Alone on a dark desert hillside, a soldier lies prone in a patch of scrub brush. In the distance down the hill, a black shape moves forward. Spotting his chance, the soldier pops up and hurls a grenade. “He’s about to go for this,” a commentator says, calling the play-by-play for online viewers. But he's revealed his position too soon, and midway through his grenade throw, the lone soldier is interrupted by a burst of machine gun fire. The audience watches him fall as the momentum of the battle shifts.
The world of esports is growing fast, and broadcast matches like this one happen every day. But what’s special about this match is that it didn’t take place in Counter-Strike: it was played in SOCOM: Source, a remastering of 2002 PlayStation 2 exclusive SOCOM. With Insurgency as the base for now, a small group of fans is modding in SOCOM’s third-person perspective and crosshairs, rebuilding classic maps, modeling classic characters, and writing logic for their favorite game modes.
“Ever since SOCOM 2, I’ve always wanted to see a remastered SOCOM,” the mod creator, Redline, told PC Gamer. The 26-year-old freelance programmer from Chicago has pursued it as a side project. “I know a lot of people who always wanted that, too. A little over a year ago, I finally decided to do something about it. Anyone in this community, you could ask them: What would you do if you won the lottery? For a lot of us, it would be, first, I would fund a SOCOM game. These guys are very passionate.”
How did a PlayStation 2 game come to be reborn as a mod for an indie shooter on Steam? The project began as a mod for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Redline had never modded games before, but he decided to learn and bring back his childhood favorite. “When I was a kid, I got high speed internet, so I went out and bought a high-speed game: it was SOCOM. I played it nonstop. I skipped school to play it.”
As one of the first games to demand modern internet speeds, SOCOM introduced a lot of staples of online gaming. Matchmaking and lobbies were new concepts at the time. In 2002, though, PlayStation 2 consoles didn’t have a way to support online communities. Websites sprang up to organize tournaments and connect people, and a competitive scene grew around these third-person action games. These sites didn’t have a way to talk directly to players’ consoles, so players had to sign on and report the results from any organized match manually.
After SOCOM 2 in 2003, the series changed direction. The small squads and special forces missions were replaced in 2005 with vehicle combat and other changes that turned away the hardcore group as SOCOM sought the broader appeal enjoyed by games like Battlefield. The community that had formed around the games eventually evaporated. Millions of copies of the game were sold on PS2 and PS3, but servers running the online game modes were finally taken offline in 2012. No SOCOM game has been announced since 2011’s SOCOM 4, which lost its servers in January 2014. As far as anyone knows, the SOCOM series is dead.
After Redline began his project, word spread and the community started to come back. Within a week of launching, he had 1,500 subscriptions. As the mod grew, it switched from being a Counter-Strike mod to an Insurgency mod, a move that gave Redline a better base to work from. New players send him messages that read like they’ve found the promised land. A few claim to be moved to tears. One player told PC Gamer that he’s seen lifelong console gamers build or buy a PC just to play SOCOM online again.
Redline is doing all the programming himself, while a few community members volunteer their time to help with modeling and level design. “This entire operation is fueled by a love for SOCOM. Everyone works on this and puts in more hours than most people actually think, and they do it just because they want this game back so badly,” Redline says. “We get absolutely nothing else in return. In fact, some of us put our own money up to keep it going when donations don't come in.”
Tobias Strömbäck, a SOCOM player from Sweden, is a big fan of the mod and the community that has resurfaced around it. “Our community and the developer all are very passionate about the mod,” he said. “We all want a great SOCOM game. It's an actual community. People know each other, for better or worse. But we all want the same thing... Joining a server sometimes gives me the feel of walking into the onto the schoolyard where my buddies are hanging out.”
It’s becoming a big schoolyard. 10,000 unique players have logged on since March. Online matches have tallied up 37,000 hours. Over 7.7 million shots have been fired. Another player, Josh, calls the game “magical.” “I always tell friends about this mod,” he said. “I think the biggest issue is some hardcore fans died with the game when the servers were taken down on the PlayStation network.”
Right now, the mod is moving through alpha and approaching a beta release early next year. The biggest change, the switch in perspective from first person to third person, is in place and stable. The coming weeks will see new competitive features and more maps added. At the mechanical level, though, the game already feels like SOCOM. “It is the [mod] on the market that is the closest to the original SOCOM games,” Mike, one of the active community members, told PC Gamer. “A few more tweaks to the gameplay, mainly the animations, and this mod will be as true to original SOCOM gameplay.”
Eventually, Redline hopes to port the entire project over to the Source 2 development kit and create a free, standalone game called SOCOM: Source. For now, he's continuing to build his new SOCOM community, adding clan support, tournament ladders, and all of the other tools that didn’t exist when the PS2 had its day. “This is the way to get the gameplay back,” he says. There’s determination in his voice. “But [the community] is the bigger picture. We can’t just keep playing the same maps for the rest of our lives.”
Building the community, Redline thinks, will let them bring the same structure to other games as well. “I never got into the competitive CS:GO experience because I know that I don’t like it. I don’t want that, I want to get the SOCOM feel back. I’m a PC gamer, but I want to bring back the console multiplayer community experience.”