“War isn't won by following the rules,” claims the launch trailer for the latest Ghost Recon. Speaking in terms relative to a franchise's past mechanics, Future Soldier defies those rules to an extent that warrants a court martial. I said the same about Splinter Cell: Conviction initially, but I never approved of the original trilogy's ham-fisted approach to stealth and the punishments for the slightest transgression. Now, Ghost Recon follows suit with a serious focus on tense, explosive firefights alien even to the Advanced Warfighter series. Do Future Soldier's minimal covert encounters silence the fans' mounting insurrections, or will they see the cracks in this shooter's camouflage?
The tragedy begins when a routine search and retrieve mission goes awry, costing Predator squad, four of the military's best Ghosts, their lives – a heavy price to pay for such secret service. The narrative's darker tone puts call-sign Hunter in a seat of pressure; your team is aiming to fill big boots. Your superiors want to know why an unaccounted-for bomb found its way into a Nicaraguan weapons trafficking convoy. The first mission, briefed by grizzled voice actor Steve Blum, demands the extracting of a small-time arms dealer with hands deep in the pockets of the black market. The changes in concealment tactics, however, become rapidly apparent when I execute five mercenaries in broad daylight, a last resort in prior Ghost Recons, and extricate the hostage during an on-rails sequence with a limited viewing angle and bottomless pistol magazines.
"I got it!"
In spite of its arduous development cycle, Future Soldier looks comparatively similar to the second Advanced Warfighter. The Ghosts bear acute attention to detail, from the snow frozen on their gloves to observable, working graph readouts in their visors. These men move with an air of lethality. But when dressed in their between-mission, casual attire, these specialized operatives look ugly, no better than the oppressed villagers they protect. Explosive particles, too, have a very cheap appearance to them, like a direct-to-television film on a tight budget, and objective information looms about the world, similar to Splinter Cell: Conviction – a cool delivery method, for sure, until you recognize its impracticality and illegibility. Shootouts dissuade the straying of eyes, especially when a mounted .50 caliber machine gun or Russian-built tank enters the fray.
Gunsmith introduces a “revolutionary” new way to build a weapon with the optics, trigger, barrel, magazine, and stock as garish as you so desire, though not without hiccups. Many components remain bound to the completion of numerous single-player or multiplayer challenges. I cannot fault Red Storm for boosting the replay value in a cramped shooter market, but when you tout such an excessive system of rewards, at least give us some basic parts to play around with out of the box. Throw us a bone instead of dangling the treat above our eyes saying, “Who's a good boy?” While not the game's lone selling point, Gunsmith eventually delivers on the promised freedom to engage hostiles with a bevy of well-known firearms. Randomizing between maneuverability, control, and power can make all the difference when revisiting missions to better your Ghost ranking.
Speaking of freedom, objectives rarely deviate from Point A to Point B, like tailing an African gang lord or kicking in a back door instead of the front to halt a one-sided interrogation. Some may find this linearity disconcerting, but when the gameplay relies on sleuthing in the shadows, knowing enemies cannot break that momentum with an unforeseen flank assuages those fears.
Rocks do not make for good camouflage.
At least the world's greatest superpower does have its perks. The widening industrial gap between third world countries and the Ghosts ensures the USA's premier combat experts always carry the most advanced gear onto the battlefield, including an array of visor modes like night vision, thermal scanning, and magnetic imaging. Future Soldier deserves credit where it's due. For once you control the soldier wielding the “Follow” designator over his head instead of shooting or moving only when told. However, despite activating solely in the crouched or prone positions and dissipating after each shot fired, the stealth camouflage cheapens the experience, as does the ability to synchronously eliminate four targets at once. The auto-aim associated with sync shots makes Future Soldier considerably easier – at least until enemies start turning the technology against you, or when teammates put bullets through an innocent civilian instead of a mark.
But when the taps flow free, enjoy the rich acoustics of surround sound heaven. Brave the roar of raging sandstorms housing a plane's kindling wreckage and revel in the volatile mayhem of a miniature mech's missiles and mortars. Bullets echo through sheet metal and thunk into wooden palisades. The reverberations of .50 caliber rounds chipping away at concrete muffle the shouts of friendly commands, and helicopter chain guns whir to life just before unleashing thousands of rounds per minute.
Under the gun of frequent large-scale shootouts, the Ghosts are uncharacteristically weak to incoming fire. Yet in the heat of combat, the weapons actually shine. Targeting is smooth and responsive, and every rifle, from the bipod LMGs to silenced snipers, plays a critical role in battlefield success. The novel suppression mechanic pins your soldier to cover when under fire from turrets, forcing you to rely on your teammates to assist in their decommission. Normally I would condone such decisions, but when the AI is this competent, I gladly accept the aid of three virtual allies over three real ones.
Can you spot the Ghost?
Sadly, the fully cooperative campaign is tied to your friends list. Only friends can accompany your globetrotting exploits through polluted oil refineries and frozen mountain bases in the face of AWOL matchmaking. The same goes for Guerrilla mode. This modern Horde twist rivals Modern Warfare 3's Survival missions, except done well, with tougher baddies joining the party to keep the 50 waves from getting stale.
Multiplayer moves at a much more frenetic tempo than the single-player, too. Clashing with the slow spot-and-mark engagements of Hunter squad, competitive matches give way to snap reflexes and map memorization. Victory rests with your team's class composition. A Scout's active camo hides his one-shot sniper rifle while Engineers mark targets from the sky with a hovering drone and the Riflemen stomach more projectiles with their increased body armor. Other gadgets, like sensor grenades that highlight enemies or planted cameras, also find specific uses.
The four Adversarial modes play like reskinned variations on shooter classics with different names, rewarding players that fight for their allies rather than their kill/death ratios. The crowd favorite Decoy requires teams to find the key objective amongst two fakes. Saboteur is near-identical to Halo 3's Neutral Bomb, in that the bomb carrier cannot sprint or fire a primary weapon. Siege plays like Search and Destroy, and Conflict rotates objectives from capturing supply points to defending EMP blasts.
The frenzies spread across ten maps, from scenic desert villages to a frigate ornamented with rusting shipping containers. Yet skirmishes still contain that Call of Duty spirit of dying fast and often before you can retaliate, meaning all but the match's top scorers will see real gameplay in contrast to constant respawn menus.
The recon drone allows you to direct your companions' shots like a top-down RTS.
Though isolated, glitches defile Future Soldier's polish. On occasions when waiting for my squad to stack-up on doorways, they got stuck on the level geometry, forcing a checkpoint reload. And less common occurrences left my character experiencing the seasick-like perspective sway that suppression induces until the side effect stopped for unknown reasons.
Ghost Recon: Future Soldier does many things right, though not all by the series' standards. With smart AI, smooth gameplay, thorough weapon customization, and gorgeous war zones, Red Storm's latest keeps pace with many current generation shooters, but it seldom eclipses them. Future Soldier finds itself, then, caught in a middle ground, pining for a celebratory future while trying to shake an illustrious past.
Developer: Red Storm
Release Date: May 22, 2012
Number of Players: 1-4 (Campaign), 2-4 (Cooperative), 2-12 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC