Reviewed: December 31, 2002
Released: November 12, 2002
In the late 90’s Tom Clancy decided to bring his unique style of political and military intrigue and suspense to the gaming world and Red Storm Entertainment was born. In 1999 Rainbow Six debuted and the FPS genre got a whole lot more complicated. With the introduction of clever game devices like “one shot one kill”, no in-mission saving, and the ability to preplan your waypoints and command the actions of your team, gamers actually had to start using their brains in addition to their reflexes. Gone were the days of storming into a room with a chain gun and mowing down hordes of baddies.
As with any successful game franchise, the sequels were forthcoming, and we saw new games like Rogue Spear and lots of mission packs and add-ons. But perhaps the single biggest contribution of this series was the multiplayer aspects. Red Storm games were responsible for the birth of such concepts as Clans (or teams), and even in 1999 when luxuries like broadband was only available in your office, people were installing second phone lines to support their addiction to this new online frenzy.
With each new Red Storm game the series continues to evolve, adding more realism, newer weapons, updated tactics, and new and exciting locations. These games are inspired by the works of Tom Clancy as well as actual missions, then designed and tested for authenticity by actual military experts, some of which are actual members of the teams you are playing. With such attention to detail you can be sure that each Red Storm game is going to be as thrilling as the last.
Ghost Recon recently celebrated its one-year anniversary and what better way to celebrate than with an excellent port to the Xbox. The timing couldn't have been better either, as Microsoft launched their Xbox Live online service the same week this game hit stores. Ghost Recon has always been about multiplayer and teamwork and the Xbox is the perfect console to bring this action to your living room.
In Ghost Recon we leave the confines of embassies, warehouses, hijacked planes, etc. of the earlier Clancy games and move to the great outdoors. This gave the designers a huge library of situations and environments to draw from when creating the 15 challenging missions of the solo campaign. There is an intriguing story – typical of Tom Clancy – but it didn’t seem to really tie in with the missions as closely as I would have liked.
With a new team and new outdoor locations we are also given new weapons like the M16A2, M4 carbine, and the AT-4 anti-tank rocket launcher. Prototype weapons like the OICW introduce you to the latest in “declassified” battlefield technology and the new interface lets you organize and command your troops with ease. Gone are the clumsy pre-mission planning stages. These have been replaced with actual briefings and maps that show your key objectives.
Even the AI has been heavily tweaked; both the enemy and your teammates, so your men respond and react both under orders or when they are working under their own AI programming. The enemies are tougher than ever, merciless, and with only one intent – to take you and your team out! This new level of intensity will prove challenging for even the toughest Red Storm veteran.
Those of you who have played the previous Red Storm games will immediately notice the lack of the pre-mission maps where you plan your routes. You still have a map that outlines your objectives that you can view before moving to the platoon screen where you pick your team from four basic classes. Additional specialty classes can be “unlocked” by completing bonus mission objectives. During the missions you will earn combat points that you can use to increase each soldier’s performance. Attributes such as stealth, leadership, endurance, and marksmanship can all be modified giving this game some RPG strategic elements that let you develop your team as you see fit.
Prior to each mission you must configure your fire teams. You can either do this manually or auto-assign soldiers. Naturally, you lose a lot of control over the game when you let the computer make these major decision for you plus earned points are not used to upgrade your men when you take the easy way out. You contruct your team from 12 various character classes; rifleman, snipers, demolitions experts, etc. Each character has a stats system that rivals an RPG game. These control everything from moving silently to their aiming accuracy.
Once you have picked your men you get to outfit them with a variety of weapon kits that include all sorts of primary and secondary weapons. If you are getting overwhelmed by this point you can simply choose the default weapon kit and chances are good you can finish the mission. There are only a few missions that require specific weapons and even then the game will give you an extra prompt so you don't find yourself up a creek once the mission begins.
In addition to main character classes you also have 12 specialists that are unlocked as you complete various secondary mission objectives. These are more than just bonus characters. They have higher stats and much better weapons than the standard men at your command. It is definitely worth the time and effort to complete those objectives and unlock these guys.
The enemy will at times will seem to be under human control. While the enemy soldiers will always start out in the same map location each time you play, the way they respond to you is almost always different. Once they have been alerted to your presence they will move around, join up with reinforcements, and try to outflank you. It really keeps you on your toes. I did notice that the enemy AI seemed to have some problems detecting my team’s presence until I was right on top of them. You might be engaged in combat with some soldiers and other enemy units will be in sight but oblivious to any noise you are making.
There are also a few minor issues with controlling your team. While the collision detection has been greatly improved over the previous Rainbow Six games there are some pathfinding problems when moving up stairs that could cause some team members to get left behind. Additionally, if you are moving around outside and drop and crawl the rest of the team will drop but stop following you until you command them further.
The command interface is quite functional and your team responds to group commands or individually. The left trigger brings up the informative map interface where you can position your soldiers. You can zoom in and pan around the map to see your team location and important objective and waypoint info. The PC version of Ghost Recon was fairly keyboard intensive so I was pleased to see the designers did their homework and created a functional command system using the Xbox controller.
Much of Ghost Recon is about ordering your men around and this is now easier on the Xbox than it ever was on the PC. Your orders are broken down into combat and movement with three sub-commands per type. You can jump to any character in the team and assume control using the orders screen or simply cycling through all the available soldiers. Once you take control of a man the game plays much like any other FPS title, but with a slightly more realistic feel.
Overall movement is much slower than traditional FPS games and you have some stealth capabilities like crouching and going prone. These positions increase your aiming accuracy and also make you a much smaller target. You will probably spend much of the game at least in the crouched position.
Further examples of realism carry over to the combat where a single shot can bring a man down. Everything you do takes time, so when you are changing weapons or reloading a timer pops up indicating the time it takes to do these actions. You will learn very quickly to keep your weapons fully loaded and have the right weapon in your hand whenever possible.
Those of you frustrated with the die-repeat gameplay of the earlier games will be glad to know that you can save your game in mid-mission. While this does take some of the intensity out of the game and potentially lessens the game length it also eliminates the “frustration factor”, plus nobody is forcing you to use it.
Each of the missions has unique and varied objectives, and they almost always include blowing stuff up and killing people. There are some nice recon missions and escort missions and even the occasional “defend your base” mission. One thing I did notice with the mission design is that the mission is over when you have defeated all enemy soldiers. This leads to some strategic mission planning because there are several bonus objectives that you may want to complete, but these will be unavailable if you kill everyone and end the mission prematurely.
My only complaint with the mission design is the scripted locations of all the enemies. It doesn't take long to memorize where everyone is hiding and through trial and error you can walk through many of these levels with a sniper rifle and a few frag grenades. I almost always played as the sniper and let the rest of my team pick-up the pieces of my devastating accuracy. I did have to keep tight control over my men or they would take off on their own AI paths and sometimes get in my way or trigger enemy encounters before I was in position.
While the PC version of Ghost Recon had some stunning outdoor environments for a 2001 game, those same graphics are now a bit dated and even a bit lower in quality on the Xbox. The draw distance is minimal creating annoying pop-out, despite the heavy use of annoying fog that I haven't seen in such quantities since Turok on the N64. Even more annoying is that enemies that you can barely see have uncanny accuracy when targeting you. In a weak attempt to make up for these deficiencies your targeting reticule now doubles as an incoming fire directional finder.
I simply cannot understand why the powerful Xbox is deliver such an average graphical experience for a game that is over a year old. The designers put all of their effort into the excellent character models and animation for this version leaving Xbox owners with some of the worst looking terrain and outdoor environments seen on the system. Colors are weak, textures are blurry and architecture is created from minimal polygons all combining for a very average visual experience. With such simplistic graphics one has to wonder even more about the online lag and the pop-up while playing.
The menu system is also a bit clunky with several features and options hidden several levels deep. You will find yourself digging through these menus to find everything you need to tweak, both for solo and online play.
The music in Ghost Recon is limited to the non-gameplay portions; mainly the opening and during mission briefings. Once the mission starts you are left with realistic silence and some incredible ambient sound effects that heighten the sense of tension. With only the sound of wind and the rustle of grass or the occasional trickling stream, when a gun fires or a twig snaps you will definitely sit up and take notice.
While there is a decent surround mix it isn't a true 5.1 experience, but it does a great job of creating environmental enhancing effects such as echos, and the spatial mix is very useful for locating enemy positions by the sounds they make. The voice acting is standard stuff, better than most games but nothing that is going to win any awards.
The 15 single player missions will take you anywhere from 15-20 hours to finish depending on how good a soldier (and leader) you are and how often you save your game. The Dossier is one feature that will keep you playing long past the campaign. This feature ranks you based on the completion of 50 tasks. These tasks are rather difficult but reward you with new game modes, weapons, and even some new maps. By the time you have finished all the solo wet work you will be ready to take your skills to the next level...online.
Like all previous Red Storm games, Ghost Recon shows its true value in its online play. Not only can you play the solo-campaign as a cooperative effort, there are plenty of multiplayer modes for you to choose from. You have two-player split-screen modes or you can link up multiple Xbox's for up to 16 players, but the best is to take the Ghost Recon experience online using Xbox Live. With the voice chat feature of the Xbox Live, playing Ghost Recon online now rival the PC experience, perhaps even surpassing it. I was moderately annoying that the voice chat wasn't truly "live" - you have to hold down the white button to talk creating one extra step for trash talking and team strategy.
Naturally, you have the deathmatch, king of the hill, domination, and last man standing variations with a bunch of options that can be set by the host. It’s easy to setup your own host and invite people to join using the excellent matchmaking features of the Xbox Live. While the clan system hasn't reached the cult status of the PC version it is only a matter of time.
Ghost Recon was my first online experience using the Xbox Live service and while there was some noticeable lag when playing with more than 8 players, anything less was as smooth as playing solo. When the lag does appear it is pretty bad ranging from stuttering movements to vanishing and warping players. Since broadband is more than capable of supporting 16 players I can only assume the problem lies in the network code of the game itself. Fortunately, you will probably never play in games that exceed 4-on-4 teams so it won't be "that much" of a problem.
Ghost Recon made the trip to the Xbox with relative success. There are some problems with the online play that can be avoided by keeping your games restricted to eight Ghosts or less, but for the most part you can have just about as much fun as PC gamers have been having for over a year. While the voice chat is a nice feature not readily available on the PC, given the choice, I still think the PC version offers the better experience. The graphics on the PC are definitely better and even though the designers created a functional control scheme using the gamepad, nothing beats a keyboard and mouse combo.
If the Xbox is your gaming system of choice and you are just itching to put that new Xbox Live service to the test then Ghost Recon may be the game for you. Just keep in mind that this is a much slower and realistic experience than your traditional FPS title.