Reviewed: August 25, 2003
Released: August 5, 2003
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.
Originally released as an expansion pack on the PC, Ghost Recon: Island Thunder has been retooled into a stunning standalone release on the Xbox system. While playing last year’s award-winning Xbox version of Ghost Recon is certainly not a prerequisite, those who have experienced Red Storm’s unique vision of tactical first-person shooters will certainly have an easier time grasping the slower and stealthier nature of the series.
Island Thunder takes the elite square of soldiers known as “ghosts” and puts them in an intriguing political “what-if” situation: What if, six years from now, Fidel Castro were to die leaving Cuba in political turmoil? What if the tiny Island country had the opportunity to become a true democracy? It’s up to the Ghosts, with you as their leader, to perform a series of surgical strikes to make sure that happens. The premise is engaging, and I like the fact that, true to Clancy, it involves a real country, not some mythical soviet satellite like Kafarkistan.
For those of you who did play last year's Ghost Recon, Island Thunder is simply more of the same; no real innovations or surprises, aside from a few new toys, new locations, and some exclusive downloadable content via Xbox Live. But by no means is the expansion stale. In fact, if you loved Ghost Recon you’ll love Island Thunder. It’s just more of a good thing.
Since Island Thunder doesn’t require you to own or even have played the original game Red Storm was nice enough to include the tutorial from the original game. This is a great help for newly inducted draftees but veterans can skip the boot camp and catch the next transport to Cuba.
The basic premise of Island Thunder (or the entire Ghost Recon series for that matter) is simple by design and quite complex in execution. The series has always stressed ultimate realism and Island Thunder is no different. While PC gamers might be used to this level of difficulty it could be quite a shock to the twitch gaming consoles are known for.
You are in command of two small three-man, fire teams who are outfitted with realistic weaponry, and must achieve specified military objectives in order to complete each mission. You personally control the lead soldier of a specified fire team, and can switch between teams at will. You order them around the world by selecting waypoints on the map and issuing various orders that control their AI once they arrive there. You can micromanage their every move down to the direction you want them to face when they get to their destination.
Careful planning is crucial due to the serious level of realism. “One shot kills” has always been Red Storms mantra, and it certainly applies here. Your soldiers don’t take a hundred points of damage, and when they die they are dead – no magical spawn locations or warp gates. A well-placed shot by an enemy soldier will kill one of your men, just as it would in a real combat situation. As a true leader, you must command your men wisely both before and during a mission in order to keep them alive- for the sake of your mission, and for the sake of your men.
Keeping your men alive is not that easy to do, as your enemies are very good shots – sometimes a bit too good bordering on unrealistic. Apparently everyone in Cuba is trained as an elite sniper, even when using a machine gun. Island Thunder requires both intellect and patience, and has a bit of a learning curve as well. Sloppy gameplay will not work here, and even seasoned gamers may expect to have to replay some missions. But for those with patience, Island Thunder provides some very rewarding gameplay.
Island Thunder is all about the multiplayer. I’m guessing a lot of people might not even tackle the solo missions, but instead dive right into the intense multiplayer experience that Red Storm is famous for generating in all of its games. Island Thunder is packed full of online extras and multiplayer content and even makes use of Live Aware. This feature lets everyone know you are online, even when you are playing the solo modes, so you are always open to invitations for online games if you so choose.
Multiplayer gaming can get quite heated with support for up to 16 ghosts in a variety of coop, versus, and team modes using Xbox Live or a system link. The cooperative mode is very nice and allows you to team up with real players in the core missions of the solo campaign. Team games include Search and Rescue, Last Man Standing, Domination, Siege, and Hamburger Hill. One of the most fun modes is the Cat and Mouse where one person is the mouse and is limited to a single pistol. Only the mouse can score by killing the cats and whoever kills the mouse become the mouse.
Ghost Recon has never been known for great graphics and Island Thunder does little to help lift the series out of the merely “above-average” category, at least as far as the environments are concerned. Graphics are a step up from the original Xbox version of Ghost Recon, but are more about function than fancy glitz and effects. Ground textures are often drab and some even blur together in an earth-tone collage. Trees and bushes are very weak and are unmistakably 2D, almost like cardboard cutouts, and buildings are rather drab and simple.
The games excels at character design and animation with some great texture work that clearly identifies the good guys from the bad and the animation is fluid and appears to be mo-capped from real soldiers performing these action in real life. The lack of a visible weapon might turn off those who are used to a bobbing gun in the foreground.
The horizon line seems a bit shorter than I would expect from an outdoor game. In those areas where dense jungle isn’t obscuring your line of sight there is a perpetual mist that conceals the horizon and cause enemies to pop into view. It’s not a horrible pop-up to the point where you find yourself suddenly under attack. The pacing of the gameplay is such that you should be moving slow enough that it never becomes an issue.
Ghost Recon, as a series, has always excelled in the sound department, even though the music is traditionally 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. Island Thunder improves upon the original by adding a Dolby Digital mix that does a much better job of surrounding you in the environments and allowing you to locate targets by sound as well as sight. The voice acting is standard stuff, basically giving orders and receiving confirmation, better than most games but nothing that is going to win any awards.
Island Thunder is a bit shallow on the solo gameplay, but Ghost Recon has always been more about the multiplayer and online aspects than the lone wolf model. Even the most cautious and tactical gamers will finish the eight campaign missions in a few nights, but the online play will keep the game stuck in your Xbox for months to come. There are also five desert missions that you can download to expand your Ghost Recon universe.
Despite the fact you don’t need the original game, Island Thunder is still an expansion pack limited in campaign content. At $40 you had better plan to exploit the full functionality of the Live gameplay or you will probably feel cheated at the end of a rather short solo game.
Ghost Recon: Island Thunder isn’t your typical FPS. It is more much calculating and often more about team management than blazing gunfire. You setup and execute elaborate tactical assaults working as a leader of a team. If you don’t enjoy these management aspects then you will either want to pass on this title or rely strictly on the online elements where all of the players are humans rather than AI.
If you are a fan of the Ghost Recon series then you won’t want to miss this next installment in the series. Island Thunder doesn’t really do much to improve the series but merely expands upon it with plenty of multiplayer options and future online content.