Gaming for Grown Ups
20th April 2012 09:13:00
Posted by Edd Harwood

Ghost Recon: Future Soldier - Preview

Where can we start with a game as ambitious as Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, the successor to the popular tactical stealth shooter series? There is so much to talk about, so much to discover, that piles of words seem rather limited. Game modes, tactics, weapons, equipment, authenticity, social aspects, gunsmithing, kinect and move functionality, team control, let alone what the world is about to discover in the beta. So let us trim back to the basics and build up from there.

GR:FS is a third-person shooter with emphasis on stealth, tactics and working as a team. Everything about the game is built up from that statement. Take for example the game modes. There are three separate and distinct areas within the game, Campaign (single player and co-op), Guerrilla (a horde style cooperative battle) and Multiplayer (with 4 game modes, all emphasising team play) a format that that has become the standard for modern warfare games, yet never before permeated with such a sense of cooperation.
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Let’s talk Campaign. In single player you will be backed up by a crack team of three other AI controlled troops. The developers have drastically altered how the interaction between the team occurs. Instead of the usual point to a spot and issue the move order, Red Storm have elevated you to a more dynamic position. For example you mark out an enemy, and then issue the kill command for one of your team to execute, while you flank around and pick off distracted foes. The essence, says Creative director Jean-Marc Geoffrey, is to instil a sense of reality into the proceedings. “Out in the field, a team leader would not tell a member of his team, supposedly the best soldiers in the world, to simply ‘move to point A”’. Another point that he was keen to emphasise was that your team would never break cover without your command, ensuring there will be no frustrating occasions when your AI team ruin your carefully planned stealth movement. How all this will work in practise is yet to be seen, but in principle it could be very interesting.

The cooperative campaign is where, arguably, the real excitement lies. With over twelve hours of intense team camaraderie to battle through there is no shortage of action. Getting some hands on time with 3 other players, I felt personally that this was one of the most demanding team based experiences I have encountered since Left for Dead or perhaps even Counterstrike. Each player was completely involved: crawling through the undergrowth, their camouflage active, peering out of cover ensuring they are not spotted and avoiding being publicly shamed by on-screen text betraying their failure. While chit-chat over headset greatly improves the experience, the game also has a huge variety of HUD tips that improve cooperation. Players can mark individual foes for the entire team to see as they light up in various colours according to their visibility. Place your crosshair over a marked enemy and the rest of the team will see a line from your gun targeting them ensuring that two players are not picking off the same enemy, it even goes as far as to alert you when all players have lined up a target ready for simultaneous kills. The aim of course is to remain a ghost. Unseen by any as you advance like a vicious wave of silent death across the battlefield. This requires meticulous planning, skill and teamwork
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Sometimes not everything goes to plan. When all hell breaks loose, and bullets ring out all around you, the tactical cooperative elements take a back seat position as players attempt to stay alive. Staying alive is vitally important too as death for a single team member ends the mission, forcing you to reload the last autosave. It is still possible for the rest of the team to revive a downed member but the time to do so is severely limited: bleed out in the field and risk the wrath of your teammates as you have to restart. How well this will translate to the world of online unknowns is a big gamble, however with a group of friends at your virtual side the feeling is truly exhilarating. Perhaps the biggest let down was being told that split-screen would only be available during the guerrilla mode of the game, so all cooperative exploits will be online only.

During the cooperative campaign we had access to some spectacular equipment: drones that can hover around the battlefield, spotting enemies and then tearing them apart with on board guns; x-ray vision that can see through walls and spot enemies and of course the infamous active camouflage that gives the soldiers near invisibility while in stealth mode. There is a sense that you are so advanced that it becomes almost overpowering, and this proved true as we at one point shrugged the tactical elements aside and charged headfirst into battle. Enemies could easily be picked off using the infra-red and x-ray vision, cutting them down as they hid behind walls, thinking they were safe. The leader could launch his drone and insure that not a single enemy flanked around. This is not say that the action was not still immense and exhilarating, it is just a shame to ignore the tactical elements that the game strives so hard to implement. Admittedly, this mission was played on a medium difficulty, and we can hope that harder difficulties will require expert planning, tactics and skills.

It could be argued that some of the technology within the game is beyond the realm of possibility, however Tommy Jacob, creative director of the game's multiplayer mode, was keen to point out that the equipment was not based in some realm of science-fiction, but actually a fairly accurate and authentic attempt at recreating warfare in the not so distant future. ‘This technology exists; perhaps not in the forms we have implemented in the game, but someday soon this will be reality. The active camouflage, for example, has been trialled in labs on vehicles. The only problem we have at present is powering the device with a battery that is small, light and resilient enough to be used in the field.’ And it seems that the folks at Red Storm know what they are talking about too. Based in North Carolina, they are near many military bases, and they remain constantly in consultation with advisors, ensuring everything they add into the game is authentic and feels accurate. Even the sounds of the guns (excepting a couple, which they admit they could not get their hands on) were all recorded from a boggling amount of distances and angles to get the correct sounds. Jacob laughingly pointed out that they are nearly all gun nuts at the company – ‘the lead gun modeller for example owns several rifles and even has one he smithed himself…’
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Multiplayer is, for some, the be all and end all of a game and the success of Ghost Recon: Future Soldier may well depend on how exciting this experience is. On release there will be four game modes, set across ten maps. In the mode we experienced we had to take and then hold randomised key positions against the opposition force. The scoring is weighted heavily towards the objectives, with kills counting for little. Each player can take the form of one of the three classes: Riflemen, whom hold the powerful weapons and provide cover fire, Scouts, with their small degree of camouflage (it can only active while stationary) and long range sniping weapons and Engineers with their equipment that can provide valuable intelligence for the entire team. Having an even distribution of each class and intricate planning in the team is the key to winning. A lone soldier will be spotted and instantly cut down, however acting together the team is a powerful unit. Take one, and possibly the only, example in a game I was involved in. The enemy was holding one of the key positions and so far our team had failed to make any ground individually. Rallying the team, we devised a plan. First an engineer launched a sensor grenade into the area, lighting up all the enemies in the proximity like bright neon lights. With their positions known, a rifleman then proceeded to fire volley after volley of bullets in their direction, ensuring they had nowhere to run. Finally a scout moved around to get in range and picked off each foe individually, sometimes firing through the cover to hit them. The plan worked and won us the match.

This was, at least for us, a rare example of clever teamwork and brilliantly showcased the possibilities available in Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. Whether this will translate well into the online world is yet to be seen, but undoubtedly the best team will be the one with the best coordination rather than a group of solo heroes. As with all multiplayer games there are of course a huge amount of balance issues that need to be addressed. The sensor grenade for example seemed almost too useful, and the machine gun turrets that the engineer could lay were perhaps too effective at holding areas. This is of course something the team are aware of and the main reason for launching the beta, which owners of Splinter Cell Conviction can download now. Tweaking will occur throughout the beta and even in to release as they continue to monitor the dizzyingly piles of stats that build up.
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If you have not already managed to get a hold of the beta, it contains two maps, catering for both extremes of the game. Pipeline will be the smallest map in the final release, and the second map based across an entire village will be the largest. Two modes will also be available, both objective based. Amazingly, there will be no restricted level cap in the beta, so players can experience all fifty levels and unlock every available weapon and piece of equipment. Unfortunately, for those hoping to get a head start, this experience will not be carried through into the full game.

Moving on to guerrilla mode, which has a far more arcade feel to it, and seems like a slight respite from the intensity of the campaign and multiplayer gaming. Enemies rush around with much less regard for their health, easily picked off by the diligent rifleman, and there is far less suffering after dying since each round can be restarted at the highest achieved wave. The aim of this game is to hold a point on the map, ensuring that no enemies stay within the boundaries for longer than a few seconds. To begin with this is trivial as enemies march towards you, however as the waves progress, eventually a single man will fail as the numbers simply overwhelm them. Again there is emphasis on working as a team and holding separate points, stopping enemies sneaking in from behind. Jean-Marc Geoffrey mentioned that even the most hard-core of testers only managed to conquer wave twenty solo. With the promise of split-screen on this mode, hopefully it will end up being an entertaining party game similar to the survival modes in Call of Duty.

One final word on the gunsmithing section of the game, which turns out to be so colossal it is almost beyond comprehension. According to the developers there will be over ten million different combinations and set-ups available within the game. It is truly mind boggling how long a single person could spend twiddling their setup, adjusting each part of the gun - from the nozzle, to the clip, to the sight, to the rest. Each piece slightly adjusts the statistics, so every player can have their guns set up exactly how they wish. This is also where the Kinect and Move functionality fits in, as players can orchestrate their setup using their movement, spinning around the radial menus and grabbing the desired equipment. It seems a bit of a last minute gimmick, and not something I see being used particularly frequently, but at least the feature is there and adds a sense of novelty to the otherwise infinitely time consuming enterprise. Eager players can even download an IOS app and edit their builds on the move.
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Ghost Recon: Future Soldier left me rather in awe at what is trying to be achieved. It is a game that has the potential to fill a void in the military genre, by adding a very much needed cooperative depth. Lone gunman will still rack up impossible killing sprees, but if the team does not work together, potentially it will mean nothing in the overall scheme of the game. The cooperative campaign seems like it will be so immensely fun, assuming you can gather enough eager friends, that it could be the highlight of the year, for the AAA market at least. So what are you waiting for? Go play the beta. Or if that does not suit you, you can pick up Ghost Recon: Future Soldier on the 24th of May.