It was nearly two full years ago that I first saw Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. I was just a doe-eyed youth, gazing in wonderment at a truly beautiful piece of video gamedom. It was a simpler time back in the halcyon days of ’10. Following that session of Future Soldier, I left a convert, prepared to act as a missionary to spread the good word of Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, and prepare the world for its arrival.
Even after two years that included a delay, I was still eagerly anticipating it. There were moments when I may even have been found muttering that “I wants it.” Future Soldier was precious to me… I wasn’t about to jump into a volcano to grab a falling copy or anything, but it was definitely on my radar, and those close to me knew enough to avoid burdening me with pesky “real world” problems like eating and bathing as I settled in for my long awaited review session.
But anticipation and reality are rarely good bedfellows. Even the most incredible offering in any medium can fare poorly against the power of self-beliefs. I knew that going in, so I did my best to come at the game as impartially as I could. And I am glad I did.
From the mechanics to the story, there is the nagging sense that you have seen bits and pieces of the game elsewhere before, and that is because you have. There is even a cut scene in the campaign which is lifted almost entirely from Modern Warfare 3, to the point that you have to think it was intentional, yet there is no good reason for Ubisoft to do so. And it isn’t just the Call of Duty franchise that will pop into mind, but that will be the most obvious.
Future Soldier is not the groundbreaking game that I had hoped it would be, but it is still a damn fine game. It borrows heavily from other titles, but it fine tunes those borrowed ideas and mechanics to near perfection, and offers one of the best shooters of the year.
Once more unto the breach
Equipped with futuristic equipment, including specialized suits that make them partially invisible, the members of Ghost Squad are the elite team in the Special Forces arsenal.
In the near future, following the detonation of a dirty bomb that took the lives of a Ghost team, events are set in motion that will lead the surviving Ghosts around the world to hunt the source of the bomb. As the Ghosts begin to uncover more clues, they discover that the bomb was one part of a much bigger plot that will lead a country to civil war.
The story is nothing you haven’t seen before: terrorists, insurgents, and a rebel army, oh my! It is clichéd and never really emphasized. If you are hoping for a deep connection to the characters, this ain’t the game for you — but that isn’t really the focus either.
The story is just an excuse to throw you into some intense missions. Some are presented as fairly straightforward “A to B and murder anything that looks at you funny on the way” mission-types, while others are uniquely suited for the skill sets that the Ghosts can bring.
Some missions force you into a stealth posture with alarms ending the missions, while others give you options. There is a good blend at work, with one exception: there are few things as aggravating as a stealth based game that suddenly introduces a time limit. It is an understandable inclusion to mix things up, and it makes sense that a military squad would need to occasionally rush to complete objectives, but it made me want to punch something cute.
These limits are few and far between though, and they generally help keep the game from ever being bogged down in monotony, a risk all stealth games face. And make no mistake, Future Soldier is first and foremost a stealth game. At least until you have some friends to join you.
Four guns are better than one
Future Soldier features splitscreen and online co-op for up to four players, and this is the best way to play.
Coordinating a four person stealth attack is a thing of beauty, but it requires real teamwork. If you have a Leroy Jenkins in your party, you are doomed to the recesses of a standard shooter — which isn’t a bad thing, and if you do want to emphasize combat, doing it with other real people is the way to go. If you can get the team working as one, either as a stealth unit or a combat-first squad, it changes the way you approach missions, and those missions are also much easier with other humans helping out. Much, much easier.
But even working with just one person is a good time, as the other two AI teammates will follow your commands easily enough. The ally AI is among the best around, and your AI controlled teammates will smartly follow your lead.
One downside to this co-op is that it is not drop-in/drop-out; you all need to be there from the start. That can be a problem on the longer missions, as someone leaving will push you back to the last checkpoint, and the checkpoint system is fairly unforgiving to begin with. That’s a fairly minor con to a major pro though.
Each mission also has completely optional secondary challenges which unlock weapons, equipment, and customization options. Most of them can be done solo (and a few are easier alone), but you really need a coordinated plan with others for many of them. This should keep people coming back long after the campaign has been completed.
But whether you play the campaign solo or with friends, the missions are fun and varied. The story is just sort of there, and more often than not you will have no idea why you are doing what you are doing, but the objectives are always clear. Besides, you do it for ‘Merica. What more do you need to know?
Enough gadgets to make James Bond envious
The game is a somewhat traditional squad based game, at least until you introduce the gadgets. The tools you have will vary based on the mission, but there are a few that you will use constantly.
Each member of the team will be equipped with a cammo suit that renders you mostly invisible as long as you move slowly. You can still be spotted, but sticking to the shadows or crawling makes you almost totally invisible. With the exception of set events that force you into combat, you could crawl through most levels and never engage an enemy — if you have the patience. It would be arduous though.
Joining the stealth cammo are two items that I suspect may become common in shooters because they are great ideas. The first is the drone, which is a player-controlled UAV you can use to scout the area ahead of you and mark targets. Using it is the difference between blundering into a well-defended area and entering quietly. This has been done before to a degree, but never quite like this. The other item is the sensor, which acts like a grenade: you throw it and a pulse goes out that shows you where enemies are without them knowing. It is an exceedingly clever way map an area.
Adding to these gadgets is the ability to sync your shots with teammates. When you mark a target with the touch of a button, one of your AI teammates will lock onto them. You can do this three more times, then choose a target yourself. The AI will then wait for you to shoot, and all four enemies ill fall at once. You can also mark targets in co-op play, but firing at once isn’t automatic. It isn’t totally original, but it works well.
The controls are streamlined and just feel right. They will be familiar to anyone that knows the style, but the added tools are easy to use and add a layer to the common shooter style.
The gameplay can also be tailored to your approach at the mission loadout, where you will choose your weapons and equipment. Each weapon you’ve unlocked can then be customized in the Gunsmith. From the stock to the trigger, the ammo to the rate of fire, there are over 20 million options — including things that will change how you approach the mission, like a bigger scope and whether or not to use a suppressor.
If you are playing this game on the 360 and have a Kinect, you can use it to design your weapon using hand gestures. It is an interesting addition, but not a major one.
Not-so-stealth multiplayer combat
While the campaign is built around the strategic use of stealth, the multiplayer is more traditional combat with four modes: Conflict, Siege, Saboteur, and Decoy.
All of the Future Soldier multiplayer modes have some form of teamwork required. You can go lone wolf and get some kills, but your team may still lose the match. There are three classes to choose from, each with their own leveling and unclockables (similar to Battlefield), so choosing the right team balance is important.
In Conflict, two teams vie for a series of objectives that your team needs to take, then hold, in order to score points. Siege is a no-respawn mode where one team attacks an objective that the other is holding. Saboteur places a bomb at the center of the map with both teams trying to place it on the enemy base before it explodes. Decoy has attackers and defenders, with the attackers having three objectives to secure before the final objective appears.
The multiplayer is a solid and addicting addition, with sizeable maps and a fair amount of variety. There is a slight balance issue between ranks, and those new to the game will have to grind it out for a bit in order to become competitive, but that isn’t unusual.
It isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, but it actually plays more like SOCOM than Gears of War, if that means anything to you. A few more game modes would have been nice at launch (more have been promised via DLC), but with plenty of unlockables and objectives rather than just deathmatch there is a lot to keep you playing for a long time.
There is also a co-op offering called Guerilla mode, which is Future Soldier’s Horde mode. Up to four players try to survive 50 waves of enemies, broken up every tenth round with a stealth bonus section and the odd boss fight. As you survive, you earn killstreaks and more weapons and equipment become available to you. It is a familiar mode that keeps popping up in games for good reason, and Future Soldier does it justice.
Despite a few new gadgets, Future Soldier doesn’t really break any new ground. Instead, what it does is present a third-person shooter that is packed full of content and plays as smoothly as you could hope. The campaign features a forgettable story, but the missions and co-op makes up for it, plus the multiplayer is well polished.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Future Soldier didn’t quite live up to my lofty dreams that have been fermenting for two solid years, but Ubisoft did the next best thing by making the game satisfying and robust. If you are looking for a new shooter, Future Soldier is among the best of the year.
Score: 9 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Ubisoft)