What We Already Know:
After handing the online-only SOCOM Confrontation off to Slant 6 and releasing the somewhat more arcade-styled MAG, original SOCOM developer Zipper is returning to form with SOCOM 4. The game has multiplayer, sure: 32-player matches and all-new game modes. (Zipper's keeping mum on more details.) But it also has a strong focus on a lengthy, deep, and cinematic single-player campaign.
What We're Seeing Now:
Hands-on gameplay of the first level in the game. The opener throws your character and his support squad (including female South Korean commandos) into a heated battle in "a city in Southeast Asia." The environment is strikingly detailed, loaded with abandoned cars and other debris, which serve as good illustrators of one of the game's new features: a snap-to-cover system. Previous SOCOM games have avoided structured cover systems, opting instead to carefully model obstacles and let players "find their own cover." But now cover is in full effect: Tap Circle near an obstacle and your character ducks out of the line of fire; press the stick forward to peek out over the top, or sideways to peer around a corner. (No motion-based controls here.) But best not stay in one place too long; most cover is now destructible, so enemies can punch right through with enough firepower. Luckily this isn't as dangerous as it might once have been, since the game introduces a health-recharge -- something that ought to make the game a bit more user-friendly, even if it's sure to enrage longtime SOCOM fans.
The other main addition is a system for giving quick contextual commands to your teammates: Tapping Left or Right on the d-pad will direct half of your squad to take appropriate action at the area you're targeting, whether that be to attack an enemy, open a door, or simply change position. This allows for more strategy on-the-fly; while previous games in the series have had similar features, they required stepping through a menu to execute more complex commands.
And it will be necessary to approach the game more strategically. Since Zipper is looking to deliver a robust single-player campaign, they claim to have stepped up the complexity and intelligence of enemy AI. The bad guys will now execute their own flanking maneuvers, use cover intelligently, and keep moving to avoid your fire.
The other big new feature on display at the show is Move support, and while it may sound like a gimmick (as much of the early Sixaxis control was), in practice it works surprisingly well. The controls are virtually identical to the Dual Shock method, except that aiming and turning is accomplished by waving the Move controller. If you have experience with similar control schemes on the Wii, this may sound like a travesty, but thanks to the precision of the Move system it feels surprisingly natural. Quick turns seemed to be the system's biggest downfall, but a Zipper rep offered reassurance that players would be able to fully customize the sensitivity to find their own comfort zone.
At this stage, SOCOM 4 seems like the designers are looking to refine and update the formula, but not revolutionize it. For fans of the series, that's probably good news.