Ghost Recon: Future Soldier (360/PS3/PC)
Release date: May 22, 2012
It's been five years since a proper Ghost Recon game graced us with the series' unique brand of stealth military action, and a lot has happened in the industry since 2007's Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2. More specifically, Modern Warfare happened, and it changed the way shooters are made and played.
It seems like every shooter franchise in existence, from Battlefield to Medal of Honor, has since evolved to be more Call of Duty and less of what it was before. And even as a third-person, cover-based experience, seemingly far-removed from Activision's seminal Call of Duty 4, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier has clearly been created by developers who understand the innovations that have occurred since the last Ghost Recon game came out.
The really essential question, then, is do those innovations add to Future Soldier, or has Ghost Recon lost too much of what it was before?
We were never here
After seeing Ghost Recon Alpha, Ubisoft Motion Pictures' short, precise film prequel to Future Soldier, I expected great things from the game's story.
What I got instead was an ill-conceived series of disjointed missions and cut scenes, poorly rendered and seemingly without a single common thread until the last few of the game's 13 campaign missions. Future Soldier has been in development for years, and the cut scenes, which take place in barracks and mess halls and reveal literally nothing of the game's actual story, show their age like a washed-up stripper.
The story jumps from Africa to Russia to London and back again, with the Ghosts hunting weapons dealers, rescuing captured CIA operatives, taking out the leaders of secret organizations, and so on. But until the last few missions, the effects of their exertions on the larger story are entirely lost. If global events are transpiring in Russia, you're in Antarctica. When there's a riot in the streets, the Ghosts are up on the roof of a skyscraper.
I don't sense the influence of one game or another here, but rather Ubisoft's desire to depict the Ghosts as the kind of infallible, in-and-out-without-anyone-ever-knowing team of badasses that Alpha directors Alaux and de Crecy told me they specifically took pains to avoid portraying in the film. Again and again, this ideal is hammered into your head, and the result is feeling like you're pulling the ropes and tilting the lights behind the scenes without ever getting a view of the stage.
Fight like Ghosts
On the plus side, this failure to sustain a coherent narrative allows the campaign to jump to a different exotic locale for every mission. And the Ghosts' MO—to kill quietly, achieve goals efficiently, and get out before anyone knows they're there—provides for some of the most tense stealth gameplay this side of Metro 2033. The fact that they're aided by technology like sensor grenades that light up enemies behind cover and UAV drones that let you mark targets from the skies makes them feel like well-equipped superheroes, like a squad of Batmans.
The campaign's highlights come from stalking targets through crowded camps, going prone and letting your camo kick in to avoid detection, and taking enemies out with slickly executed synchronized shots. Marking targets for your allies from the ground or in the air and taking them out simultaneously is arguably the campaign's finest innovation. And the game's smart AI is almost always up for the task.
Sadly, those stealth segments, which hearken back to the series' past, constitute only about half the campaign, while balls-out firefights, on-rails shooting galleries and far-fetched set piece battles take up the rest. It's not that the gunplay is bad (it's exquisite in fact), but these sections don't feel fresh. If anything, they come off as slightly dated.
Manning a jeep's rear-mounted chain gun, you can't help but wonder how you can possibly take out a dozen other identically-equipped vehicles in a span of heartbeats without taking any damage yourself. And when you're forced to restrain a target with one arm and fight off waves of reckless enemies who can't help but run in front of your bullets, the dual feelings of helplessness and infallibility are incongruous and off-putting. That's the negative side of the Michael Bay-ification of blockbuster games over the last half-decade; as if every scene without an explosive fireball is seen as a missed opportunity.
Let's be honest, though: you're in it for the multiplayer.
The lack of splitscreen play outside of Future Soldier's decent Guerilla mode (a riff on Gears of Wars' Horde mode, with tons of replay value) is a major issue for me, and the absence of co-op matchmaking is also sorely felt. But those gripes aside, this is easily the most engrossing online shooter I've played in years.
Modern Warfare's influence is felt here as well, of course. What would online play be without levels to gain and weapons to unlock? Guns are doled out piecemeal, as are attachment points used to purchase the many, many firearm modifiers. The game's much-touted "Gunsmith" allows for piece-by-piece weapon refinement, from scopes to triggers, stocks, barrels, and more. it's "gun porn" at its finest, and every shooter should have a Gunsmith mode from now on, forever. (Ignore the mode's hare-brained Kinect functionality, and unplug your Kinect if you have one, as the game periodically and rather obnoxiously prompts you to "take a break" regardless of whether you're using it.)
Classes are varied enough that you'll want to switch between them often as you ride the ever-changing tides of online battles. Scouts get active camo and sniper rifles, Engineers use sensor grenades, shotguns and airborne drones, and riflemen pack the firepower, with plenty of wiggle room to tailor each class to your particular tastes.
Most online shooters inadvertently reward lone wolves who ignore team-based objectives in favor of racking up the highest body count, but Future Soldier's greatest strength is in the ways it pushes players to work together. An assist grants as much experience as a kill, and spotting targets with a sensor or drone or stun-gunning enemies and hacking their intel gives even more points. Objectives are captured faster when your teammates are in proximity, and galavanting off alone is more than likely to get you killed.
Future Soldier encourages tactical, thoughtful gameplay, rewarding players who use their mics to coordinate strategies and communicate enemy positions. Using cover is essential, and an incredibly smart three-tiered aiming system—hip-firing, shoulder-bracing and clicking through to the scope improve accuracy by degrees—eliminates the snap-to-scope auto-aim that plagues other shooters.
The selection of maps is nicely varied, with some enhanced by variables (for example, a sandstorm) that decrease or improvement visibility and other factors. And the game modes currently available are pleasantly complex. The absence of straight team deathmatch is somewhat baffling, but the ever-evolving "Conflict" (objectives are spawned at random), higher-stakes "Siege" (you get one life per round), and familiar "Sabotage" (like Halo's "Assault") provide just enough variety.
For completionists there are a seemingly endless number of challenges, unlocks, achievements, and modes to conquer throughout Future Soldier. There are a million detailed touches, like cloaked players' invisible feet kicking up sand as they scoot behind cover, tactical information anchored in the sky (mimicking the only aspect of Splinter Cell: Conviction that I consider worth mimicking), a haunting strings-filled lament triggered by an ambush in a ruined Georgian cathedral, and smart AI chatter that can even provide useful intel on enemy locations.
It's worth noting that the game is surprisingly buggy—during my game time, it froze many more times than, for example, the Game of Thrones RPG, which was recently lambasted for its supposed plethora of technical issues. One time I was left waiting to breach a door—a state from which you can't back out—as my target was horribly tortured just on the other side. I listened to his screams for several minutes, waiting for a lost AI teammate to catch up, before restarting. And Ubisoft's servers proved unreliable at best during launch week.
But Future Soldier's fresh, fun multiplayer is totally worth it, and what its campaign does right—tense stealth infiltration—it does very, very right. Do its innovations point to what's in store for the future of shooters? I certainly hope so.