I wonder if Tom Clancy actually has much to do with the ever-growing list of games – and their sequels – with his name attached. My guess would be not so much. That said, the games that have been put out by what remains of the Red Storm studio he founded over fifteen years ago (now Ubisoft Red Storm) stay faithful to his vision. They tend to be high-tech, military or espionage-oriented thrillers featuring the good old US of A defending freedom and democracy from villainous Russians.
Always with the Russians.
Oh. I forgot to say. Spoiler alert. But there are bad Russians in Ghost Recon Future Solder, just as there are in… well, are there any Tom Clancy games that don’t feature scary ex-soviets?
This, as some of you might remember, is how I like to start all of my articles on Tom Clancy games. But let’s skip past my amusement at Tom’s Russophobia, and get right on to Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. I’ll sum it up: It’s an imperfect port of a really good console game.
Not that I’ve played the console version, you understand. But the signs of a direct port are clear and present, even down to the Xbox ring made of lights to show which controller you’re on, when starting a game. Of course, that’s just whatever, and not really hurting anybody. But frequent hard crashes, flickery graphics and no attempt to leverage the PC’s unique advantages leave GRFS feeling like a last minute rush-job. If you want to change the graphics or audio settings, you’ll need to quit your game altogether, return to the main menu and tweak things there, before reloading your previous save to check how the new changes affect the game. Pretty much every other PC game can deal with volume tweaks in-game. What’s the problem?
Still, we were told at E3 in 2011 that there would be no PC port at all, so we should feel grateful that the game has come to the PC. And we really should, because it’s a fun game. The campaign mode sees a group of four harder-than-nails special ops warninjas tracking arms dealers, terrorists and various undesirables to the four corners of the earth. In the single-player game you take the role of Kozak, but Future Soldier is really a game that begs to be played co-op.
Like Left 4 Dead, the interface at the beginning of each play session gives players the option of bringing other players in to play the other ghosts, then counts down to launch, multiplayer-style, even if you're playing alone. Also like Left 4 Dead, the AI bots that control your teammates (thankfully) don’t make mistakes – every sniper shot will hit, and they’re never spotted in stealth mode. Which means the only thing that can really go wrong is you. Add a bunch of other human players and the capacity for hilarious muckups and whooping, high-fiving moments of glorious teamwork are much more common.
Mission design is pretty standard Ghost Recon type stuff – protect the civilian, assault the artillery position… you know the sort of thing. What is much-improved is the stealth engine. Pretty much every mission begins with your team making a stealthy approach on an enemy position, attempting to silence the enemy before they raise the alarm. This is usually achieved by gathering intel on the enemy’s position, perhaps by launching a portable drone or by looking through a scope with magnetic x-ray vision enabled… or maybe just by looking around carefully. Once you’ve spotted the enemy and got an idea of their numbers and patrol routes, you move stealthily into position, allocate targets and then wait until everyone’s ready – then take out all targets silently and simultaneously. Then it’s on to the next enemy units before they notice the bodies of their recently-murdered chums. All in all, these bits have a slight taste of the puzzle aspects of the old Commandos games, along with a more-than-passing resemblance to Star Wars: Republic Commando and, thanks to the cover system, Splinter Cell: Conviction.
It’s well-known that Ubisoft love to share ideas between their games, and there’s a fair bit of the design ethos of Conviction in Future Soldier. As Sam Fisher grows more and more militaristic in his approach, it would seem the Ghosts are becoming stealthier. In fact, the stealth mechanic in Future Soldier is as good as anything I’ve seen. Thanks to your Predator-like adaptive camouflage, it’s a doddle to move unseen right into the midst of an enemy camp to gather intel. Once locked into cover, a pointer (which moves with your view) will lock on to suggested cover to which you can move – then it’s just a case of holding down one key to break cover and dart to the next place. This is particularly evocative during a heavy gunfight, as the camera shakes as if it’s being carried by a terrified war correspondent right behind you, and it weaves and shakes just as you pelt it furiously across open ground. This camera feature, very similar to the one that got me so excited in Max Payne 3, really adds to the feeling that you’re in a dangerous warzone.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Tom Clancy without a firearm fetish that makes Burt Gummer look like Hyacinth Bouquet. Through the Gunsmith menu, you can disassemble each and every firearm at your disposal before each mission and swap out all of the working parts for modified versions (unlocked by completing imaginative in-game challenges and completing levels), allowing as much customisation as you could possibly want. There really is nowhere left for weapon customisation to go – this is pretty much the pinnacle. Aside from the hot gun love, there are also a slew of fun gizmos to try out on unsuspecting paramilitary goons, such as sensor grenades (that mark the locations of all enemies within a radius), spy drones (which can also be landed, converted into little RC cars and used to fire off a giant EMP pulse to stun your enemies and fry electronics), and the awesome warhound (a combat robot with a mortar and missile launcher that you can control while on the hoof yourself, using a simple, elegant control system that works really well).
Graphically… Well, you know. It’s an Xbox port. So you get Xbox graphics. That said, it seemed to me that the graphics improved as the game progressed, and some of the later missions looked pretty good. The Multiplayer game has had some effort put into it too, and there are a couple of different modes and some pretty good maps, as well as the requisite unlocks and levelling you’d expect. Co-op is really where Ghost Recon is at, though. Aside from the main campaign there’s a Guerrilla mode, where a team have to stealthily take a HQ location and then hold off waves of attackers using whatever supplies they can get their hands on. Again, this mode can be played single-player if you want, but it’s crying out for co-op.
A bit more polish on the port and this could be one of the shining examples of why Tom Clancy games are always worth a look. As it is, though, it’s still very good.