After completing Call of Duty 4 on the PS3 a couple of weeks ago, I found myself hankering for SOCOM. Reason being that, although graphically splendid, CoD4 is the equivalent of a tram ride through a valley of trigger-points. It’s stifling and claustrophobic in comparison to the freedom of SOCOM and, despite the last-generation graphics of SOCOM: Combined Assault, I have to say that I think it’s the better game.
Now that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy CoD4 for what it is, but the title is being lauded as a masterpiece and I just don’t think it falls into that category. I believe it’s merely the new-generation equivalent of Medal of Honour Allied Assault on PS2 by the same guys – a game to be experienced, as much as it is to be played. Five and a half years ago when that came out it offered pretty much the same kind of gameplay experience as CoD4 does now.
A lot of the time you’re being dragged by the hand to the next waypoint to the extent that even when you have the option of hanging back and tackling something with a more tactical approach, it still feels like you should be charging in there with the rest of your squad. The audio and visual prompts serve to funnel you to the next set-piece, in a way that means you cant avoid the inevitable, even when you suspect that it’s coming. Which is at great odds with the realism offered up by the superb graphics and audio.
Most jarring, I thought, were the moments when that realism collides with cheap game design. For example; swarms of baddies are spawned by stepping off a ledge that you should easily be able to climb back upon for a vantage point, but oh-no-you-cant. Just because. I paid my money for the game – I wanted to play it my way, not be puppeteered through the whole thing by the invisible hand of the game designer.
The stand-out experience of the game would have to be the ghillie mission, which is just breathtaking in terms of graphics and atmosphere. At one point it has you stealthily creeping past an entire legion of tanks and soldiers, and the tension is almost tangible. But then, in the following mission, the game has you being able to hide from absolutely no-one later the same afternoon as soliders swarm directly to your exact position. Seems like the magical ghillie suit only works when the game designers deem it necessary as a plot device.
The conclusion of Call of Duty 4 is epic, I’ll give it that. The final two or three missions are a flat out war of attrition as the trigger points get more frequent and the baddies they spawn grow in number. It became a test of memory, in remembering where the baddies came from each time I re-tried a section, and of will, as I wonderered how much more contrived the gameplay would get before I gave up on it. Fortunately I saw it through – if only to get my money’s worth.
Once I was done with it, like I said, I wanted to play SOCOM. I wanted to feel responsible for the bad guys seeing me – for it to be because I’d been clumsy, not because I’d triggered some invisible switch that alerted them all to my presence. I wanted to be able to navigate the mission area as I saw fit – to recon’ the enemy positions and attack when I was good and ready. To choose whether to run and gun, or whether to stand off and tactically engineer the upper hand.
And SOCOM: Combined Assault gives me all that. And it did so in the last generation of the PlayStation. The only advantage that Call of Duty 4 gave me in the end was those awesome graphics and audio contained on Blu-Ray. And you know what, it would have been better off coming as a Blu-Ray movie than as a Blu-Ray game.
At least then I could have sat back and watched it all unfold, rather than being given the illusion that I was playing a game.