Sure there are fans of these games, most of them dating back to the original title on PC, or the famous Rainbow Six series from whence Ghost Recon came, or even transfers from Tom Clancy's actual books, you know...on paper. Call us old fashioned but we certainly fall into the latter category, though the term "fan" doesn't apply when it comes to the games.
Or hasn't, at least, until now.
Ghost Recon has always prided itself on realistic combat and tactics, but has neglected mildly important factors such as, for example, fun. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is fun, finally.
There is nothing groundbreaking here, no barriers are knocked down, other than the ones within the series' own history. But for a quick jaunt around the world as a dangerous, precise warrior of the near-future, the latest and best Ghost Recon is satisfactory.
Sometime in the not too distant future, the fanciest soldiers will arrive to the battlefield wearing a personal cloaking device, a heads-up display with X-ray vision in their sunglasses, guns with floating rings of light around them, and a slew of next generation gadgets for spying on enemies. Most of these will be necessary to make your way through the 12 hour single-player campaign, which offers plenty of variety and opportunities for badassery.
If there's one thing wrong with the campaign mode, it's repetition. Most missions play out within the confines of a similar pattern, which we suppose makes sense, given the nature of the game. Step one is almost always based on stealth, and this is really where the game is at its finest.
Your "active camo" almost completely obscures you from enemy view, just as long as you remain crouched and don't fire your weapon. Enemy A.I. is very generous here, so it's possible to perform some very glamorous infiltrations without getting caught. Since you're not allow to run or shoot, the game mechanics essentially force you into one of two sets of suspensful behavior: masterfully sneak in without killing any guards, or commit to an entirely awesome coordinated shot....
Pressing the right shoulder button allows the player to "tag" up to four enemies. If you're playing alone, your three A.I. teammates will each take aim at one of the doomed guards while you line up the fourth. As you pick off your guy, or sneak up behind him, or even just give the order; all members of you team will take care of their targets, and the room will be cleared of hostiles in the coolest way. It's an incredibly satisfying technique and you will quickly come to love it, even if this does become a bit redundant after 12 missions.
If you need additional help completing the "recon" portion of Ghost Recon, a few handy gadgets will be available. The most useful of these is a portable flying drone, which can be used to spy on enemy soldiers and reveal their position. These are rather handy in the air, and it's even possible to configure coordinated shots using the drone interface. Once the drone lands however, controls are terrible and you'll want to take back off immediately.
Once the jig is up, and your covert operation "goes loud," you'll find yourself playing a pretty confident, but plain, cover-based shooter. Aside from the regenerating "Halo health," damage is on the realistic side, so you'll really need to stick to cover for any hope of survival. To that end, cover swapping is accomplished with a different technique than what we're used to. Simply sprinting around won't get the job done. Instead, point your aim at the place you'd like to be, then hold the sprint button to "roadie run" all the way there. It's a little clunky, but we got used to this change about halfway through the campaign. The only real problem is grenades, which explode long before you'll be able to find new cover, and were responsible for many frustrating deaths.
Of course you wouldn't be a very observant gamer without noticing the dramatic impact that titles like Call of Duty and Battlefield 3 have had on Future Soldier. Levels no long have that sterile, simulation feel that made every other Ghost Recon so boring. The battlefield is more chaotic, more complicated, and more fun than ever before. Some cover is destructible, and the player can be "suppressed" by machine gun fire, causing the camera shake and reduce field of view, making it more difficult to return fire. Then again, the action never becomes so over-the-top that it's confusing and obnoxious, like Modern Warfare 2 and 3. Ubisoft strikes a good balance that keeps the entire campaign worth playing.
When you're ready to "extract," which is a fancy word for "run away," then it may be time for an on-rails shooting segment. These can take place on foot, in the form of a made-up-for-this-game "diamond formation," or in the air shooting from a helicopter, or sometimes in a slow motion "breach" sequence a-la Call of Duty. They're fun, and break up the action once sneaking and shooting get a little stale. Plus, these segments perform the narrative function of making you feel like an awesome military marksman, and that's always good.
Once you're finished, it's time to suit up for the next mission, and that involves one of Ghost Recon's definitive pastimes: customizing your gear. After each briefing, you may optionally open up a really cool interface that gives an exploded view of each gun, and gives you the ability to drill down to each part of the weapon and interchange them based on the mission, right down to the paint on the barrel. This is a very rewarding activity, and will allow you to drastically adapt your weaponry to your play style. Best of all, with the push of a button you may pop in and out of a live shooting range directly from this screen, no loads required, making it simple to test out your customizations and see how they feel before the mission begins.
Aiming controls are unacceptably sluggish at default settings, and most users will need to up the sensitivity right away. Once that's done, you'll find there's still some unwanted "stick" or acceleration in the center, however this can be alleviated by choosing a weapon with better "control" statistics. Otherwise, the most complicated controls are associated with your gadgets, and since most of these are best suited to stealth gameplay, the slower pace of those sections will give you plenty of time to fiddle around at your own speed.
A bigger fan of military shooters might enjoy playing through the campaign twice or more, but for us this was a single-use game. That being said, there are plenty of incentives to perfect the craft of a "ghost." Unlockable weapons and weapon parts are compelling, however the interface makes it difficult to remember which accomplishments are associated with which rewards. The game also issues a few challenges at the beginning of each mission, such as "Kill two enemies with one bullet" or "snipe 15 enemies without reloading," and each of these lead to unlockables as well.
A DLC pack called "Arctic Strike" has already been released, which included four multiplayer maps, a new multiplayer mode, 6 new weapons, more achievements or trophies, and added 10 levels to the experience cap. Not bad for $10 actually.
Pacing isn't bad we suppose, we were never bored that's for sure. However just about every mission follows the same predictable pattern: kill some guys with stealth, kill some guys without stealth, get to the extraction point.
However this isn't even close to the game's biggest problem with pacing. Halfway through the campaign we encountered a devastating glitch that only got worse with time. After screwing up an objective or restarting a checkpoint, the game would occasionally (up to 50% of the time) fail to load, and simply hang on an unresponsive black screen. This meant that on every player death, there was a good chance we'd be taking a round-trip back out to the Xbox dashboard, back into the game, back through the menus, past multiple load screens, and then finally back to our checkpoint. Unacceptable. In fact, if we weren't playing this game for review, there's little chance we would've bothered to finish the campaign at all under these conditions.
We wouldn't call your teammate A.I. "smart," however they're hard-coded immune to detection during stealth segments. This means they'll never ruin your perfect run, but may at least look unrealistic as they saunter past guards without detection. We'd trade immersion for the absence of frustration any day. In battle they're very effective, and able to heal both you and each other during a fight.
Enemy A.I. isn't very bright either. They've got decent aim, but don't cheat. They'll use cover effectively as well, but flanking has more to do with scripting than dynamic activity. Some enemies will act oddly unresponsive for a second or two, before their code seems to "kick in," but these occasions are rare.
It's a good thing we loved the gameplay because Future Soldier's storytelling is poor. Evenly divided between blatant Call of Duty ripoffs and weightless, prattling exposition, the plot of this game can be ignored without regret.
From what we can gather, the overarching plot is about revenge. A team just like yours is taken out, and your job is find those responsible, and kill them. The guilty party turns out to be some sort of terrorist organization called Raven's Rock. So, because we're told it's important, we spend the rest of the game hunting them down.
Beyond these broad strokes, we haven't the faintest idea what our motivations were for sniping in Africa, or assaulting bases in a frozen tundra, or sneaking into maximum security prisons, or creeping around Moscow, or anything else. We spent every single briefing confused and uninterested, simply waiting for the next piece of cool gameplay to begin.
Voice acting is fairly decent (if a little "on the nose") but characters have absolutely no depth. It's impossible to tell one team member from the others, in fact we're still not sure which one we were even playing as. Each member of the team is a stock grunt dude with only the dimmest glimmer of personality appearing near the very end of the game.
A few pre-rendered cinematics garnish the campaign from time to time, covering important subjects like walking and talking on a plane, or walking and talking on a carrier, or walking and talking in a barracks. None add anything important to the story or especially the characters.
The other, much more common form of cinematics are hyper-stylized satellite imagery sequences with a voice over, a technique that seems to have been pilfered directly from Call of Duty. Despite their new home, these sequences are even more confusing and non-compelling as they were in other games.
Gone are the blocky, plain environments found in G.R.A.W. and G.R.A.W. 2. Sound and visuals conspire to provide the illusion of rich, realistic, and remarkably varied battlefields.
Since the theme of the game is pretty realistic, there's little room for imaginative art design. However a few techniques with lighting and such are very effective in making certain environments seem remote, foreboding, hot, chaotic, populated, etc. We were "convinced" by nearly every mission location, and this really helped create the feeling of being an embedded soldier in the field.
Less impressive were the "future" aspects of the design which, from what we can tell, basically amount to rings of light surrounding every gun. We weren't sold on the whole futuristic theme, and would've preferred a bit less subtlety to hammer home this concept.
Great technical strides have been made since the last two series entries of this console generation. From the detailed armor up close, all the way out to vast draw distance, what we're seeing here is a top to bottom overhaul of the graphics engine. We're very impressed.
Some minor problems still exist. Textures aren't always clean, and sacrifices have been made to vegetation like grass and trees. Character models that aren't outfitted for battle (i.e. have their faces showing) look terrible, however, since we've already established that the storyline is rather pointless, these scenes can be ignored anyway.
The soundtrack is frankly too good for this game. Electronica and dubstep are mixed with some string accompaniment for a futuristic yet epic sound throughout. Many tracks are worth a listen on their own, if only for the fact that ambient music remains either understated or gone completely from the campaign. That's our only complaint really, we wanted music to take the forefront a little bit more often.
Effects are much more important to the game's atmosphere than music, and they perform their job admirably. Each weapon sounds varied, realistic, and different based on customized parts installed. Ambient effects like weather are also very convincing, and we'd like to specifically praise the vast improvements to teammate chatter, which has evolved far beyond the robotic callouts of the previous games, and now sound far more natural and situationally aware.
Future Soldier's multiplayer suite is competent, fun even, but you won't find anything here that hasn't been done better already. We realize the following statement may be heresy to some, but we spent very little time with multiplayer given that the market is already saturated with nearly identical products.
The game's recipe for competitive multiplayer is part Call of Duty, part Killzone for cycling objectives, and a dash of Gears of War. Any CoD player will be able to hop into a match without effort, although a few subtle changes liven up the experience. Cover is much more important in this game, since character movement is so much more mechanical. Weapon customization is available but without quite so much detail, and it's unsurprisingly linked to an experience system. The suppression mechanic is also transferred to multiplayer, though we're not sure if this is good design or bad. Our online experiences with suppression mostly involved getting screwed over by it, but our lack of skill is probably to blame.
Even though the single player campaign is fun by yourself, every single mission (save maybe for one of them) has been designed with four player co-op in mind. Sadly the engine is not capable of split-screen, so you'll need four friends with four consoles and four copies of the game to take complete advantage of this functionality. Too bad, we would've loved to coordinate timed shots from the comfort of a single couch.
In addition to traditional competitive and co-op modes, a wave-based mode called "Guerrilla" is also included, since all shooters are now apparently required to have one of these. We were bored after four waves.
Matchmaking actually seems much faster than competing titles, we never waited longer than 15 seconds to find an available game.
You'll need access to Ubisoft's ridiculous Uplay "service" in order to play Future Soldier, and the only reason this restriction isn't as bad as EA's Origin is that we actually get a dedicated screen for it in-game. Still, can't we just get rid of all these silly things?
It would be just about impossible for any gamer worth their salt not to notice the strong, pervasive influences that new shooters like Call of Duty exert on Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. And while we're tempted to complain about some of the more direct copying and pasting, the fact is this series needed some help.
Ghost Recon's attitude toward realism and tactics has always been commendable and full of potential. But in our opinions that potential has been wasted until now. Assuming Ubisoft is able to patch in a fix for the game-breaking bug we encountered, this title is the first in the series we are able to recommend.
Playing a near-future super soldier is incredibly satisfying, and that feeling of being a heavily-trained badass transfers very clearly from game to gamer. The act of sneaking invisibly into a warzone, completing your mission, and then disappearing, is what being a "ghost" is all about.
For those reasons, the campaign is actually more compelling than any Call of Duty set in the modern era. We wouldn't quite call this a "thinking man's shooter," but there's far more depth here than CoD's brainless, Michael Bay-esque explosion hallways. This is particularly true in the excellent sneaking sequences, which are some of the most fun we've had with such a mechanic in awhile.
Our recommendation is to buy this game, but to wait a bit. Give Ubisoft some time to squash bugs, and also wait for that price to come down. After that, you should be satisfied with this solid, fun military shooter.
Meet the tester
Chris was born and raised less than ten miles from our editorial office, and even graduated from nearby Merrimack College. He came to Reviewed after covering the telecom industry, and has been moonlighting as a Boston area dining critic since 2008.
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