As an allegory for the life of a soldier, SOCOM: US Navy SEALs Fireteam Bravo 3 is exceptionally effective.
Sporadically exciting disorientation, long periods of tedium punctuated by nagging doubts about your mission - war is a serious business. But accurately simulating the drudgery of the battlefield seems an odd remit for a game.
Of course, surrounding yourself with people you can trust takes the edge off things, and will help to find enjoyment in dour situations. But the insipid greys of your surroundings, nondescript eastern European melodrama, and the sense that you've been here many times before will eventually consume you.
This is a great shame, as the SOCOM series has long been a bastion for players seeking a more sober take on the strategy shooter than that provided by the ever more bombastic Tom Clancy franchises.
The PSP releases have also been technically impressive games, whose eye-catching visuals belie a complex strategic underpinning. Fireteam Bravo 3 develops one of these traits whilst inexplicably backtracking on the other.
Fireteams are raised from two to four members, giving you the option to split into three groups: Able, Bravo, and protagonist Wraith. This not only adds to your sense of commanding a genuine team, but allows for some relatively complex flanking and building breach manoeuvres.
The game is most rewarding when played as intended, carefully planning each move and ensuring the odds are stacked in your favour by picking off individual enemies quietly and efficiently. Running in all guns blazing is equally effective, if not quite as satisfying.
The complex controls do take some getting used to, and players seeking a quick thrill will likely be put off. However, character control is well judged and as long as you have good hand/memory co-ordination, most actions are within easy reach.
The analogue nub handles movement and aiming depending on which level of zoom you select, and ordering your men to move to a position or attack a target is as easy as tapping Circle.
Should you wish to get more creative, holding Circle brings up an easily navigated radial menu containing more specific orders.
Considering the fairly rich palettes used by the SOCOM: Tactical Strike and two preceding Bravo games, it's confusing to find such monochromatic styling here. Starting out on the military grey aircraft carrier training level, you’ll move through warehouse grey, winter grey, and Soviet settlement grey as you attempt the three campaigns that make up the bulk of the game.
The plot is also fairly flat, ticking all of the usual boxes including WMDs, mercenaries, and a thinly veiled fictional state (this time, ‘Koratvia’). However, the story is told with some flair through well directed cut-scenes and above average voice acting. Whilst the clichés line up, they're at least delivered with enthusiasm.
A particularly nice touch are the mission briefings, which play out in first-person, maps, and other paperwork being moved around the table (makeshift or otherwise), and objectives pointed to. These preambles do a great job of providing essential information whilst maintaining atmosphere.
Once briefed, your team is deployed in the surprisingly large levels and on their own - no support this time from higher powers. Levels are ostensibly linear but do provide a good mix of branching paths and bottlenecks, controlled tension and panicked firefights.
When caught in a battle, cover is essential (no matter which strategy you deploy), so it’s disappointing to find no option to snap to cover. Crouching behind objects is sufficient protection, but you'll find your head exposed for far too long when firing back. Moreover, there's no way to vault obstacles, which can occasionally become annoying in busier environments.
With friends Like these…
The 16-player competitive and four-player co-op modes are great, and playing with friends really lifts the campaign levels.
The upgradeable weaponry also comes to the fore here as changes made are visible on character models, along with a menagerie of other customisation options.
Whilst the game is not going to win any beauty contests, nor attest to the capabilities of your PSP’s screen, there's some highly methodical fun to be had for the patient gamer. War is ugly, after all.
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