Individuals and society as a whole can never know what the future will hold. Will there be a turn for the better, or one for the worse? Will we find enlightenment going forward or just destruction? There is something very attractive in speculating about the future. The development teams at Ubisoft Red Storm, Paris and Bucharest have tapped into this collective mentality, offering an insight into a possible future of warfare with the recent Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Future Soldier.
Striving to present an authentic near-future experience, it sticks quite close to typical video game convention in its design. At its core, this is a third-person shooter with squad elements, but it deviates from this well-worn path by offering the option of stealth at almost every turn as well as a nice range of gadgets to augment your skills. Surprisingly, each of these different aspects has been crafted with the same level of care making for a balanced gameplay experience that, as often as not, puts you firmly in control of the way that you progress through the game. It is a trait that is to be admired in this age of heavily directed, “cinematic” offerings. In spite of this, the game isn’t afraid to force you down certain paths, but it is absolutely better for doing so, birthing diversity in the process.
Most prevalent in the early stages, perhaps to set the rules for the game that it is to follow, you are often tasked with infiltrating enemy outposts without raising the alarm. This means moving while remaining hidden (made all the easier by the assistance of Optical Camouflage which renders you almost completely invisible when crouching or lying prone), and taking out enemies in a specific pattern. Alone, this would be impossible but the AI for your squad mates has clearly been designed for this task. All you have to do is mark out the enemies that need to be taken out, get one within your sights if need be, and call the order to fire. The response is instantaneous, and time will slow for a few seconds to allow for follow up shots if there are any others that need to be dispatched. It’s an incredibly useful mechanic, but the only real hint of micromanagement that, I feel, would have elevated the game to a higher standard.
The stealth is backed up by a number of gadgets that you can use to gather intelligence and fluster your enemies. Without doubt, the most useful of these is the drone. This is a small quad rotor device that you launch into the air and pilot around the immediate area to inform yourself of enemy positions and also to mark out targets in advance. It has the ability to transform into an invisible land-based drone capable of deploying a shock wave to temporarily disorient foes. Similar to the main capability is the Sensor Grenade, which you can throw and have relay information about enemy placements to you. These are also EMP Grenades, to disable vehicles and other electrical items, flash bangs and smoke grenades. Finally, you have different vision modes that can give you the jump on enemies in low visibility, or other such tricky situations.
More commonly in later stages, you find yourself in forced firefights, with enemies alerted to your presence long before you arrive on the stage. It is in these situations that the competence of the cover-based shooter mechanics shines. In many ways, it is no different from dozens of other such games out there as you move from point to point, eliminating adversaries while backed up by friendly units. As is typical, pop-and-shoot is the name of the game, but zooming in to the optics system alters the view to a first-person perspective, helping no end with precision shooting. One of the things that sets Future Soldier apart from the competition is the way that suppressive fire is handled when it is raining down upon you. Your field-of-view is intensely limited, as well as being affected by a drastic camera shake making it nary impossible to aim. It is in these situations that Focus Fire comes into its own, as you have the option to mark enemies for your squad mates to target. It actually works very well, making you feel as though the Ghosts are a cohesive unit.
Falling into this latter category of bombastic action is arguably the most memorable mission in the game. It sees you accompanied by a massive unmanned drone referred to as the “War Hound”, an apt descriptor. Armed with heavy weaponry, it makes short work of every obstacle placed in its way in absurdly overstated fashion. It’s difficult to come to terms with the inclusion of this drone, as it makes only this single appearance and is then forgotten, an idea seemingly at odds with much of the rest of the game, which sees you constantly revisiting things that you’ve already learnt. Of course, it can always be explained away by the fact that it is massively overpowered but it’s fun while it lasts.
Moving on, the balance of the two complementary elements of stealth and force is beautifully orchestrated in the predetermined segments. Personally, I felt as though, outside of these, the game devolved too often into a standard mindless shooter. It is difficult to criticise this as most gamers seem to prefer that type of hectic action and it is, inevitably, the goal of developers to have their product appeal to the widest audience possible.
Speaking of mindless, that adjective sums up the rubber band and duct tape story wonderfully. Kicking off in interesting fashion with the detonation of a bomb and the destruction of one Ghost squad, it turns into a globe-hopping adventure as the main playable squad (call-sign Hunter) seeks to uncover the ones supplying and buying the aforementioned weapon. Three continents, a memorable scene in London, a presidential overthrow in Russia and a ridiculous amount of collateral damage later, you’ll walk away without anything but the most perfunctory knowledge of the story that you just played through.
The matter is not helped any by the fact that you don’t even learn the real names of your squad members, making the ham-fisted attempts at creating an emotional attachment seem all the more pathetic. Character personalities fall into the typical archetypes that are used in most games like this, but don’t think for a second that the execution is to be commended in any way. I once thought that it could get no worse that Battlefield: Bad Company, but I’ve been proven wrong here. It’s military machismo at its absolute worst, creating an intellectual void. No themes are dealt with, no real substance is portrayed and it really is in stark contrast to the depth presented by the gameplay and other extraneous elements.
But I feel that I’ve harped on long enough about the story, or lack thereof as the case may be. One of the most interesting parts of game is the Gunsmith. You have the option to enter this before any mission and alter the set-up of your two weapon loadout. It begins simply by changing the weapon types and models but you quickly gain access to a plethora of add-ons and features that affect a number of attributes and can grant different abilities. Balancing your weapons for a situation that you have no idea about can be tricky, but that doesn’t detract from the simple joy of customising a weapon to your heart’s content, nor from the accessibility that somehow manages to rule this part of the game.
And Gunsmith really does act as one of the core features. You see, even though weapons and parts unlock simply by playing through the campaign, it is by achieving the numerous tactical and weapon challenges that you gain access to the best swag. Clearly, it is tied into a completionist mentality but it works as a much better incentive than simply resorting to Trophies or Achievements. The player genuinely feels as though what they’re doing is worthwhile, making for a refreshing change from many other titles out there that reward you with nothing for the most banal tasks. It keeps you playing by making you desire those better parts.
Future Soldier offers more replay value in the form of Guerrilla mode. Essentially, a Horde styled offering in which you must fend off waves of enemies. For those that enjoy this type of thing, it’s perfectly competent but others, like myself, will not be so enamoured with it. At least, not when playing alone. Sitting down with a friend to play this in split-screen co-op does add a real sense of fun. Of course, the campaign is also completely playable in co-op, but I didn’t find testing those waters nearly as enjoyable as I did Guerrilla. Even without this additional offering, the game can last in excess of ten hours making it a rather meaty experience.
When it comes to the technical aspects of the game, it runs on an updated version of the YETI Engine first used in the Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter games. In terms of the physics, lighting and particle effects, it really is quite stunning. Environmental effects, such as debris, snow and sand that float through the air, are less impressive. The general level of detail throughout the game is quite high, managing to convincingly recreate the areas that are intended to be portrayed, from the plains of Africa to the high-rises of Moscow. It falls apart somewhat when getting up close and personal with the texture work as it often appears pixelated and low-resolution. Further to this last point, when stopping to examine your surroundings you’ll usually find a lack of sharpness to the image that makes its sub-HD rendering apparent. Even with this graphical restriction, the game does fall prey to frame rate drops and the rare occasion of screen tearing, the latter of which is particularly horrendous in the cutscenes.
Arguably more appalling is the character design, which, not only is as generic as possible but is also seriously lacking in any sort of modelling skill. The characters look like plastic representations of people, a fact not aided any by the jarring animation and wooden delivery of almost all cutscene dialogue. Of course, it’s all entirely forgettable anyway, only further offering proof of the incompetence of the writing staff of this game. Conversely, the banter between squad mates while in gameplay is delivered far more convincingly, most likely because it is focussed. They call out enemy positions and the tactics that they intend to use allowing you instant feedback on the battlefield situation. It is actually extremely well executed.
In fact, all of the sounds during gameplay are. The weapon types each give off a different sound making for a delightful harmony within the chaos of an exchange of fire. Explosions go off with a thunderous crackle and the ambient noise really does immerse you in the world. It all serves to bring the game to life in a way that is rarely seen. Backing all of this up is the soundtrack, seemingly composed mostly of heavy rock tunes that, while not necessarily being entirely in tune with the game as a whole, work just fine.
In summation, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier will be a delight for anyone looking for an immersive, diverse, gameplay-driven third-person shooter experience. It isn’t without its little niggles and it can be quite frustrating from time to time, but that doesn’t keep it from ranking among the best games that I have played so far this year. What really lets it down, and it simply isn’t possible to overstate this, is the story. For us here at OnlySP, the negligence of this aspect of the game is what keeps it out of the upper echelons of quality. A true shame, but that is the nature of the beast.
(Reviewed for the Playstation 3 platform. Review copy generously provided by Ubisoft. Thank you!)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Lasting Appeal: 7/10