Playing SOCOM II without the benefit of an internet connection can be a puzzling experience. Although everything here is commendably detailed, buildings disappear into a classic PS2 pea-souper uncomfortably close up. Areas seem oddly like arenas, and although both enemies and allies are much smarter than they were in the first game, it's not uncommon to feel like you're shooting at cardboard targets in some kind of practice range. Which, of course, you are. The SOCOM series is Sony's flagship online shooter and this sequel, arriving less than a year after the original game, was never meant to be focused on the straightforward singleplayer mode. Instead it has been designed to deliver 16-player team deathmatches in a series of psuedo-realistic SEALs-vs-terrorists scenarios.
A kind of Counter-Strike-lite, SOCOM II's appeal is improved by the inclusion of 12 new multiplayer maps, subtle tweaks to the original ten arenas and a friendlier frontend for the online play. Online gamers can now use a grenade launcher to hilarious effect, and outdoor environments add an organic element to sneaking. It's still far from perfect - the online chat can't equal Xbox Live conversations by a long shot, and the frequent use of voice modding by coy players doesn't help the experience, leaving the player with the sensation of being surrounded by Daleks.
The PS2 was never designed to run giant online multiplayer frag sessions, and it shows: the enjoyment seems to teeter constantly on the edge of slowing down or stalling, although the threat rarely materialises. Players who shelled out for the original game may feel as if they're paying full price for what almost amounts to a bug-fixing and map-enhancing update.
This doesn't change the fact that the concept behind the online play is as sound as it was in the first game. There's still nothing on PS2 to equal the thrill of taking out an unaware online rival with a sniper rifle, or taking part in a well co-ordinated assault on the enemy team's defences. Still, those with PCs will feel hampered by the lack of accuracy and graphical oomph, and Xbox owners won't find anything to compare to Halo (offline) or Counter-Strike (on). It's entertaining, but if SOCOM II is the pinnacle of Sony's online achievement - and it is - then Microsoft has convincingly won the online battle. At least for this round.
SOCOM II: US Navy SEALs is out now