Sony's Socom franchise has been a steady little earner for Sony since the first title appeared on the PS2 back in 2002. A tactical third person shooter, your job is to deal to people identified as enemies of the state (they might have nuclear weapons or oil, for example) via the justice meted out at the end of a high fire-rate automatic weapon. Hardly just a single player experience, Socom has been Sony's highest profile online shooter (even on PSP) for nearly 8 years.
The story this time around centres on an ex-Russian state which the Russians would like to bring back inside their loving family. The Europeans, it seems, have considerable interest in the area too, bringing back memories of movies we saw about the cold war. What? It was ages ago. It seems this is the perfect melting pot from which terrorism should spawn (wielding WMDs, no less) so the government is sending in a bunch of angry guys with automatic weapons and a "no rules" mandate to sort it all out.
This latest incarnation, the ninth in the series and the fourth on PSP, stays true to its core but still manages to spice up a couple of things to subtly change the way the game plays. Whether that's for the better or not depends on whether you're a series purist or not - seen outside of the context of the earlier games, the changes seem to be for the better.
For a start, the focus has moved away from the tactical side of the game. Sure, you can still order your lads around via the polished tactical interface (hold circle, select tactical options via a radial menu or press circle for context-sensitive default actions) but you can play through the bulk of the game without touching it.
The next significant tweak to the formula is that you recover health when you don't get hurt for a while. This is probably going to be the most controversial change for the Socom aficionados to accept. This changes makes the game a lot more friendly to the non-hardcore, in line with most modern first person shooters, but it does at least dull the edge of the tactical aspect of the game. You don't need to be anywhere near as careful as you did, although it's still possible to blunder into a firefight with such an inferior / exposed position that you can't survive it so at least a modicum of thought is still required.
The controls suit the platform - holding R slows your movement, putting you into targeting mode. This will cause you to lock onto a target, turning left and right movements from turning to strafe mode. Continuing to tap your shoot button (X) after your target dies will cause your character to lock onto the next target and so on. You can also manually switch targets by tapping L whilst in targeting mode. This works pretty well for the most part but you'll still find yourself begging for a second analogue stick occasionally.
You can spec out your team's weapons loadout before you go, opting to configure a sniper or heavy weapons guy, should the level ahead require it. The customisation options available here are extensive, with lots of guns to choose from and lots of sub-gun customisation and load-out options as well. The gun models all look authentic and each has its own characteristic chatter when you pull the trigger, helping you determine what sort of weapon best suits the situation using only audio.
About the only downside to the weapons package is that when you see the weapons on the ground, their names don't betray the type of weapon that they are. If you like your guns you'll recognise a lot of them but a P-460 doesn't really conjur up an image of a weapon in most people's minds. A pretty minor "issue", at the end of the day, but something we noted.
Each of the (rather linear) levels is split out into checkpoints, with waypoint markers and a minimap to help you get around. This ensures you never really get lost but the layout of various objects to get cover from and some of the larger areas with multiple routes through help to alleviate the "on rails" feel somewhat. Levels vary quite a lot from one to the next, often taking interesting or circuitous routes through military complexes or up the side of a mountain in the snow, never feeling particularly samey or boring.
Online multiplayer is present once again, with support for up to 16 players in Infrastructure (online) mode and support for both co-op and the more traditional competitive modes. The online setup is as impressive and polished as you'd expect a game with this level of pedigree to be, with the actual in-game and spectator options similarly fleshed out. The actual latency and gameplay options are similarly deep and impressively implemented, with loads of potential for those who are looking for an online multiplayer shooter fix. It might fit in your pocket and run on low-powered hardware but this is a serious online shooter with all the bells and whistles you'd expect from the top-tier experiences.
Graphically it lacks a little visual lustre, with low resolution textures resulting in an overall image that is light on colour. This is almost certainly to enable the framerate of the title to maintain a solid clip, which it does almost without ever dropping. It feels super smooth, even in the middle of a firefight, only very occasionally chopping up (even then, never once in combat). Characters look great and ooze personality, with great animation bringing individual (and recognisably distinct) flair to each of the main cast.
The sound is a solid package too, with great voice acting and awesome sounding weaponry being particular highlights. There are the occasional little glitches, for example with the framerate, but they hardly get in the way - they are quite rare.
Socom is a solid package; it looks good, has loads of options with a detailed single player and extensive multiplayer. It moves at a good speed, never gets boring, has boatloads of content and the core gameplay is not just well executed it's also a hell of a lot of fun to play as well. It might be "strategy light" but it feels all the better for it. If you're at all interested in first person shooters on the PSP, buy it today. This fits nicely into the top tier of games available for the platform and deserves a place in your pocket.