Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Ubisoft Paris, Ubisoft Bucharest, Ubisoft Red Storm
Released: May 22, 2012
Much of the slow-paced careful planning and executing of tactical engagements in the original Ghost Recon was lost in the console versions of Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, while the Rainbow Six: Vegas series cannibalized the franchise with its beloved co-op tactics. Future Soldier attempts to take the franchise back to its roots, but in a modern fashion. In more ways than one, it's also somewhat of a stylistic reboot in the way Conviction changed the way we look at, and play, Splinter Cell.
The influence of Ubisofts last installment of the spy thriller series is evident through Future Soldier's bountiful visual aids -- such as overlaid text on top of the 3D scenery -- and the action in general is much more dynamic and in-your-face than before, largely helped by a competent camera system that appears to be handled by by a shaky hands cameraman directed by someone like Paul Greengrass. If Conviction was the Bourne Ultimatum of Splinter Cell, Future Soldier is The Hurt Locker of the Ghost Recon series.
Perhaps the biggest change to the formula is the way the artificial intelligence now works with the player, instead of being delegated to a position where it constantly looks at the telephone every five minutes, desperately waiting for your call. Computer-controllerd squad-mates can no longer be assigned to move to specific locations, nor ordered to a specific placement to get ready to breach a room. Instead, the AI takes care of a lot of these aspects on its own, which works much better than a potential lack of freedom would suggest.
AI direction still plays a major role when it comes to stealth squad tactics, however. Up to four enemy targets can be tagged with the press of a bumper button, leaving the player free to either aim at the fourth target yourself so your team-mates eliminate their assigned tangos on your shot, or you can simply command your three brothers in arms to execute their shots in sync by holding down the same bumper. Remaining undetected is often rewarded, but sometimes open engagement is inevitable. In that case, targets can no longer be quietly lined up and silenced, and the bumper becomes a "please kill this guy here please" button.
Between running around from place to place and stealthily walking in a crouched position -- which enables an active camouflage system that renders you largely invisible -- various locations require the team to work in unison. Breaching a door is now simply a matter of getting to an appointed location, waiting for the team to get ready, and pressing a button, which leads to the breach and a slow-motion sequence of shooting down bad guys. Likewise, you'll need to move to a pre-determined spot to get the team ready in yoga-like positions before sliding open a panel door. Occasionally, you'll automatically form up in a diamond formation around a VIP, which leads to an "on rails" section where you take care of all the enemies in your field of view, as the team makes its way through a hostile environment as a single unit of capable of 360 degrees of devastation.
Perhaps some fans of the traditional Ghost Recon experience may lament the more scripted approaches, but it never feels like player freedom is taken away in favor of added variety. In no small part, this is because the style of careful planning and tactics has made a big return, largely thanks to the toys of the future which provide you with the necessary situational awareness.
Sensor grenades can be tossed in the field to highlight enemies, a magnetic view vision mode allows you to discriminate armed soldiers from civilians through walls and terrain, and the ever-popular quad-rotor UAV drone can be used to scout the terrain ahead from the skies. If running into the action isn't your thing, this drone allows you to tag enemies and let the rest of your team take care of them, provided you only select those targets that won't be spotted by patrols if they go down. In some of the twelve very lenghty missions in the campaign, you can rely on this drone and the resulting tactical disposal puzzles without firing a single shot yourself.
Those in favor of getting down to business themselves can rely on their AI squad-mates to take smart positions, lay down effective fields of fire, and generally make you feel like you are part of a team consisting of equally qualified members. The same can't always be said for the enemy AI, which tends to run between the same positions or pops out of cover in predictable ways, and which seems designed to turn any engagement into either a scripted event or a balanced-yet-fluid standoff between your team and countless enemies. Having said that, the missions' linear nature and the ease with which you can be shot down by enemy fire means the lacking enemy AI never becomes a big detriment.
If you prefer the human approach, all of the campaign missions can be played cooperatively with up to four players -- something that is all too evident when you are supposed to move into breach positions in solo mode. Each mission also includes specific weapon challenges (make 12 kills with one SMG clip), and tactical challenges (reach location X without alerting any enemies), that affect your final "Ghost" score for that mission. A few of these challenges make co-op partners a necessity, although these are few and far between, and many of the challenges won't likely be completed on your first run through the game, which adds a lot of replayability if you're not into multiplayer.
For its part, multiplayer is an expansive affair. A Guerrilla "horde" mode pits you against up to 50 increasingly hard waves of enemies on five maps, alternating defensive action with a stealth wave whenever you switch to a new HQ location to defend. Surviving waves unlocks wavestreaks, such as becoming invisible, using a sentry turret, or calling in an airstrike, and surviving successive waves upgrades your wavestreaks' potency. While Guerrilla mode can be played with two players in split-screen, you'll want at least one extra player to join online since the waves become pretty damn hard around the midway point.
Traditional multiplayer comes in the form of "Conflict" mode, and this mode can best be described as a mix between Gears of War and Call of Duty (or any other online military shooter) with the addition of gadgets and goals. Your gadgets allow you to do things like planting claymores, throwing sensor grenades, and placing fixed cameras, while each mode has certain goals on the map to create a dynamic between the two teams as a round progresses. Capture and hold an EMP location goal, for instance, and the enemy team loses its HUD to make it very hard to distinguish between friend and foe. It turns regular team deathmatch into a more tactical affair than running and gunning, although there's still plenty of that on offer if you tailor your character to that style of play.
Other modes include "Decoy," in which a team has to locate the real target out of a potential of three without either team knowing which is the real one, "Saboteur" which is your typical place-the-bomb mode, and the hardcore "Siege" mode, which requires the attacking team to complete an objective without respawns.
A big part of multiplayer is leveling up our character and unlocking and tailoring weapons. This "Gunsmith" system is more effective at changing your playstyle in multiplayer than it is during the campaign. A huge amount of weapons can be easily customized at the component level, meaning you can change barrel sizes, types of triggers, scopes, muzzles, ammunition, and parts of a weapon that most people won't even know had names. Each weapon component costs "attachment credits" in multiplayer, which are gained by leveling up, forcing you to focus on specific weapons in order to get the most out of them. On Xbox 360, the Gunsmith system can be used with Kinect if you want to, but while the Kinect integration isn't intrusive, there really is no point in doing so when it's faster to use a controller.
While the different multiplayer modes are a lot of fun depending on how much you care about this aspect of any military shooter, they are unlikely to surprise anyone. It's a carefully crafted and polished component, but despite the added variety in terms of both classic game types and customization, it largely boils down to the tried-and-trusted methods of online play with the addition of a bunch of toys to spice things up. The campaign, though, is a completely different affair, surprisingly enough.
Future Soldier's story sends our team of Ghosts to a hugely varied set of current hotspots of international tension. From the Niger delta, to Dagestan, and Pakistan's Peshawar, the slightly traditional Tom Clancy fair fits better into the current post-War on Terror era than any other ridiculous near-future military shooter. Strip away the advanced hardware at your disposal and the overarching storyline, and each mission could've taken place in a fictional version of today's world.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the campaign is how it shifts the flow of shooting people in the head to create variety, both inside and between missions, and keeps you continuously pressing onwards. One mission you are sneaking around, the next you are going in guns blazing, and suddenly you find yourself without your toys or playing as a lone ranger. An early mission, reminiscent of Call of Duty 4's excellent "Ghillies in the Mist" Chernobyl sniping level, is particularly noteworthy: you are sent into an African refugee camp to stealthily kill patrols and guards, while civilians go about their business and are often harassed by militia.
There are times when Future Soldier's mechanics and pacing fall into place masterfully, and in the process creates some of the most enjoyable tactical shooting on offer at the moment. Just when you're starting to get tired of using the methods you've come up with, the game throws you a bone in the form of a mobile weapons platform with which to absolutely annihilate a winter landscape with infinite mortars.
Outside of the advances in the streamlining of the mechanics and its approach to a total package of singleplayer, co-op, and multiplayer modes, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier displays a level of content maturation that has been evident in some of Ubisoft's big-budget action games, and which has served to set the publisher's games apart from the competition in recent years. From the biting social commentary of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood's database info, to the gritty Bourne-esque and visually distinct Splinter Cell: Conviction, to even the concept of using homegrown terrorism in the upcoming Rainbow Six: Patriots, there is a prevalent sense that Ubisoft doesn't shy away from threading off the safe and beaten path.
It is somewhat disappointing that Future Soldier doesn't fully evolve the series along this trend as much as it shows it's capable of doing. When one mission reduces your team from save-the-world heroes to government-sponsored assassins with the simple objective to commit sanctioned murder, you can hear a target's wife scream as you execute your orders and riddle the invisible family's rustic safehouse with bullets. You never know why the cries are silenced, and there's nothing else to do but carry on with the job.
The masses of civilians you encounter are almost always at the receiving end of militia and soldiers who have rape and torture on their mind, and saving them from their plight is often optional and extremely satisfying. At other times, you find yourself in situations where it's very hard not to accidentally create collateral deaths while trying to stay alive, as hundreds of civilians panic and flee the sudden eruption of violence you bring to a town.
The manner in which these moments offer a level of self-reflection, making you think about just how you're feeling about actively going through events you have little control over, due to both your orders and shifting circumstances, are great, and it's something we need to see more of in modern mainstream gaming. It's just too bad that such moments, while worthy of praise, are still sparse in Future Soldier when they are so effective.
To offset the aspects that shine, attempts at humanizing the members of the Ghost squad are not very effective, and it's hard to care about the members of your squad when it's so hard to know who is who behind their masks. Being a Tom Clancy game, the actual story is of course a bit cliché and ends rather abruptly, yet it does a great job at placing the diverse scenarios at play in a wide enough context to care.
Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is the type of title that might be easy to overlook if you're not partial to the franchise, or even if you are tired of warfare in post-modern times, but it's a great title nonetheless. Between the impressive campaign, the myriad of co-op options and the added replayability of the mission challenges, as well as the expansive multiplayer component, it's as solid a package as military shooters provide.
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