The Ghost Recon series of games have a long and illustrious history with the good folks of Bordersdown. The community took both Advanced Warfighter titles to their collective hearts, engaging in countless hours of co-operative action resulting in many happy memories and a clan whose moniker, Team GRAWsome are still talked of in fondest of terms. In the intervening years, it appears that Ubisoft has struggled to reshape the series, struggling to make it relevant in a market that is increasingly crowded with military shooters. Now it might have the answer in the form of the latest in the series, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier.
A cover-based action shooter, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier (GR:FS) is as cookie-cutter as they come. Set in a near future where shady militants and their ceaseless desire for guns and power means their actions have to be taken care of. Thankfully we have Ghost Squad, which consists of just about every cliché-ridden, jar-headed caricature you could possibly imagine as they journey around the globe, taking in war-torn African shanty towns to the predictable stop in Pakistan and even to the Arctic circle in their globe-trotting quest to save us all from those pesky "turrists". It's utter bobbins, which is ironic considering the style of Tom Clancy, even he would consider this far fetched.
The Future Soldier of the title is represented in the form of toys that give Ghost Squad an edge in the battlefield over their enemies. Sensor grenades help to mark hostile combatants, while adopting the crouched position engages a cloak system not unlike the one used by the Predator in that hit film...erm, Predator. The camouflage also allows the player to stealth kill enemies from crouching if they can get close enough to them, and in turn makes them feel like the best kind of bad ass in the process.
Missions typically begin with the need for a stealthy approach as the Ghosts zoom in on their intended target or mission related objective. As the game progresses, this aspect becomes more tense and rather thrilling as the player best utilises the other ghosts in order to infiltrate in a stealthiest of manners (well, they're meant to be ghosts after all, right?).
And rightly so, because with one false move usually results in mission failure and the need to restart either the mission or from the nearest checkpoint. Here is where the abilities at the players disposal come into play. Utilising the Sync Shot, where each of the squad is given a designated target and upon the player taking the final shot, disposes of up to four enemies in a given instance.
As already mentioned, there's a varied set of locations along the way, the best of them really show GR:FS in a terrific light. Sneaking into a heavily fortified base under the cover of darkness, picking off guards in-between dodging helicopters and more advanced patrols can be exquisite if managed correctly. The dust storm in the second level is superbly realised, as the wind swirls and rises and the characters attempt to fight through hostile forces while battling the elements is superbly framed, requiring a switch to thermal vision to see through the storm.
Graphically the game exhibits a mix of polish with some lacklustre moments. The aforementioned cloak effect is superb, but the character models, both friend and foe can leave a bit to be desired as can the locales. Buildings and objects can look rough, leaving the player with the feeling that the game would've benefited from a few more passes on the texture side of things.
Weapons are standard fare and nothing on show in GR:FS will alarm of confuse anyone. Typical load-outs of main weapon, side arm and a choice of grenades that include the usual ballistic varieties and sound exactly as expected. LMG's are a mini-riot of noise while silenced weapons exhibit the now customary low pitched rattle. It goes without saying that the cover system in GR:FS is exemplary with a satisfying feeling of highlighting a surface, sliding into cover, directing the troops as the players control to follow suit. Once the action switches up and the need for a full-on fire fight rears its head the cover system works perfectly, leaving the player never fearing that they'll be shot through cover or the like and allows them to position their troops where they want and in whatever way they see fit.
There are one or two instances where the player is ensconced in a helicopter, which breaks up the repetitive nature of the action, and they also get to control the Warhound. This lumbering four-legged monster is a thing of wondrous destruction as it rains down missile and mortars on command, clearing whole sections, but is hampered by a long cool down and reload rate, meaning judicious use has to be weighed up. Making sure the player is in a position to use it against helicopter gunships while the rest of the team dispose of enemy troops can provide thrilling moments for sure.
Woven into the fabric of the experience are in-game challenges which reward the player at the end of every level. Scored out of a maximum of 100, score, the "Ghost Squad Score" marks the player and their actions, depending on certain criteria being met. From headshots, weapon accuracy and the like, it adds another layer to the action and can unlock some tasty weaponry to use in the campaign, but isn't something that will matter to most outside of the more obsessive gamer out there.
Unfortunately, cracks start to appear around the midway point of the game as fire fights become more intense and the margin for error lessens by the moment. This in itself isn't a problem but what hampers the player is the checkpoint system, which becomes increasingly erratic to say the least. There is nothing more frustrating than hitting a large set piece teeming with enemy forces only for an unexpected death to force the long, hard slog back towards the objective.
This shatters the illusion somewhat as enemy forces display little or nothing in the way of tactics, exhibiting a brute force approach in hunting the player down. There's none of the sophistication evident in previous Ghost Recon titles, where a sneaky enemy with an LMG could distract players who would miss a troop that flanked the player, eliciting a sweary reaction from the player, but a form of respect would be woven into the fabric of the pattern of targets, making sure the next time, no lapses in attention would occur. In GR:FS it feels like mindless repetition.
It also does the series a huge disservice to dumb it down in such a manner. The previous titles would guide the player down fairly narrow combat corridors, but tactics would be flexible, allowing them to find the best use of weaponry and the troops at their disposal. By dumbing down the action it feels like a real misstep, as previous games in the series had a robust, tactical feel that within a few missions would have the player switching between drones, to individual soldiers and themselves in an attempt to contain, overwhelm and ultimately conquer opposition forces.
Of course the ability to play through the campaign with friends in Co-op is a nice touch, but the need to bring friends along for the ride won't be born out of the need for help, as even on the highest difficulty setting GR:FS won't prove too much of a challenge.
As expected there's a full suite of Multiplayer modes which concentrate more on team focused objectives as well as the Guerrilla mode, which is Ubisoft's take on the Horde mode that is near ubiquitous in online games nowadays. The main problem here is how it does away with the co-operative missions or the intensity that was present in the first two Advanced Warfighter titles exhibiting none of the sheer drama and excruciating pleasure/pain appeal of sneaking into a shipyard at night with no tactical radar, with only the skill of the players online buddies to rely on and once downed, leaning on their expertise to spot, command and generally continue to add to the experience as it unfolded, willing the remaining players alive to a successful extraction/conclusion.
In the attempt to widen the appeal of the series, Ubisoft has done the Ghost Recon series a disservice with Future Soldier, leaving fans of the previous titles in the series slightly bewildered and newcomers wondering what the fuss is about as they shuffle back to whatever military shooter they put aside in the meantime.