Here we are then. Once more unto the breach and all that. The influence of the military shooter cannot be underestimated and it should be to the surprise of nobody that Ghost Recon: Future Soldier draws heavily from the paradigmatic, throbbing heart of the genre.
It is the future. Not too distant, but far enough away that the ghosts have acquired some snazzy new tech; Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. More on that later. Planet earth subsists in a state of parlous; tottering on the precipice of obliteration where it must surely by now feel the safest. It’s the pesky Russians, dogged in their bellicose ways, and some Africans too, threatening to plunge us all down, down, down into the sable void. And who better to claw us back into the land of infinite blowjobs, grins and rainbows than a handful of Americans; an elite few; the master key to un-fucking any and every situation. Can I get an ooah?
The Tom Clancy epithet, once synonymous with tactics, stealth and restraint has, for better and worse, been diluted and Future Soldier is about as far as the franchise has stepped away from its origins. We’ll gloss over a story relayed through familiar whiz-bang pre-level voiceover screens and occasionally shonky cutscenes, starring four nonentities; charmless automatons with less personality than the cold, metallic weapons they clasp so dearly. Future Soldier has slow motion door breaches, helicopters floating about in the sky with the word ‘DESTROY’ in tow, there’s the occasional bit where you guide a missile down and a slew of on-rails turret sections. It’s got dubstep and other cool-dude music blasted forth during the murderous fray and, of course, a healthy dose of globetrotting. It’s consummately predictable but hell, it’s a military shooter released in the epoch of Call of Duty. You get what you pay for.
And this is a hefty package boasting a decent length campaign that occasionally dazzles. A mission spent infiltrating an airport during the dead of night is thrill-a-second stuff. Armed with silenced sniper rifles and gadgets that provide a real-time view of the battlefield, it’s Ghost Recon being Ghost Recon. Slump into cover or move while crouched and you’re effectively invisible (although nearby guards will see you if you remain in their line of sight for a few seconds). Perched in the shadows you can tag up to four enemies and with tell-tale lasers slicing through the thick Russian air, a tap of the trigger sends four goons crumpling into the puddles. It’s brilliant – rewarding patience and well-conceived gambits over headshots during pop-up gallery shootouts. Another highlight has you controlling a mechanical canine artillery unit, tasking it with raining hellfire down on anyone whose first language isn’t English. This isn’t some mid-level gimmick either, he’s yours to use at your discretion throughout the whole level, controlled in sync with your character via an impressive UI. Stealth goes hurtling headfirst out the window, but it’s an electrifying and welcome breather from the ho-hum shootouts.
About those. Battlefields murmur to the sound of practised-bravado, the fetching whiz-pew punctuated by the cries of “scratch one”, or “they’re on the ropes”, and “don’t get cocky” repeated time and again. On the plus side, your teammates are great at picking you up if you’re injured; charging through the brouhaha of bullets and bang to revive you more or less immediately. The gunplay isn’t spectacular (even taking into account Gunsmith, which allows you to modify everything from triggers to attachments, stocks and barrels and on and on) and it lacks Call of Duty’s eye-popping cinematic events and other tales of rambunctious derring-do or Battlefield’s ferocious production values. Add to that curious graphical glitches, spelling mistakes in the subtitles, bugs and character faces that look like they’ve been hauled out of 2009 and the whole campaign slumps down a rung on the ladder.
At its best, overlooking Recon’s shift to the more in-your-face tone here is effortless. When it grants you carte blance to approach levels slyly and take advantage of the Ghost’s repertoire of fancy gadgets it’s wonderful. End of level rankings that prize headshots, teamwork and accuracy remain true to the series’ heredity and promote the style of play that served Ghost Recon so well in the past.
But Future Soldier doesn’t really know what game it wants to be. At times it’s a tactical stealth game that requires complicit use of your teammates and tools to succeed, but too often it’s just another prosaic, jingoist, military, duck-hunt tinged in orange and blue hues, espousing trite scenes in favour of what makes it tick.
Ultimately it’s more than competent, often thrilling, but it’s hard not to look back at the series’ heritage and wonder if falling in line was a price worth paying. If the military shooter still holds some sway then Future Soldier has a lot to offer, while the added tactics elevate it above the likes of Battlefield 3 or Homefront. But for those hoping for a tried and true Ghost Recon game, this isn’t it.
Fortunately the multiplayer doesn’t disappoint. Guerilla mode (Future Soldier’s token horde mode for up to four players) may serve as a cursory distraction but the real meat is in the adversarial arena with ten exemplary maps, four objective-based modes and a trio of classes serving as a tantalising foundation.
The multiplayer carves out a happy middle ground between Modern Warfare’s twitchy shootouts and Battlefield’s teamwork-oriented approach. It’s fastest finger first, more often than not, but the game’s natty cover system and explicit focus on teamwork help it stand out in this most crowded of genres. Core mode Conflict sees two teams of 8 squabbling for objectives that appear indiscriminately throughout the 15-minute matches. Both sides tussle over the same goals and so the battle flows across entire maps. There’s no reward for killing save for a token amount of XP but you earn ten times as much for reviving a fallen buddy or capturing an objective than you do for a standard kill. It’s a shrewd means of promoting teamwork in an environment that absolutely demands it.
Trouble is, the lack of deathmatch creates a rift between people that want to play by the rules and those that just want to play for the kills. There’s no outlet for players that want to bask in the glory of a 20-kill streak. It doesn’t really help that the sniper class is such fun and while the map design is first rate with an almost total lack of choke points, they’re still a little too tailored to sitting at the back and casting hammerblow kisses with a .50 cal. In Ubi’s defence, the entire game has been designed with campers in mind (it’s got a cover system, and all objectives involve attack/defend scenarios) and there’s more than enough gadgetry and avenues in place to combat those setting up a bivouac.
When it works, then, Conflict is brilliant and one of the best multiplayer modes of recent memory. Sadly, it comes crashing to the ground all too often. Not facilitating deathmatch just means the objective modes are populated by people that would rather be playing deathmatch; effectively turning Conflict into exactly that.
Elsewhere the three classes cover the mainstays. There’s the sniper, the rifleman and an engineer that dabbles with shotguns and SMGs and they each come with different loadouts and equipment. The engineer for example, can toss sensor grenades that alert teammates to the position of enemies while the sniper… well the sniper has improved invisibility.
The real room for tinkering comes with Gunsmith, which allows you to fine-tune weapons depending on how you choose to play. The blurb boasts 2 million different options, which is a a bit rich when you consider changing the decal counts as one of those and there are 20-something paint jobs to mix and match with all the triggers and barrels, but the modifications made are genuinely impactful and the inclusion of a shooting range to test-drive different builds before committing valuable tokens is a smart one. Gunsmith is a clever addition and the three class limit belies the amount of customisation it allows for.
Quality multiplayer goes a long way to papering over a somewhat disheartening single player offering. Thing is though, it’s not bad. Far from it. In fact, compared to the competition it’s pretty damn good. Factor in 4-player co-op and it gets better still. Judged purely on its own merits it’s a must-have for anyone yet to notice the fatigue gnawing at the bones of this subgenre. But it’s not par for the Ghost Recon course. Perhaps it’s time to let go. Ooah to that, I suppose.