Surprises come in small packages if SOCOM: US Navy SEALs Tactical Strike is any indication. Overshadowed by countless other high-profile PSP games in the run up to Christmas, an understated release for this portable tactical-action fest belies an amazingly entertaining experience. Ignore the lack of buzz and astonishing widespread critical disdain for Tactical Strike because, in our view, this is one of the best PSP titles of the year.
The game offers a single-player campaign comprised of nine missions, as well as multiplayer for up to four in both ad-hoc and infrastructure modes. The surprisingly lengthy campaign, which enables you to acquaint yourself with the mechanics of commanding a squad, essentially serves as a warm-up for multiplayer. And it's as brilliant a multiplayer experience as can be had on PSP, touting a full list of features and entertaining assortment of game types.
Across both single- and multiplayer modes, the glue that holds Tactical Strike together is an expertly-crafted tactical gameplay system. To a greater extent than previous iterations of the series, strategy defines the experience – which is no surprise, obviously. This is a far more deliberate, contemplative combat game that rewards clever thinking on the battlefield over running and gunning. Don't worry, there's plenty of ballistic and explosive action – it's just handled in such a manner that better reflects the cautious tactical nature of real-life special forces.
As such, direct control of your soldiers is never granted. Instead, you command them in real-time using a contextual reticle and movement skimmer. Pressing the Circle button brings up the skimmer, controlled via the analog nub. Moving the skimmer and hitting the Circle button issues a 'go' command to your squad. Soldiers smartly take whatever cover is available near the target location, which naturally makes movement a breeze. For the purpose of advanced tactics, it's even possible to order movement for a single, pair, or entire squad using the shoulder buttons.
Similarly intuitive is the fact that depending on what you're pointing at, the reticle's function varies. Highlight a door within its brackets, for instance, and you can issue a breach command. Set an enemy within its sights and an attack order can be given. Tapping X executes the default command associated to whatever the reticle is currently pointed at. However, holding down X raises a small menu of options tied to that object. For example, if the reticle is pointed at a closed door, tapping X issues a breach and clear order. Hold down the button instead and you're given a choice between breach and frag, flash, or stealth entry.
Given the limited number of buttons on the handheld, the reticle enables a wide range of context-sensitive actions to be executed with minimal input. There are, occasionally, minor issues with follow-through on commands and path-finding can be iffy in certain situations. On the whole, though, the system works remarkably well.
Sticking with the default commands will easily get you through the game, although more tactical options are always available if you want them. This gives you the freedom to dabble as much or as little as you want in strategy. In other words, it's a cleverly flexible mechanic that enables casual play if you want to whip through a mission or a more challenging approach that accommodates the advantage of advanced tactics.
And you'll certainly have room to use the latter because huge levels provide impressive tactical playgrounds for your forces. Not only are they filled with all manner of interesting interactive objects and places to take cover, the levels are designed in such a way to offer for immense strategic variety. You're free to engage enemy forces in any conceivable manner, utilizing environments for stealthy infiltrations or all-out firefights. Multiple paths are possible in every mission and together with how you utilize your squad – keeping them together or splitting them up – opens up countless possibilities.
Hand-in-hand with the impressive level design comes an equally audacious presentation. Squeezing such gigantic levels on PSP is an accomplishment in itself, not to mention the fact they're bursting with detail. Trudges through the jungle in the early stages of the campaign are characterized by lush foliage peppering the ground and soaring palm trees. Later levels are downright awe-inspiring, such as an assault on a massive luxury hotel featuring multiple floors and a labyrinthine underground parking structure. Once these missions load and pop onto the screen, it's hard not to be amazed by the visual quality.
Impressive as they are, the size and scope of missions run contrary to the game's portable form factor. Anywhere between 30-60 minutes has to be set aside to complete a single sortie. While this is great when sitting at home, it makes Tactical Strike difficult to play on-the-go. In this respect, the game embraces the feel of a condensed console title rather than a well-suited handheld game, which is something to bear in mind.
The effort to craft a console-quality experience has succeeded, then, yet ironically serves as the game's primary flaw. Tactical Strike brilliantly deploys its strategic gameplay in huge, challenging missions that simply aren't tailored for portable play.
But that doesn't prevent it from being an enjoyable experience. On the contrary, this in fact turns out to be one of the system's finest and it's not difficult to see why: it looks great, plays just as well, and gets an exceptionally solid job done with remarkable style.