SCEA has come out with several "non-numbered" SOCOM games as of late, with the Fireteam Bravo franchise on the PSP, and now Combined Assault on the PS2. That's not to say that they aren't full-fledged products, but is seems almost such that they exist to answer the need for SOCOM titles on other platforms, and provide a few new gameplay features not found in the core iterations of the game. For the most part, Combined Assault gives up nothing to previous iterations of the series, but some mediocre level design leaves a little bit to be desired.
As with every other SOCOM release to date, the presentation in Combined Assault is no slouch. The cut scenes are fantastic and do a great job of gearing you up for a mission. The graphics, as always, stand out as being really nice in some areas; however the visuals aren't without their flaws. For instance, I found it really tough to spot enemies at a distance even with my scope engaged. This wouldn't be such an annoyance, were it not for the fact that most levels involve spotting enemies at a distance. Whether you're zoomed in on a mountainside or just positioned close to a structure, surfaces become blurry and pixilated. Apart from those instances, the visuals are actually quite good when considered as a whole. The audio does the job of giving the game action a more cinematic feel, although I did find the rather abrupt fading in and out music signifying enemy exchanges annoying after a while. I guess it's helpful to be alerted to danger by the sudden fading in of ominous music, but it really takes the realism out of seeing your enemies before they see you as the music begins as you enter the vicinity of any unsuspecting foe. Thankfully you can adjust the cinematic and ambient sounds as well as the music and headset volume. Apart from those small gripes, I would say that the overall presentation gives Combined Assault a quality feel that's in line with any other SOCOM title.
After having extensively played Fireteam Bravo 2 for the PSP, I must say it's good to be back to the tactical shooting action of a full-fledged PS2 SOCOM title. Combined Assault continues the trend of previous PS2 releases, although some of the levels seem more linear than can I remember from past titles. For instance, there are parts of certain levels that really limit your ability to stray from rather obvious paths to your destination. One situation in which I was required to infiltrate a watchtower was a little frustrating because there were really only two obvious and heavily guarded paths to reach it. This area of the map was so lushly detailed that it seemed almost as if I could stealth to the target from multiple directions. Disappointingly, trying to reach the target from any other direction than the two paths mentioned above was futile. Ultimately I had to go through the painstaking task of crawling prone to the target and trying to dispatch every guard in the vicinity from a distance before they either sounded the alarm, returned fire and sounded the alarm, or alerted another guard who would sound the alarm. Thankfully there are only a few instances where the lack of choice as to how to approach a situation reduced the gameplay to an experience in trial and error. This however, speaks to a drawback inherent in a lot of stealth-oriented games. Inevitably, parts of most levels in Combined Assault come down to trial and error, which effectively removes the spontaneity of the action when playing though a certain section for a second and third time. No matter which approach I took, I couldn't do anything to avoid triggering attacks by some enemies. Crossing into a particular section of the map would trigger a subtitle stating, "We've got a visitor…" at which point I would begin taking fire. The reasoning for these frantic exchanges may have something to do with designers wanting to periodically change the pace of the action, but it just ended up as an annoying interruption to my otherwise slow and meticulous progress through a level.
However, it's this slow and meticulous pace where Combined Assault shines. This tried and true tactical shooting action is at the heart of what makes these games so enjoyable. I actually find it therapeutic to be honest. One feature that stands out (and is quite innovative that and upon itself) is the ability to issue commands to my team using a USB headset. You still have to access the command menu using the circle button, but after that, it's as easy as stating the team member or team you wish to issue a command to, and then issuing the command. This is a really tight and reliable feature. On only a few occasions I would issue a command with no result. Otherwise, my teammates were at my beck and call and faithfully headed my orders. What's nice about being able to issue orders verbally is that it's more intuitive than having to use the controller to scroll through commands, and eventually you can become proficient at issuing various commands to multiple teams or teammates. For example, I really enjoyed instructing Bravo to breach and clear at one entrance to a structure and then issuing a command for the third team member to do the same thing at another entrance, while I entered at a third door. When moments like these come together, it's a really rewarding experience.
Crosstalk is a new feature that allows you to import events from Fireteam Bravo 2 for the PSP so you can witness the results of your exploits while playing through the same level in Combined Assault. I did this for the first level of Combined Assault, which again, is also the first level on FTB2, where a Navy Seal helicopter is downed. If you clear the gunmen away from the downed chopper in FTB2, you don't then have to deal with them in Combined Assault. You may even be lucky enough to arrive as Fireteam Bravo is taking out those enemy guards, which is kind of neat. To be fair, I didn't play through any of the other levels using the feature, and it may have turned out to be less of a novelty had I done so. That being said; I see what SCEA was trying to do by adding this feature and it certainly doesn't detract from my enjoyment of the game.
At the end of the day new features like Cross Talk don't add a lot to this SOCOM title, and serve as a mainly passing novelty of sorts. This is not a bad thing because of everything this game has to offer with regard to the core gameplay. For fans of the series, then this one is a no-brainer. While it's not perfect and does have a few detracting flaws, Combined Assault is still one of the best SOCOM titles to date.