They call this a hat trick. First Zipper Interactive made a credible PS2-only shooter, then expanded it to rival the almighty Halo. Now they've done the improbable as SOCOM arrives on the PSP in a form that's not only playable, but stands as the system's first fun shooter.
As in the console game, the solo campaign is little more than practice. A couple of Navy SEALs explore relatively small maps, finding checkpoints, gathering intel and taking out soldiers featuring rudimentary smarts. Play the right SOCOM 3 missions on the PS2 and some extra weapons can be unlocked by connecting the systems with a USB cable.
Online, the game comes alive. This is the first indication that portable online gaming could come into its own. Matchmaking is painless, combatants are plentiful and anyone with Sony's PSP headset can enjoy surprisingly clear voice chat. The 12 maps are small but stable and new game types like Captive, in which downed players are frozen until revived by a teammate, are excellent.
Previously, PSP shooters struggled with the system's single analog stick. SOCOM moves smoothly by letting you lock on to enemies by tapping one shoulder button. That's not all, though. Moving drastically lowers accuracy, while staying still increases it. With that single innovation, obvious in retrospect, the lock-on system doesn't turn the game into a turkey shoot. Sure, it can still be too easy to hit enemies, but this is the first step to a better future for PSP shooters.
And let's face it, a portable system isn't anyone's destination for real tactical combat. SOCOM manages to port over enough franchise characteristics to feel right, then opens the flood gates to entertaining action. It's not deep, but it's loads of fun.
Inevitably, there are letdowns. The weapon collection has shrunk, and environments don't offer the same tactical advantage because there isn't enough detail. Some are pretty ugly. But since the visuals are balanced to keep the game running smoothly (there is still some slowdown), that too becomes a muted gripe. Thankfully, these soldiers move with much of the fluidity of their PS2 counterparts.
SOCOM has loads of promise. The next version might knock this one out of the park. But for now, we've got a solid, fun shooter on the PSP, and the option to frag opponents the world over.