It still surprises me that in a day when uncompressed game files can fill all 100 GB of a dual-layer Blu-Ray disc, PlayStation Portable games still clock in at 1.5 GB or less. SOCOM U.S. Navy SEALs: Fireteam Bravo 3 not only does that, but it manages to display an impressive array of visuals. Maybe I shouldn't be so shocked - after all, this is the same studio (Slant Six Games) responsible for the high-quality look of both PSP Syphon Filter games. What really stuck out to me was not only how good the in-game models and textures looked, but how they really improved on the user interface, weather effects, and even the lettering. My short hands-on time with this game at PAX still hadn't prepared me for the final product. It's just a good-looking game, and I applaud Slant Six's efficiency.
Once past the eye-feast stage, I jumped into the campaign, which features you as Wraith - a new returning commando previously seen in Fireteam Bravo 2 and Tactical Strike. I had the choice whether to go through the tutorial mission, or to bypass it. Doing missions gains you Command Equity (CE) points, just like in previous Fireteam Bravo titles. CE points are used to unlock weapons and attachments in single player and co-op, or clothing for your customizable characters in multiplayer. You gain CE by playing single-player missions, co-op missions, and even playing multiplayer. The tutorial is good for some easy CE points, so made sure to revisit it later.
Wraith and the boys take position at an estate.
The campaign is straightforward, consisting of typical "hit this button", "shoot these bad guys" objectives with a storyline welded into it. Voice acting is above par, and the in-engine cutscenes are pretty great with one exception: your character is shown with the gear that you pick, attachments and all...minus silencers. I'm guessing that there was no simple way to dynamically exchange weapon sounds in the cutscenes, so if you have a silencer equipped you can expect it to disappear during those segments. In a nice touch, a familiar face from Fireteam Bravo 2 shows up partway through the plot, so the game is not a complete disconnect despite the new cast and setting.
Barrels can be blown up by gunfire - this is handy, and strategic.
From an old school SOCOM fanboy standpoint it feels like the series finally has some magic again, thanks to Fireteam Bravo 3. Without showing its age too badly, the SOCOM formula has been enhanced with current popular features - things like a hit indicator (a small X shape in the crosshairs that subtly shows when you hit someone), the ability to revive fallen players in co-op and multiplayer, and even precision aiming (Army of Two-esque third person zoom, and iron sights when stationary). You can now melee enemies with your rifle butt - that's always fun, and good for a stealth kill. Encumbrance - the effect on your movement speed that heavy equipment has - is back, as is online voice chat. Handguns are available in Fireteam Bravo 3, which is a first for the PSP games. In fact, over 70 weapons are on the roster! As you can imagine, this makes me very happy. Very.
In the "less happy" category are the lack of customizable controls (only one control scheme is available...like it or leave it), the absence of any kind of jumping or sprinting, no text chat in online lobbies, and a few technical issues that are making online play somewhat frustrating. Don't get me wrong: the games are smooth, with minimal lag...the trick is getting online and staying in a game. On top of that, I've played at least six hours of multiplayer ranked and unranked games, and not one stat has saved. I read that the stat tracking system is slow to update; I've been waiting on mine for five days. This would be a huge problem if content was unlocked based on statistical data, but thankfully Command Equity is saved properly, so I can customize my zero-rank character to my heart's content. Be it known also that I have not had one problem connecting to and staying in co-op games...and each time, my stats were correctly recorded. So apparently this only affects the versus modes.
For a portable game, there is some real eye candy here.
Leaving my frustrations behind, I checked out what co-op options were available; this is where the SOCOM fan and the co-op fan in me make sweet love and have a little fanboy baby. We knew already that the game was going to support up to four players throughout the campaign in ad hoc and infrastructure modes. What we didn't know until we played the release version was that custom missions are available as well. A custom mission in Fireteam Bravo 3 is basically just a campaign mission modified the way you see fit. Change the objective and/or the enemy difficulty, skins, and even density. It's nothing too fancy, but you can tailor-make a mission to earn the maximum amount of CE points. Bring in your friends, and the CE gets duplicated for each player. The only drawback in my opinion is that you can only play as members of the titular Fireteam Bravo, without customization. This is slightly offset by the ability to unlock any weapon in the whole game, even those not available in multiplayer. Gripes aside, the custom missions add a whole layer of replayability.
The online is just as addictive as the original was, if not more so.
Ultimately,though, SOCOM U.S. Navy SEALs: Fireteam Bravo 3's continued success as a popular game is going to heavily depend on how much support it receives from Sony and Slant Six. A good chunk of base value is there in the single player campaign and custom missions, but too many variables affect the multiplayer and co-op; a new activation system that Sony has implemented - starting with this game - may hurt the online population. The complete absence of matchmaking in online modes will turn some people off (SOCOM has never been known for a solid matchmaking option, even though a couple of the games have tried it). And of course, the rank structure is horribly flawed right now. Looming over all of this is the ever-present threat of hackers, who seem to all congregate on the SOCOM games.
As it stands and even considering the issues holding this game's full potential back, there aren't too many better experiences on the PSP. Even fewer are the worthwhile co-op games. Let's see if Fireteam Bravo 3 makes it through the aforementioned trials and continues to reign as the most co-op friendly, fun PSP game to date.