Albania—early morning.

Our four-man fire team was dropped by helicopter into the Albanian countryside. SOCOM had informed us that a local group of black market arms dealers were storing some dubious weaponry in the nearby village—weaponry that needed to be eliminated with extreme prejudice.

Before the team could tackle that, we needed to meet with an informant in the ruins of a local church. This civilian had vital recon information we would need to complete our objective. As I checked the TacMap, I could see a road leading right up to the ruins—the problem was that said road was crawling with hostile patrols. We'd have to find another way

My team and I crawled through the brush, staying low to the ground and minimizing our noise. Stealth was a key to this mission—if we could get the drop on the terrorists without them knowing we were coming, we could take out some of the enemy resistance before they knew what hit them.

Armed with new information from our informant, my team slinked down an embankment and into a river. The bridge above would have been the easier route, but the enemy patrols presented a problem. Eventually, we came to a tunnel bored into the side of a hill. As we emerged on the other side, I ordered my men to fire at willwe were in the village.

My fellow Seals and I took out at least two dozen enemy fighters before finding both caches of weapons. Jester and I planted one explosive satchel while Bravo team planted the other. We then reconvened at the extraction point for removal from the area as the explosive satchels dealt a critical blow to the forces of evil. Mission accomplished.

The above is just a simple recounting of the first mission in Zipper Interactive's SOCOM II: U.S. Navy SEALs, but it serves as a fine example of what players can expect from this highly anticipated title. I've never been in the military or seen combat action, but I can still safely say this title is one of the most realistic recreations of covert operations I've ever seen. I've played other games in this genre (including the first SOCOM), and none of them made me as tense as this one—and that's a good thing.

However, calling SOCOM II a sequel is being generous. The game feels more like a well-conceived expansion pack than an out-and-out new title. Yes, the game features a beefed-up single player campaign, new online maps (along with the ones from the original game), improved graphics, and a much more stringent cheater-catching system, but when one gets right down to it, this is more like SOCOM 1.5 than II.

Is that a bad thing, though? Depends on the player's perspective. Those who loved the original (and they are legion—SOCOM remains the most popular online console game out there) are going to love the sequel. Those who felt the first game was less than gaming nirvana will probably still feel that way after spending time with this title.

The reason for this almost political or religious divide is assuredly an ideological one rather than something horribly flawed in the game itself. SOCOM II is all about stealth. To do a mission properly, completing all of the objectives and getting a good rating at the end of the level means players can expect to spend upwards of 30 minutes on each of the game's single-player missions. This isn't particularly bad, but when one factors in that each stage is entirely devoid of save points or checkpoints (meaning if the player screws up or dies he's starting the whole thing over again), it becomes a bit of a problem. Players who like to "run and gun" aren't going to be all that interested in SOCOM II's slow paced stealth-based approach. War in this game is about 90% mind-numbing tedium as players crawl around and 10% adrenaline-packed firefights. Again, though, I'm guessing this is a lot like real life.

Spending too much time talking about the single-player experience is ultimately a waste—anyone who plays SOCOM knows the real game lies in the online component. Those who are fortunate enough to have a broadband connection and a network adapter can forget all about the single player campaign and spend their time online playing with real live human beings. To say this adds a whole new dimension to the game experience is a lot like saying high definition TV is better than a black-and-white. Sure, they might both be TV, but one is TV taken to its highest form. The same can be said for SOCOM II.

While the single-player game has some great artificial intelligence for the computer-controlled teammates (and it's an improvement over the original game), there's no substitute for playing with other human beings. Watching how people interact, how they bring their own unique problem-solving abilities to each mission, and how they deal with the agony of defeat is a sociology and psychology thesis waiting to happen.

Most of the game's new content is best experienced in the online mode. The title features two new mission types—escort, wherein players guide civilians through hostile areas, and breach, where they must infiltrate the enemy's base and destroy it. With 22 online maps, the potential to "master" them all seems like a very attainable goal. However, since levels are so large and filled with ambush points, bottlenecks, and lots of hiding places, it'll take players quite a while to learn all the tricks of each battlefield.

The game's biggest improvement isn't a gameplay one at all, though—it's technical. Voice communication in SOCOM II is vastly improved over the original, with less static and interference in the chat. Add in that players can now tell who is actually speaking and things only get better.

The only real technical flaw remains one the developers themselves can't really address—lag. Lag is still present in the SOCOM II world from time to time, despite the broadband only stance of Zipper Interactive. Lag is ultimately more of an annoyance than anything—it makes aiming and hitting targets nearly impossible, but until online technology takes another quantum leap forward, lag is going to remain an issue in all online games.

It's a personal decision whether or not one finds the tweaks and enhancements of SOCOM II worthy of its $50 price tag. However, there's no denying the game creates one of the most intense and interesting war game experiences out there on a console. I'm personally more a "run and gun" guy than a "sneak around in the shadows" player, and I still found SOCOM II: U.S. Navy SEALs to be an engaging and engrossing gaming experience that immersed me in a world I'd not experience otherwise. I'm never going to be a Navy Seal in real life, but SOCOM II certainly showed me what it would be like to spend a day in their shoes. Rating: 8 out of 10

Mike Bracken
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