Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is a prime example of a game that when it works, it is brilliant. The series has always been known for its tactical panache and realism, but Future Soldier takes that down a notch and strives to feel more like a summer blockbuster than previous entries. What we end up with is a mixture of old and new ideas that don’t always correlate the way they should, but when they do it is magical. Whether you are trudging through the campaign solo or co-op, or just mowing down friends online; Future Soldier is an entirely different beast than the games we have come to know.
The campaign plays out much like any other military shooter of late. The game begins with an intense firefight showcasing the mechanics, and a bomb obliterates the first Ghost team. This is where you come in. You are tasked with finding out the origin of the bomb. Along the way, twists and turns present themselves and you go further down the rabbit hole to uncover a larger conspiracy at play. It isn’t uncommon from television thrillers or even other games, but it feels much more cinematic and profound than previous Ghost Recon entries.
My issue throughout the game is that I really just didn’t care. Sure, a story in a game like this is going to be conventional, but there are ways to flesh out the characters. Future Soldier never does this. In fact for the first part of the first level, I had no idea who my character was. It also doesn’t help that the game’s cut scenes are, for lack of a better word, disappointing in both relevance and presentation. I am not sure if it is the technology showing its age, or the game, but the graininess of these cut scenes is appalling, not to mention the character models are downright ugly in some cases.
All of that is irrelevant, though, as long as the game plays well, which for the most part it does. The core shooting and cover mechanics are well done, and the future tech showcased is generally a lot of fun to use. Active camo is by far the most impressive, and enjoyable, piece of gear. This basically allows you and your team to move around areas nearly unnoticed. Move too fast, or get too close and, of course, you will be seen, but this does give you freedom to move around areas undetected.
Other cool gadgets include UAVs that can fly around and tag targets as well as land and send out sonic booms to disorient enemies. One of the more useful additions, though, is the sensor grenade. These can be tossed out to show where all the enemies are hiding. These become imperative during the more intense firefights to keep enemies from flanking you. Each mission introduces these new items, and for the most part, they all enhance the experience. I loved being able to slip by enemies undetected, and even on casual this is not a game to simply run in guns blazing. That is at least one aspect of the series that remains true to form.
The highly-touted Gunsmith mode allows you to customize your weapons in a plethora of fashions down to the trigger and barrel systems. If you are playing on Xbox 360 this can be manipulated with Kinect (or Move on PS3) but neither motion device really enhances the experience. I really like the idea of customization, but here it doesn’t feel necessary. Each mission gives you ample weapons for the task at hand, and even allows you to pick up enemies’ weapons, which seems an odd decision when focusing on the particular gear included in the game. As you progress, you unlock new parts and skins, but I never felt underpowered with the default weapon layout.
As for the actual gunplay, Ghost Recon is on target. All of your actions have been streamlined; getting into cover is simple, and you can fast-move between cover by holding down the button. Popping enemies feels profound, and when an emplacement is pinning you down with suppressive fire, the game is at its best. The areas I had the most issues with, though, are the enemy AI. I understand making a game challenging, I really do, but when you are supposed to be one of the most highly trained Special Forces teams, it feels jarring that a group of refugee soldiers seems more prepared than you. Enemies will toss grenades with uncanny accuracy, and they can even see in sandstorms, something you require magnetic vision to do. It is moments like these that really sever the fantasy of being an elite operative.
You can also venture through the campaign mode with up to three friends cooperatively. I sat down with a colleague to test out this mode, and things are certainly more manageable when you have a partner, but it doesn’t come without hiccups. There are areas where we would get stuck because an AI teammate would get stuck in the prone position. There were also hilarious glitches of enemies and other characters dancing in the environment. It is also worth noting that if you hop into someone else’s game your progress does not return with you. Not sure if this was a glitch or by-design, but my colleague had to do everything we did together in co-op again on his own save. There’s not much incentive to play in other’s games if that is the case.
Of course, the real heart of any Ghost Recon game is multiplayer, and Future Soldier does nail this aspect all around. There are four main modes, with Decoy being the most interesting. Here you have two teams vying to take control of objectives. The catch is that only one is the real target, the other two are simply, well, decoys. It creates some awesome encounters and varies the gameplay. You also have standard deathmatch modes with a Future Soldier twist. A lot of the items from single player make the jump over, but not everyone will be running around with active camouflage on. That is reserved for the scout who also carries the sensor grenades. It is worth noting that he is also lightly armored so his job is mostly intel related. Forcing team play is a way to keep players engaged, and has become the staple for the Ghost Recon series.
Guerilla mode rounds out the pack and basically serves as the game’s answer to horde mode in just about any game imaginable. This can actually be played online, as well as split screen, which is a very nice touch. The hardest thing to fathom, though, is the unique design decision the team made here. Whoever hosts the game controls the, well, controls. If you jump into my game, you’d better be able to handle inverted aiming, because you can’t toggle it individually. It’s an odd design decision that is sure to limit the appeal of this mode, at least until they patch it.
From a presentation standpoint, Future Soldier doesn’t feel like a game three years in the making. Cut scenes are poorly presented with low-resolution character models, and a story I simply never cared about. As I mentioned, I didn’t even know who my character was until two or so missions in. The game itself has flickers of brilliance, such as the meaty explosions and active camo effect, but it also has its share of head-scratching moments. I watched an entire in-game scene where the ground texture never loaded creating an awkward visual effect, and this was with the game installed. The audio, on the other hand, is brilliant with popping gun effects and once again, the explosions rock your sound system. The voice work is hit and miss, with some recognizable audio scattered in, while the music retains that Ghost Recon feel, for better or worse.
Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is far from broken or even being a bad game. It feels more disappointing than anything considering the pedigree of the franchise. Weird design choices and lack of polish really stick out in the single-player game, while the online will likely continue to thrive for months to come. I am not sure if the developers tried to infuse a little too much of other franchises while trying to retain the Ghost Recon feel, but either way the end results are mixed. If you are a fan of the series you will certainly find plenty to love, but I can’t help but feel like Future Soldier could have been so much more.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.