Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier|
Finally, after two years since first hearing about Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, I get my hands on Tom Clancy’s latest high-tech covert squad-based shooter. Ubisoft has updated the franchise with a compelling storyline, current and soon-to-be-current weapons tech, and a new spin on gameplay that, in my opinion, seems to water down the Ghost Recon experience, making it not unlike just about every other over-the-shoulder shooter out there.
There are two ways to play Future Soldier; alone and with up to three friends in co-op mode. I’ve got my regular boys who were all just as excited as I was to play this game, so my first pass through the new Ghost Recon was in co-op campaign mode. As host, it was fairly easy to setup the game and invite my three squad mates into my session. It would have been nice if the invite list didn’t show all of my friends. How about a filter for those just online, or even better, those actually playing Future Soldier? Thankfully, my friends list is short, but I can see this being a problem for those with a larger social circle.
Once everyone is in the game you can pick your mission or resume your current campaign. The mission loads, you get your briefing and are outfitted with default weapons and gadgets recommended for that sortie. Casual gamers can simply start the mission but any true soldier will want to explore your options and probably spend a few minutes (or more) in the expansive Gunsmith mode. Using a clever 3D interface with optional Kinect support, you can explore all 50+ weapons and their unlocked attachments in an exploded view, swapping out components like scopes, triggers, muzzle attachments, stocks, magazines, and even custom paint and camo. I’m sure there is a mathematical formula to calculate the possibilities, but let’s just say you’ll never see everything Gunsmith can create in this lifetime.
The downside to Gunsmith, especially when you have four players all waiting on each other, is just how easy it can be to get lost in your weapons customization. Thankfully, you can go in and play with Gunsmith outside of the game to create and save your favorite designs and combos then plug them into your game when the time comes. There is even a slick iPad app that lets you do this away from home then “push” your designs onto the Xbox through an attached Uplay account.
Once everyone has chosen their hardware and signaled their ready status the mission begins. While the campaign is the same, the four-player experience differs greatly from solo play since you are not relying on any help from the friendly AI to fill in for any missing members. Missions are a mix of stealth and assault with an emphasis on stealth. Use of cloak, cover, and silent takedowns are all instrumental in obtaining the maximum “ghost” score for each mission. You’ll cautiously move through each linear level, heading to each waypoint and engaging or avoiding enemies as required, but always working as a silent team.
Future Soldier demands teamwork and tactical co-op strategies, which makes the omission of the Cross-Com unforgiveable. You are clearly wearing the device so why am I unable to use it? Being able to see through the eyes of my teammates was an invaluable tool in Advanced Warfighter. Now, my squad has to spend a lot more time verbally communicating our position and status. In a feeble attempt to replace the missing Cross-Com you can now tag targets and when a player is aiming at that target their name will appear. This sets up numerous and obviously scripted moments where enemies conveniently show up four at a time, giving you the perfect chance to all pick your target, give the GO code and take them all down in a single slow-motion simultaneous squeeze of the trigger. From time to time there will be more than four enemies, so you have to analyze the situation and prioritize targets, going after overwatch targets or the occasional straggler who has wandered away from the line of sight of the others.
Covert tactics are critical, as many missions have lengthy sections where enemy detection will fail that mission. You’ll need to use gadgets like the sensor grenade to reveal possible hidden targets or a fun little hovercraft Drone you can toss up and fly around to reveal and paint up to four targets for your men on the ground. The drone has no attack capabilities, so you will often need to swap back to your man on the ground to fire at marked targets. In some later missions the drone is capable of landing and converting into a buggy with stealth camo and EMP capabilities, but again, the use of this mode is highly scripted.
And that is my biggest complaint with Future Soldier. While you have unlimited freedom in tweaking your weapons in Gunsmith, once in the game you are on a very linear scripted sequence of events that can easily turn into an annoying trial and error experience in some missions. You can easily spend minutes working as a team to get into position for that perfect sync-kill only to find there was a fifth guy on the grassy knoll that saw you, and now you have to restart and take him out, etc. etc. Some of the levels are quite large, but your paths are few and the enemy placement pretty much dictates how you will get through them. The game even goes as far as creating several Hold or Defend this position moments that quickly become all about learning the sequence and scripting of enemy entrance positions, and doing it over and over until you get it right.
Honestly, I probably wouldn’t even have played this game solo if I weren’t reviewing. It’s just not that kind of game, but I was impressed with the squad-AI for the most part; at least when it wasn’t glitching out and forcing me to reload checkpoints. It seems the AI has a bad habit of going prone and not being able to get back up. Sometimes this isn’t a big deal because if you get far enough away they will magically reappear at your side, but in some instances there may be a scripted “stacking” event where everyone must get in their assigned spots for the mission to continue and if Pepper is 50 yards back scrubbing the deck with his chest you aren’t going anywhere except to the menu to reload your game – just another great reason to find three friends to play this game with you.
The one thing I did enjoy about playing the game solo was taking on a more authoritative role. I would often hang back and use the drone to paint targets and let the AI do all the work; at least when the situation didn’t require a fourth gunner. I’d play these huge sections from the air in a black and white thermal cam up to the point where my drone would start to lose signal, and then I’d sprint forward to my team. It’s a different way to play; certainly not the correct way, but fun nonetheless. You don’t really command your team in solo play; merely tag targets and let the AI do the work on who kills who and how they get into position. The one thing I did like was that if I couldn’t get into position on one particular target I could aim at an AI-acquired target and he would reposition to get the guy I couldn’t.
The only thing more impressive than the friendly AI is the enemy AI that makes great use of overwatch tactics as well as suppressing fire and flanking. They did a great job of distracting me with obvious forward targets and then all of the sudden a guy would appear at my side, sometimes in melee range. This is easier to avoid in four-player mode where you can have a guy hanging back to phone in surveillance.
It was only after finishing the co-op campaign and starting my second pass on another hosted game that I felt slightly guilty. As host, you get to do a lot of things players 2-4 don’t get to do, like flying the drone or driving the giant robot, or even firing the machinegun in the back of an exciting Humvee chase. Certain events and door stacking location are pre-assigned to player positions, so as host you get to do a lot of the “fun stuff” while other players watch. There are also other events like a helicopter chase where two players are in the air and two are on the ground based on your position in the game invite grouping. It makes replaying the campaign as an “invitee” a slightly unique experience.
Beyond the story is a fairly competent multiplayer mode that does its best to compete in a world dominated by Battlefield and Call of Duty. There are four modes of play including Guerrilla; a unique spin on classic Horde mode, and my favorite, Decoy. In this mode, teams are required to take control over three objectives but only one of them is real; the other two are merely decoys. But even standard modes like deathmatch and team deathmatch are given a unique Ghost Recon spin with the addition of classes that will not only affect your gear – only scouts get camo and sensors – but also dictate the way you play the game and your role within the team.
Future Soldier looks good on most levels, great on some, and disappointing on others. My most memorable moments were sneaking through a massive tent village stalking a target, a wonderful outdoor mission in an almost-farmland like setting with autumn colors, and one of the final levels in downtown Moscow. Some levels like the arctic and the desert missions were merely average with bland and expected textures and minimal detail. There are also some cool vision modes like thermal, nightvision, and magnetic; great for blizzards and sandstorms. Regardless of the level, the Ghosts all look amazing, with superior detail in their modeling, their equipment, and especially their animation; everything from simple walking and stealth-crouching to taking cover and cover-swapping. Tumbling into a prone position and crawling was especially convincing. The HUD is non-invasive and gives you just enough information to function.
Nothing about the audio really stood out for me. The music was so forgettable I actually had to go back and listen for it just so I could comment here. It's mostly in the menus and occasionally picks up during exciting combat sequences or in-game cutscenes, but for the most part, Future Soldier relies on environmental sounds and weapons to create the overall ambience in the game. There is a lot of fun chatter with the squad that seems to work better playing solo since these guys have their own identity within the story. When I play co-op the guys in the game are the guys on the other end of my headset.
Future Soldier delivers a solid 10-12 hour campaign with a bit of repetition and a couple of difficult bottlenecks in a few missions; then again we were playing on the hardest difficulty. The game is infinitely better when shared with friends, although I confess to having some fun with tagging targets and letting the AI do my job in the solo game. The multiplayer modes also are a fun diversion. My story squad teamed up and dominated numerous online matches, but it wasn’t long before we felt Battlefield 3 calling us home. I’m sure we’ll revisit Ghost Recon: Future Soldier as new DLC arrives. There is a lot of fun action taking place, but nothing that kept us interested beyond the first week.
I had some pretty high expectation going in to this review. Advanced Warfighter nearly got a perfect score back in 2006, so the franchise had a lot to live up to. I was disappointed the Cross-Com was removed – that was nearly a deal-breaker. I congratulate the designers on great AI, both for my squad in solo play and the almost human-like awareness and tactics of the enemy. The Gunsmith is another fun diversion. As a weapons collector in real-life, I appreciated the ability to tinker around with the millions of possibilities in this mode and even take my creations to the test range; although the whole Kinect thing seemed a bit gimmicky and tacked on. I used it the first few times then simply went back to my controller.
So, if you are a Tom Clancy fan, a Ghost Recon fan, or just want to play a fun tactical shooter then definitely give Ghost Recon: Future Soldier a chance. There is a cool story and as always, impressive weapons and gadget tech on display, and the game gets exponentially better with each human you can add to your squad. And with entertaining multiplayer and DLC down the road, you’ll be coming back to this game long after the primary mission is complete.