The cat's out of the bag now: Sony and Zipper have finally revealed a release date and details about SOCOM 4 the newest iteration of their beloved Navy Seals franchise. The squad-based shooter, out on April 19, takes players to the shipping lanes (and other locales) of Southeast Asia, where U.S. special forces fight alongside the South Korea's 707th Special Mission Battalion "to capture a militant revolutionary aimed at destroying the world’s most vital waterway and disrupting the global economy." We got a chance to sit down with the game's director, Zipper Interactive's Seth Luisi, to get as many details as we could out of him about the game's campaign, multiplayer modes, and why Zipper had to abandon certain storylines when they actually happened in real life.
Complex: Zipper has done a lot of the SOCOM titles, but not the last one on the PS3 (Confrontation) or the most recent one on the PSP. In coming back for SOCOM 4, did you have any sense that you’d been away, or because you were the developers who started it, was it easy to get that momentum back?
Seth Louisi: Well, certainly SOCOM is something that is very near and dear to us. We’ve worked on a lot of SOCOM games in the past and the last one was a few years ago. It was great to come back to SOCOM and come up with a whole new experience on the PS3, and our excitement really shows.
The PS3 is obviously a different animal. Beyond generics like graphics and processing power, are there things you've always wanted to implement in the franchise that you're finally able to?
Certainly. A big part of comes with the AI and how dynamic it is and having squad behaviors for the enemies. A lot of people talk up their AI, so we don’t want to talk it up too much, but when people play they'll really appreciate it. Every time you play the game, you’ll see different behaviors. Before you enter combat, they have patrol behaviors, but once you engage them in firefights, they're controlled completely separately. We don’t script them while you're engaged. We have shotgunners, machine gunners, heavy weapons experts. You’ll see a lot of different behaviors, a lot of flanking going on, especially during firefights in urban areas.
Squad-based shooters these days are pretty outnumbered by the lone wolf-style shooters. In fact, it almost seems like squad-based tactical stuff tends to be reserved for RPGs or those shooter/RPG hybrids that are popping up more and more. Do you guys feel like the last of a dying breed making a pure tactical of shooter?
SOCOM is certainly a squad-based shooter. I think its always been core to what a SOCOM game is. It’s about the team and how you use the team. We’re certainly taking it to the next level; we want to revolutionize the interface and how easy it is to give team commands and target enemies. We don’t want people to be caught up and get intimidated by the squad nature of the game. We think it offers a more compelling gameplay experience over the other titles out there. We’re really happy with how it's come out. People who got their hands on the game really appreciated how it’s not like the other games that are cluttering the marketplace right now. It's still a shooter, but the way it feels and plays is significantly different.
Can you give us a top-down sense of the squad command system? How much latitude will you have as the player?
The player is part of a five-man team. You're the commander with two teams of two: one team of two U.S. Navy SEALS and one Korean 707 team. We’re able to simplify the commands to be really contextual. With the PS3 Dualshock controller, you're able to give a command to the SEAL team commands by pushing left on the D-Pad and you're able to give the Korean team commands with right on the D-Pad. Whether you're holding or tapping it determines the type of commands. You’re able to aim around the environment and just tap on the ground on certain locations it will put down a trail of waypoints for them to follow. If you hold the directional pad on the waypoint, they’ll move to the previous point and they’ll wait for the "go" command given by you pressing up. And you can string any number of those commands as long as you wait for both teams for both teams. You’re also able to target enemies by aiming with the reticule. Pressing left or right can have your squad aim. It’s a simple interface; you don't have to dig into too many menus or complex commands, just aiming around the environment. It's flexible enough that you can have very interesting coordinated tactics. You can have suppression fire with heavy machine guns with the U.S. Navy SEALS. The Korean soldiers specialize in covert ops, sniper rifles etc. You can set up the Korean team to take out some of the enemies with their suppressed weapons while the SEAL team chas a "wait" command and then when you hit "go," they’ll automatically engage at the same time.
You mentioned the US Navy SEALS working with Korean soldiers. We don’t know a ton about the game though. We do know it’s set in Asia and Korean soldiers are involved. Can you give us some info on the story and settings?
Sure. It takes place in South Asia along the Straits of Malacca, which one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. You’re a part of a NATO peacekeeping task force; there's instability in the region, some chatter of a threat coming up, so NATO is there to maintain peace and be there in case anything goes wrong. Shortly after you arrive, all hell breaks loose and there is a revolutionary insurgent team attacking the city. Basically, you find out that this is a trap and you’re led to believe they have funding and advanced weaponry behind them. You’re stuck in the middle of a situation trying to figure out what’s going on. Find out who’s controlling the country and step behind enemy lines. Do your best to change the situation there. During that time, the NATO forces get scattered. So early on, your team rendezvous with the remnants of the Korean 707.
You mentioned modern military shooters before. Last year, we talked about a number of similar titles. What’s left to do in the genre, even though SOCOM is not exactly like those shooters?
Well, it’s certainly a modern military shooter, and we're squarely in that genre. We’re trying to do it differently. We know there’s a lot we can bring with new titles. With SOCOM 4, we’re focusing more on the storytelling and cinematic experience. We’ll do more than the competing titles. We’ll delve into the soldiers’ motivations and who they are, while maintaining the tactical and teams aspect. This goes back to the first SOCOM game, where we met with the U.S. Navy SEALs and saw how they were. And what motivates the individual. We always go back to doing it for the guy next to them or the team. That’s their biggest motivation. The team is a very important part of the game, in single-player and multiplayer as well.
Have you kept the same consultants for the game or are their new SEALs for this title?
We’ve worked with the same people for the last 10 years of the franchise. Of course, the things going on out in the world keep them busy in action.
Narratively, modern shooter developers are dealing with a double-edged sword. World events being what they are, there’s a surplus of material to adapt to spin off from. Things that reflect the real world weren’t too much of an issue when the first game game out. But at the same time, you want to avoid the Law & Order problem of just ripping everything from the headlines. With shipping lanes and Asia being much more relevant as far as international relations goes, was there any trouble finding that balancing line for you guys? What did you take out and leave behind?
That’s always a factor with all the games we’ve done. There’s a fine line between wanting to be authentic and present something that is plausible while not being so authentic that we're being too familiar with scenarios that are actually happening now. There’s some good stories in there; I don't know if I can go into them, but we’ve had issues in the past, so we’ve changed some locales and made some modifications to it that were not too real.
Was it a case where things you had conceived for the game story ended up happening in real life? Or your first instinct was to put real events in a game and then you had second thoughts?
It was actually the first scenario and it happened before the game came out. On the first game, one of the things we talked about was Afghanistan. We met with the SEALs and they told us at the time—this was before 9/11—that they would never operate there because it’s a landlocked nation. They would only operate where there was water. Of course, now they're there all the time. situations there and some of our scenarios hit a little too close to home.
Let’s talk about the multiplayer. Zipper was the studio behind MAG. What did that game’s experience teach you? Did the development cycles between both games overlap?
For a number of years, it did. We did do two to three years development time plus big production stuff before that. Obviously, multiplayer has been a big component of SOCOM. So MAG got the benefit of the learning of all our old SOCOM games. We started with a whole new server architecture and system for online play for MAG in order to get to 256 players and enable those large-scale battles. And a lot of that is we brought over to SOCOM 4 as well. The core networking and how we handle the servers and clients.
So how big are we talking for SOCOM 4?
SOCOM 4 is limited to 32 players, not 256 players. It probably wouldn’t be a SOCOM game if we did more than 32. SOCOM is more about the intimate combat and having the two teams facing off. MAG is all about scale and the way it plays is very different. We wanted to bet on the franchise and online play, and not go too crazy.
With teams of 32 players, will it be broken down into foursomes? Is it necessary to play in a squad, like how Battlefield: Bad Company 2 toned down the running and gunning thing? Is team play the only way to play SOCOM 4 in multiplayer?
We do have a lot of different game modes.We know we plan to support up to 32, but we also feel there's value in a smaller game, as well, 8-v-8 or 4-v-4. Some people just want to get in and have a smaller experience instead of a larger scale conflict. The game is focused on team play, so single-player and online have team objectives too. I would say we’re the most team-focused game with regards to multiplayer.
Can you give me a sense of any specific multiplayer modes or are you guys this waiting for later announcements?
We’re going over three multiplayer modes today. Uplink, Last Defense, and Basic Suppression, which is like team deathmatch. And additional modes to be unveiled later. There’s an XP rewards system that rewards team play, and the Uplink game types are team focused. Uplink is a capture-the-flag type game where you have to grab info from the opposing team’s computer and run it back to your team and upload it. You have to go and grab the data while working as a team and defending those points and capturing the points and bringing the data back. In Last Defense, you capture three control points and then that triangulates of the enemy base, then you have two minutes to plant charges and blow up the enemy base. That one is really team focused. The attacking team must coordinate capture those three points and plant the final charge, and the defending team has a last stand, a big defensive moment to fight off the other team.
How will communication work in the multiplayer? MAG pioneered a totally different way of multiplayer communication.
MAG had a innovative voice chat system. It was multi-tiered, so you had your squad of 8 talk with one another. Then you had a squad leader who could talk to other squad leaders, and platoon leaders could talk with other platoon leaders, and the Officer in Charge could talk to all 128 teammates and tell them what to do. SOCOM 4 is smaller scale so we don’t have as big of a tier structure as that. You can communicate with your squad and your party, and then we also focus a lot on "proximity chat." As you’re talking to your team, your voice is being projected into the game environment. You will hear your character's voice in the setting—and so will your enemies. Surround sound will actually make it easier to hear where your character is. If you’re inside, the audio will sound more like an echo. SOCOM 4 will try to make it sound like your character is in the world. We did it in SOCOM Confrontation for PS3, but we're pushing it even further and defining and pushing it. It opens up a new way of communicating with players, where you just talk and people around you hear you. You separate into teams, so it's very natural; the guy next to you could say “I’m going around back”, and you don’t have to worry about who’s going to hear you or who’s going to hear your location.
If there are enemies nearby, are there any alternate methods of communication?
There's whispering. [Laughs.] It’ll be based on distance. The further away you are, the lower the volume will be. If you whisper, the people closest to you will hear you. The ones further away won’t.
Will the multiplayer maps be taken or inspired by the locations in the single player game or will there be geographical diversity in them?
Even in the multiplayer game, we have a lot of different environments. There are rural, city, slums, jungles, jungle villages, coastal towns, and mountainous areas. There will be diversity in single player too. Multiplayer maps are based off of those maps. One of the maps that will be open for pre-order at Gamestop will be the classic SOCOM map, Abandoned, which has been completely updated for the PS3. It looks amazing. It’s one of the fan favorite maps that we’ve done up. It’s a jungle-based sort of temple map that took place in Thailand for the first game. It’s really amazing to see.