It must be noted that when you skillfully execute an attack that takes out five opponents almost before they fire back, all the disparate elements of SOCOM 4 coalesce to provide the unique thrill of battlefield command. When it works, it works, but those moments are few and far between because of the buggy controls. In addition, careful planning is usually unnecessary - at least on normal difficulty - because you can be just as effective blasting through enemies with little mind for the tactics of the situation.
The real downfall is that the level design never takes advantage of the unique mechanics on which the game wants you to focus. Even though the intro to each mission takes care to provide a top-down map of the location, the actual play is funneled in a very linear fashion. Your tactical choices are limited to which wood pile you should hide behind. More open maps with multiple entry points would have really highlighted the tactical gameplay that SOCOM claims it provides.
Because so much of SOCOM is about sneaking around to get the drop on enemies, it made sense on some level to add a stealth element. In several missions throughout the 14 in the game, you control the female Asian operative Forty-Five as she scouts out a location at night. The game instructs you that moving too fast or into the pool of a streetlight raises a detection meter on the left of the screen, letting the player know when you might be visible. Tossing a bullet casing distracts the guards so that you can sneak past, but even that mechanic seems weirdly dissociative from the game world. Where does she get all those bullet casings? Is she carrying around a bag of them? Doesn't that make noise?
There's a reason there haven't been that many really great stealth games; such games need an internal logic and dedicated mechanics so the player knows when he's taking risks and when to hold back. The problem with SOCOM 4's stealth missions is that the logic is inconsistent and ultimately feels arbitrary. I can shoot that guy in the head with my sniper rifle, and the guard five feet from him won't notice, but if I move Forty-Five in a direction the designers didn't anticipate, every mook within 100 clicks suddenly knows she's there and punctures her with bullets.
SOCOM 4 was one of the first titles to be announced as Move compliant, but it doesn't treat the motion controls any differently than other shooters. You can aim faster with Sony's Sharp Shooter accessory, but actually controlling your movement, quickly turning, or giving orders is more frustration than it's worth, in my opinion. SOCOM 4 also shipped with some interesting multiplayer modes, but I wasn't able to test it all because the PlayStation Network hasn't been functioning the entire time I was given to play the game. Take that for what it's worth.
I can understand if these complaints feel like I'm quibbling, well, because I am. SOCOM 4 isn't a terrible game, just achingly average. The combat feels generic, the wrinkle of commanding teams adds as much as it takes away, and the stealth missions feel like annoying work instead of a thrilling change of pace. It's a shame that fans of more realistic shooters will have to wait for another game to scratch that itch.
Bottom Line: Sony wants SOCOM 4 to be COD in "tactical" clothing, but all they ended up with is an utterly bland amalgam of missions and cutscenes that lacks any soul.
Recommendation: PS3 Shooter fans are better off buying a multi-platform shooter or an exclusive with more polish like Killzone 3, but those hardcore fans interested in tactical shooters might get some enjoyment out of the harder difficulties of SOCOM 4.
This review is based on the PS3 version of the game.