In many ways, Tom Clancy’s series of stealth based shooters Ghost Recon has always been a bit like the cooler, more sophisticated older cousin of FPS giants such as the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises. Don’t get me wrong – Modern Warfare et al are great fun and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve spent hundreds of happy hours in their multiplayer lobbies, but the Ghost Recon games arguably offer a lot more depth. While MW2/BF3 could hardly be called basic, it is undeniable that they both make allowances for lone-wolf run ‘n’ gun style play or, worse, camping and sniping. Some may argue that these are legitimate forms of gameplay (and they could be right), but it can lead to some frustrating matches – particularly in team games. Ghost Recon, on the other hand, has always prided itself on encouraging (nee, demanding) a stealthier approach, with an emphasis on employing team tactics both in single and multiplayer modes.
Future Soldier is the latest instalment in the series, putting players in charge of a team of Ghost operatives with suitably badass handles – Pepper, 30k, Ghost Lead and Kozak. Set in the imminent future, the story revolves around the squad on the trail of some high-end weapon traffickers. Of course this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg with a deep twisting plot evolving, taking the military unit to Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Norway and beyond.
Gameplay is in the third person for the largest part, with the view switching to first person when aiming down weapon sights – a transition which feels surprisingly smooth and natural. While the game is at its heart a top class cover-based shooter, it is clear that it has taken a few leaves from the books of the aforementioned FPS behemoths in terms of both bombastic (and often gratuitous) set pieces and gameplay devices such as regenerating health. This can feel like a bit of a cop-out at times and no doubt long-term fans of the series will bemoan the fact that full squad control has now been relinquished from the player, AI now giving the player’s teammates minds of their own. Luckily a few flourishes remain, such as being able to ‘mark’ up to four enemies, one for each team member to take down – an action which is as satisfying as it is brutal. Furthermore, the entire campaign can be played through in co-op. Not only does this offer the fun of playing with friends but it also shifts the game dynamic somewhat – communication and tactics are paramount, and there is a tangible frisson of not being as certain of a teammate reviving you when downed. Enjoying the story with a few pals really lets the strategic elements of the game shine through and it is in co-op that Future Soldier feels most in touch with its roots.
A leitmotif of the GR series is the vast array of gadgets available to assist the squad in their various covert missions and this offering is no exception. Thanks largely to the futuristic setting, there is a smorgasbord of state of the art toys to tinker with, including a selection of remote control drones and optical sensors - while these may come in many forms, most have a common goal: to help the team spot enemy locations. Drones can fly above occupied spaces or drive along the ground while sensors can be tossed in the direction of baddies, offering the now de rigeur ability to spot enemies behind cover a la Detective Mode in Arkham Asylum/City. Once spotted, enemies can be tagged for each squad member to take out when a line of fire becomes clear.
Many other wonderful toys are available, most notably a cloak which renders the player almost invisible as long as he remains crouching and doesn’t make too much noise – a fact which is neatly explained in-story as the technology is still in testing and hasn’t been perfected yet. Mastery over these gadgets is of utmost importance as gameplay relies extremely heavily on them but thankfully their use feels slick and natural as opposed to awkward and forced.
Gameplay and graphics are equally polished with all other aspects of the game following suit. A neat feature of the game is Gunsmith mode, which allows highly specific weapon customisation. Each gun can be fully broken down on screen and when combined with Kinect, the player can do their best J.A.R.V.I.S. from Iron Man impression, swiping through the air to mix and match various attachments to their ordnance. This system transfers across to multiplayer as well, with a staggering number of attachments unlocking at various junctures. Indeed, Ubisoft boast that an unfathomable two million combinations are available to the player. While this is a welcome extra, most players will likely find a handful of combinations and stick to them, the larger array of combinations appealing more to completionists and achievement hunters.
There are a host of competitive multiplayer options available taking place across ten maps with three character classes to level up – engineer, scout and rifleman. The main multiplayer event is Conflict mode which offers a revolving roster of objectives to each team. Emphasis is placed on completing objectives rather than racking up kills which further drills home the message that, in order to succeed, you will need to play as a team. Decoy is a spin on Conflict, with the twist being that only one of the objectives is legitimate with the other two being, well, decoys. With neither team knowing which objective is real the balance of power is continually fluctuating, leading to some intense matches.
Elsewhere, Siege ramps up the difficulty to oldschool levels – no respawns – while Guerilla is a take on Gears of War’s Horde mode, the ghost squad holding onto a position for as long as possible before being overcome by endless swathes of enemies. For those who prefer their squad members on the sofa beside them, it is worth noting that this is the only mode which allows for local multiplayer.
Although the imagination and variety put into the online modes should be praised (nary a ‘deathmatch’ or ‘team deathmatch’ in sight), the game lobbies (which operate under the branded U-Play system) could do with a little tweaking. Hopefully the occasional issues with stability and balancing will be smoothed out in future updates.
While it is a shame that one of the last big stalwarts of the tactical squad shooter genre appears to have jettisoned many of its hallmarks in favour of fitting in with the crowd, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is still an excellent game, showcasing a strategic heart with lashings of style. It might be a little diluted in places, but it is still a unique gaming experience that offers something different from the FPS norm with plenty of bang for your buck. An essential purchase for those who like their military exploits served with a dollop of stealth and an emphasis on tactical play.