In terms of sales there is no doubt that Call of Duty sells more copies than the Ghost Recon series. That said, the Ghost Recon series is better in every way. There….I said it. From the early days of planning out the entirety of my team’s assault on an oil derrick in the original Rainbow Six to inverted-fast-roping through a Vegas Casino glass wall in Rainbow Six: Vegas, the Rainbow Six series manages to blend plausible realism with over-the-top action in way that just manages to capture me in a way that Activision’s titles just can’t. Toss in super-spy Sam Fisher and the Ghost Recon series and it becomes clear that I’m a Tom Clancy fan. At E3 2009 I got to see the future of the series, aptly titled Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier.
Taking place in the near future, we rejoin Tom Clancy’s world as a Ghost Team executes on their orders, chasing down a team of weapons traffickers stumbles upon an armed nuclear warhead in the back of one of their trucks. Unfortunately the timer hits zero and the entire team is killed in action, unable to reach minimum safe distance. Your Ghost team is charged with the difficult task of finding out who is behind this tragedy and stopping them before they unleash whatever plan they have in mind on a civilian population.
Life is about learning; when you stop learning, you die. – Tom Clancy
The great part about having a few years (or 5 in this case) between titles is that you get to watch your competition and learn. These lessons can be about new ways to innovate, or more frequently, they’ll tell you exactly what you don’t want to put into your next title. Brace yourself, fair reader, as I’m about to make some of you angry…
The Call of Duty series is, by far, one of the most popular game series ever made, but the fact of the matter is that I’m not a fan of some of the elements. The game rewards unrealistic and ridiculous risk and punishes caution and proper military strategy. Having spent time behind the scope myself, I’m frustrated when I’m rushed through objectives for seemingly no reason whatsoever. Granted, there have been mission objectives that I’ve tackled that had to be accomplished with haste, but far more meant sitting very, very still for a very long period of time. Even during assaults, I spent twice as much time crawling extremely slowly as I did running full-tilt through overgrown forest to reach an extraction point. The problem is that the real thing isn’t really very fun.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier takes a different approach, focusing on what could be, and strives hard to make that fun. Obviously the subject matter is more serious, but the addition of some of the most awesome gadgetry ever devised or imagined can certainly offer gameplay that we’ve never seen before. Stealth missions aren’t new, but stealth missions with partial invisibility is. Firefights in the streets are certainly not new, but having a drone complete with CCTV and FLIR to designate targets for your competent teammates is absolutely new. Let’s talk about stealth.
Stealth gaming isn’t new – that’s been around for over a decade, but it doesn’t usually present itself well in ‘action’ titles. The stealth missions are usually a rigid mess that doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the title that surrounds it, but games like Splinter Cell have taught the teams at Ubisoft how to handle this gameplay style very well.
The mission structure for nearly every mission starts out the same – what happens afterwards is entirely up to you. You and your team of 3 ghosts (minus one solo mission) set off with fairly straightforward objectives – target elimination, infiltration, and all-out-wanton destruction of a convoy as a few examples. Before you set off, however, you’ll get a quick briefing and the chance to play with one of the coolest toys in the toy box – the Gunsmith mode.
Gunsmith allows you to modify your weapons before you set out into the field. Depending on what is unlocked (completing sub-objectives and missions unlocks more of them) you can add a fairly huge stack of attachments and add-ons to your weapon system. This can be a heartbeat sensor, a backscatter optic for seeing through thinner walls, sniper scope, an underbarrel shotgun, a bipod, an angled foregrip for additional control, a collapsible stock, flash suppressor, silencer, and far more are there to select at will. In fact, there isn’t a single mission in the game where you are locked into a specific weapon. In fact, if you are wise enough at target selection, you can target enemies and have your Ghosts take out nearly everyone in the game silently. On the flip side of that coin, you can also go loud almost immediately in nearly every mission to try to run-and-gun them. You’ll probably die a horrible death, but the game doesn’t lock you into doing it any particular way very often – the choice is yours.
I’ve made up stuff that’s turned out to be real, that’s the spooky part. – Tom Clancy
Normally when I write my reviews I hold the multiplayer portions until the end, but I can’t do that and review this game properly – Future Soldier is meant to be played with friends. While the AI is pretty much rock solid (I can’t think of a time where I was compromised by my AI friends), taking to the field with your friends is how this game is meant to be played.
The game spans a dozen missions (though we’ll talk about the final mission in detail, but with no spoilers shortly) that blend cover-based combat and stealth. Your Optical Camouflage is always equipped, engaging when you move slowly in a crouched or prone position. Similar to the work pioneered by Inami Laboratory, the active camouflage uses an incredible array of cameras and recursive reflective materials to essentially make the wearer see-through in nearly any environment. Future Soldier assumes that this technology is field-ready and deployed with our Special Forces units. Combined with the cover mechanic, this allows the Ghosts to move throughout their environment without alerting their enemies. If you think this might make the game too easy, you’d be mistaken. Enemies can spot you if you move quickly, and firefights quickly negate the camo, so you’ll have to plan your approach carefully lest you lose this advantage.
In addition to the great story missions (minus the last mission), the game ships with two additional modes – Guerrilla and Conflict. Guerrilla mode is essential a Horde mode, but with all of these advanced weapons and gadgets it’s hard not to enjoy it just the same. Conflict mode is essentially a capture-and-hold mode that has the team trying to complete objectives. These objectives shift throughout the map, keeping all players moving. Holding objectives earns your points, and the first to hit a certain amount for that map, wins. Winning in either mode earns you experience points and resources that can be spent on building your weapon arsenal and accessories. It’s not a new approach, but it does give you a feeling of satisfaction by adding to your pool of available accessories.
There are three classes of soldier in Future Soldier – Rifleman, Engineer, and Scout. The Rifleman can equip assault rifles and LMGs, as well as some of the explosive ordinance in the game. The Engineer handles shotguns and PDRs, as well as UAV drones. The Scout is the only soldier equipped with the previously mentioned Optical Camo, as well as a handy array of sniper rifles. The classes blend nicely in multiplayer, with players pretty evenly stacked in all three classes in my experience.
You don’t win the battle, by doing what’s right. You win, by doing what’s necessary.
As I mentioned earlier, this game has been over 5 years in the making. The tough part of having a game spend that long in the cooker is that it can sometimes suffer graphically. To that end, Future Soldier takes a hit in some areas. We saw some graphical glitches that turned the incoming sandstorm into a rainbow mesh that hung huge in the air, a few instances of strange pop-in or mipmapping, and one very odd civilian in the final mission that had a neck roughly 4x the length it should be, bent into a very odd angle. The Ghosts look fantastic, as do most of the character models in the game. Unfortunately that compliment doesn’t extend well to the environments and secondary NPCs. Many of them are simply carbon copies of their counterparts, and some of them are just shockingly low-resolution polygons. On the other hand, this title has some of the absolute best fire and smoke I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t suggest any further delays, but I can’t help but feel like Future Soldier needed just a little longer in the cooker in terms of debugging.
Like the minor graphical issues, there are high points and low points in the audio department. Voice work is excellent, as is the banter between the Ghosts, but occasionally the voice goes into stuttering or just cutting out completely. It happened 3 or 4 times during the campaign, and when you factor in that that is 4 out of 12 missions, that isn’t great math.
I mentioned earlier that I’d talk about the last mission. I will not be talking about the circumstances in any way that will reveal or spoil the story, but instead a severe and odd change of mechanics that make the final push to completion rather frustrating. While the 11 missions prior to the final mission focus heavily on stealth, careful planning, and solid execution, the 12th is anything but. It starts out like the others, asking the player to assault some fixed positions. As the mission nears the end, however, the gameplay suddenly requires the player to throw any and all good sense and caution to the wind, running Call of Duty-style through the forest to try to terminate two targets. If this complete divergence from everything the game has taught you up to this point isn’t enough, the final few moments of the game has you walking on rails to take out the final target. It doesn’t matter that you had a clear shot from the cliff. It doesn’t matter that you have a sniper rifle capable of striking your target from your vantage point. It doesn’t matter how fast you run – this mission is scripted to go down a specific way to allow the final scene to play out, and there is nothing you can do to stop it – frustrating.
The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense. – Tom Clancy
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is one of my most anticipated 2012 titles, and having completed it I have to say that my anticipation was well-placed. While I tore into Call of Duty pretty hard earlier, I’ll say that it is a very different type of game. Where Call of Duty is 100% focused on the action, Ghost Recon is more of a thinking man’s shooter. Tactics, planning, stealth, and target selection trump relentlessly driving the player forward in my book, making Future Soldier the better of the two. Unfortunately, and despite the delays, Ghost Recon isn’t quite as polished as the aforementioned title, and that does hurt it a little. That said, the rock-solid multiplayer, combined with the worth-playing cooperative single player, makes for a solid title. While it may not be as “Future” as it was when it was announced 5 years ago, the sum of everything it brings to the table sets it apart from its fellow shooter contemporaries.