queue commands. With the "On My Signal" icon (represented by a lightning bolt), you can delay commands until the appropriate moment. For example, you may be on a balcony, looking down at a few enemies. Delay the command to fire at them. Get one of your characters to throw a smoke grenade -- then provide the command to fire. It's incredibly satisfying to see these plans in action, especially if you're victorious in them. When appropriately planned, each enemy encounter will take only a fraction of a second. With appropriate firing angles and the element of surprise, the enemies will simply not have enough time to think before they're dead.

Crucial to the player's success in the game is the understanding that these characters are independently thinking AI. Your commands will be followed ... so long as they're possible. The soldiers will do their best to do what you command, but they will want to survive, and do a great job doing so. For example, you may have a squad attempt stealth into a certain area of the map. However, if the enemies ambush you, you'll see that they're no longer sneaking around. They're running and gunning, seeking appropriate cover. Even if you don't command them to, they will fire at enemies that are immediately threatening their lives. However, there are moments where you must provide tough love, and command them to stop fire.

The AI is rather formidable, especially for a portable game. Enemies will attempt to flank you, and in later levels, will utilize the same stealth techniques as you. They'll take cover, call in for help, and more. Your troops are just as mortal as the enemies, so you simply cannot afford to be caught off-guard. A single enemy can kill all of your squad members, if you don't think tactically enough. Positioning and angles must be taken into consideration at all times, because the wrong approach to a shot can expose your character. If done properly, you'll be "silent and deadly," and enemies won't even notice your presence. A special note must be given to the harder difficulty, where enemies will spot you just as a real person will. In one mission, a guard outside spotted us, and the swarm of soldiers from inside the compound came rushing out and gunned us all down. The normal difficulties are rather challenging -- but the harder ones are simply brutal. Keep that in mind!

In addition to the AI, we love the pre-level load-up which lets you equip a number of weapons and tools. There are dozens of weapons to purchase, and one can take quite some time figuring out the best configuration for the squad. Using the default selections will only get you so far. Players must take a look at the options available. For example, a sniper rifle isn't best suited for all situations. Sometimes, you'll need a night vision scope. Other times, you'll want a silencer. But, then how will the silencer affect range? Depending on the level, you may want to equip a rapid fire weapon with low accuracy but long range. You may want to sacrifice silence on a sniper rifle for the benefit of a longer range. Without forethought, players will find that their snipers are missing shots, and enemies are much more difficult to take down. This is a tactical game -- of course your equipment matters. With limited inventory space, players will also have to think: med pacs or grenades? What kind of grenades? What kind of secondary weapon? There's a seemingly infinite number of combinations, each with their unique feel.

Finally, we love the way the game intelligently silhouettes the position of your squad members when using the navigation cursor. A virtual cursor appears on screen and shows you exactly how your squad will be positioned when they arrive at the locale. With this information, you'll know if you'll have sufficient cover. At first, it can be hard to adjust to the game's camera, as it's fixated on your character's vision. However, that's why it's so important to position both your squads correctly. The in-game map (at the top right corner) provides ample information for any "shortcomings" the camera may pose. In fact, if you can't see, it's probably best you don't run in. Who knows what kind of ambush awaits? Just as your enemies can be blind-sighted, so can you.

There are a few flaws that are worth mentioning. Firstly, the story is quite weak in the game. The story takes place in Panama, with a terrorist group out to stop the area's oil production. A politician is kidnapped and it's your job to find him. Although the story follows in a logical, sequential order, we couldn't help but have the Mario effect during the story: "your princess ambassador is in another castle terrorist stronghold." What the story lacks, the gameplay makes up in spades. In fact, it's telling that the player ends up caring so much for each member of their squad, in spite of the total lack of characterization. The setting is so real, and their mortality even more so.

Also, each mission is much too long, making this game far more ideally suited for console play. While the PSP is certainly pushed to its limits with such massive miles-long levels, one can't help but think the addition of a few more checkpoints would've been quite helpful. It's understandable why Slant Six made the choices they did -- any more checkpoints and players would've executed careless plans with little consequence.

In spite of the flaws, SOCOM: Tactical Strike is one of the best experiences I've had to date on the PSP. This is an easy candidate for PSP GOTY. Gorgeous, believable graphics, innovative gameplay, and massive levels are just part of the game's unique appeal. Add a lengthy twenty hour single player campaign (not including "Instant Action" missions and multiple difficulties), infrastructure multiplayer and half a dozen language options (yes, you can play the game in Korean!) -- and you have the most jam-packed UMD ever. It's far from a pick-up-and-play game due to its rather unique and relentless gameplay, and will undoubtedly confuse and anger players expecting a traditional SOCOM experience. However, those that have been waiting for a real tactical game will find that Tactical Strike delivers in so many ways. A must-buy for the hardcore.

PSP Fanboy score: 9.5

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