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Hands on with SOCOM 4, public beta announced

For many of us, the SOCOM franchise introduced us to the potential of what a console-based multiplayer could be. Until that point there were a handful of console games that connected online, and while some were fun they were typically spotty at the best of times (looking at you Dreamcast), and most never worked at all (still looking at you Dreamcast). For the most part, online gaming was the province of the PC gamer, and connecting online through a console was little more than a gimmick.

But then came the PS2 modem, which promised a brave new world of online accessibility, where you could do things like—gasp—update sports rosters online and it would actually work (still looking right in your direction, Dreamcast). After purchasing the slightly expensive modem for the PS2 and connecting through broadband only—another first for consoles–a new generation of gamers rushed to join the online ranks each night, and for many SOCOM was the game of choice.

But in recent years, the franchise has entered the wilderness. A previous multiplayer only title for the PS3 failed to capture the imagination of gamers, and years passed without much word on the series. Many thought that the franchise may be dead, and the only evidence of the once great games rested in the nostalgia tinted memories of PS2 owners. After playing the upcoming SOCOM 4 at GDC, I am happy to announce that SOCOM may be back in a big way.

The event at GDC was three-fold: first, a new gameplay mode called “bomb disposal” was officially debuted. The second reason was to give us a chance to try the multiplayer—more on both the game mode and my impressions in a moment.

But most importantly, Zipper Interactive announced that beta testing will soon be open to the public. PlayStation Plus subscribers will have the opportunity to join the beta testing on March 22, while those that received a code with Killzone 3 will be able to jump in on March 29. Then on April 5, Zipper will open the beta testing to everyone, and it will remain open until April 13.

As for the new game mode “bomb squad”, it is a game with 32 players split on two teams of 16, either attacking or defending three locations. One person on the attacking team is chosen at random to be the bomb disposal expert, and that player gets the benefit of an automatic shotgun, a grenade launcher, and full body armor to help them make their way through the three locations to disarm the bombs as his or her teammates defend them. If they fail, another player is selected as the bomb expert, and the game ends when all three bombs are defused or the timer runs out.

Bomb disposal joins an online co-op mode where five people work their way through missions, as well as a handful of other competitive gametypes which will be revealed soon. You can go ahead and expect a deathmatch without question, probably a territory based gametype, and possibly a capture the flag-like gamemode.

But the gametypes are just the framework, and if the gameplay isn’t up to snuff, what does it matter? Thankfully, after having some time with the multiplayer, I am happy to say that SOCOM 4 has taken what worked with the beloved PS2 SOCOM titles, and brings a satisfyingly updated version to the PS3. The common theme among the crowd in attendance was that the new game felt like the old games, and they all meant it as praise.

Perhaps it is the fanboy in me, but the game just feels more like the SOCOMs of the past than the last title, SOCOM: US Navy SEALs Confrontation. The maps were large enough to make you use your tactics, but not so large that you were forced to hold down the sprint and rush into the fray just in time to get shot. A cover system—a new addition to the series—offers more options when defending an area, as well as making firefights a bit more exciting, and a wide selection of weapons that increase in power through leveling is a welcome inclusion.

When you use certain weapons, you earn upgrades for those weapons. Get a few kills and add a red dot, get a few more and add a grenade launcher, and on. You can also unlock new character models, new weapons, and track your progress through your rank, but there is a balance that was obvious, which means that those that have unlocked several perks will have a few advantages naturally, but they won’t be able to roll over new players.

The real joy of the new SOCOM isn’t one specific thing you can point your finger to, but it just plays smoothly. The gameplay works well, and the maps we were shown all felt well thought out. Without having played all the game modes it is difficult to say how successful the new title will be, but as a skeptic that had felt the series drift from exceptional to mediocre, I was won over by what I saw at GDC, and for the first time in several years I am once again looking forward to playing SOCOM online.

SOCOM 4 arrives as a PS3 exclusive on April 19.