Reviews

Ghost Recon: Future Soldier – Review

Platforms: PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft
Singleplayer: Yes
Co-op: Yes, local and online.
Multiplayer: Yes

Thanks to Ubisoft for providing a copy of this game for review.

It’s important to start out this review with a message to many Ghost Recon fans who have trusted much of the gaming media. You see, in so many previews and build-ups to the release of Future Soldier, many media outlets have perpetuated the myth that Future Soldier is somehow the next Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter. It’s not, and the quicker we can get that idea out of the way the better it’ll be for Future Soldier. The game may be set in the same universe as the rest of the Ghost Recon franchise, and as such even contains a few characters from the Advanced Warfighter games, but this isn’t a sequel to the Advanced Warfare sub-series, nor is it a direct sequel to any of the games in the Ghost Recon franchise. Rather, this is a new Ghost Recon game, a new sub-series bearing the name, and as such it is, in many ways, different to those that came before. It’s quicker, slicker, more forgiving and a whole lot of fun.

If you’re not already familiar with the concept, Ghost teams are highly secretive and small squads armed with the latest and best tech who are often sent on the most……..sensetive missions. As the game opens you take control of a member of one of these deadly teams investigate a convey. It’s not long before things go seriously wrong as you discover an active bomb, a bomb which you can’t escape. The explosion sends you over the edge of a cliff where you hang precariously for just a few seconds before falling to your death. A second Ghost team is sent in, in which you’ll take control of Rozak, to discover just what the hell happened, why and who was responsible, leading to a globe-trotting tale of conspiracy and weapons of mass destruction. For the Ghost’s, though, it’s all about revenge. The concept is powerful, without a doubt, since revenge is one of the strongest emotions, but Future Soldiers plotline quickly falls into Call of Duty territory, jumping from place to place like a drugged-up kangaroo. It does mean that you get plenty of different settings for the gameplay, such as wandering through snowstorms, battling through deserts and sniping high above the streets in Russia, but the constant jumping, poor dialog and pretty bland writing mean that Future Soldier’s story ends up feeling more like bookends that are only there to hold the gameplay in place and provide a reason as to why you’re assaulting/blowing up the next place. In the middle of this carnage is the Ghosts themselves, a small group of just four men who get sent into the most dangerous of situations. There’s so much potential for a good group dynamic there, after all these four people are almost continuously together in dangerous situations and as such have formed a bond that most will never understand, and occasionally the game does attempt to convey this and provide each of the with some personality, but ultimately it fails miserably. The four Ghost’s are a pretty dull bunch, and even now as I write this review I struggle to match their names to their faces.  It’s a real shame, as well, because the voice actors that play them do a great job, even with the flat dialog. It also doesn’t help that the cut-scenes between missions contain some of the worst facial models and animations seen since the Playstation 1. Perhaps the most irritating aspect of the game’s story, though, is the jarringly abrupt ending. The finale level is a fantastic bit of mayhem, but then you complete the level and it just ends. Just like that. What the hell!?

As Ghosts, the teams biggest asset is, as you would expect, their ability to ninja around the place, sneaking through enemy camps like……well, Ghosts. They’re high-trained killers with an intimate knowledge of how to conceal themselves, how to take out groups of enemies, how to handle their weapons and how to be the ultimate badasses, but in Future Soldier it’s not just their training that makes them dangerous, but their tech as well. The Ghost Recon teams are  outfitted with spectacular optical camouflage, something which is in developement today, that essentially bends light around the wearer, letting them blend in to the environment. Simply tab B to crouch and your optical camouflage will activate, allowing you to move slowly around the map. Shooting a weapon, using stealth kills or moving too fast will all deactivate the camouflage briefly, making you stand out more than a clown at a funeral. During the build-up to the games release there was, quite understandably, concern that the optical camouflage would make stealth a joke. Thankfully, this isn’t the quite the case. The optical camouflage is far from fool-proof: get to close to an enemy and a red line will appear on the screen, denoting that your target is suspicious and may have spotted something just a bit out of place. Remain in his gaze for a second or two and you’ll be spotted, generally leading to getting your head filled with lead as he realises there’s some random bloke crouching there like a right prat. Snipers are the worst, as their extra vigilance and the fact that they’re often elevated above the battlefield mean that they can spot you from a good distance. Of course having this optical camouflage it does mean that you can fairly close to enemies and move across open terrain, and so it’d be a flat-out lie to say that it doesn’t make sneaking past enemies far easier, and frankly it is too easy, but clever enemy layouts and level designs ensure that it never feels like cheating and stealthing through enemy camps still remains incredibly tense regardless, especially when you’re navigating narrow routes  between enemy patrols and carefully picking off foes one at a time. However, there is one weird problem: if an enemy looks at you at the horrid red line pops up, you can simply go prone, at which point the guard will cheerfully forget all about that slight bit of movement that initially caught his interest and carry merrily on. It sort of ruins the immersion when you realise than lying face first on the ground will solve all your problems. Shame that doesn’t work in real life, really, but in my experience suddenly lying down on the floor in Asda usually just results in a lot of odd looks and, in extreme cases, the police turning up.

The Ghost’s tech doesn’t just let them go all ninja, though. The ability to gather battlefield intelligence, or in other words ascertain the position and strength of the enemy forces, plays a major part in both stealth and the game in general. As a Ghost you’ve generally got two primary methods of gathering intel, apart from the obvious ones of sight and sound. The first are the cunningly named Sensor Grenades, which when thrown emit a pulse that highlights any enemies within a certain radius. Best of all you can chuck these grenades wherever you damn well please because the enemy seem blissfully unaware of them at all times. Stupid buggers. Alongside your trusty sensor grenades is the UAV, a deployable drone that you can fly around the battlefield to locate enemies, and that can even be turned into a small remote-control car to drive through small, tight locations. Using these cool tools you can plan your next move, carefully evaluating the positions of enemies, who you can take out and in which order to do it in. Planning and executing these stealthy assaults is immensely satisfying, as is taking out enemies one by one until you’ve cleared an entire area. Again, it’s easy to feel that having such tools at your disposal that allow you to track the enemy in such detail makes things too easy, but it’s surprisingly easy to muck things up, ensuring that the tension is always there. A dead body might get spotted leading to your discovery, or you might misjudge the distance between guards when performing a take-down and get spotted while slicing the neck of an unsuspecting foe. Of course, you’ve also got other handy things like back-scatter optics that let you see enemies through walls and sniper rifles that let you shoot them through walls as well. Being a Ghost clearly has its perks. One of the best memories I take away from this game is a strange little stealth moment. On my first attempt I shot a guard standing outside a small hut, as he was going to be in my way and I saw no opportunity to slip by, but I misjudged where the other patrols where and his body was spotted. Upon reloading the checkpoint I realised that I had been impulsive and hadn’t though things through clearly. I studied the situation and came across several different solutions, but only one really caught my attention: my target was, you see, standing in the open-doorway of a shed, so I wandered across the map a little with my sniper rifle so that I could get the correct angle, and this time when I shot him his body was pushed backwards by the bullet impact into the shed itself, effectively concealing the corpse. It may not sound like much of a moment to you, but to me it  embodied why the stealth in Future Soldier is just so much fun.

Eventually, though, something will always go wrong, whether it’s because of a scripted moment or simply because you screwed up and got spotted, at which point it all comes down to the cover-based gunplay where Future Soldier shows it ain’t no slouch. Ubisoft have played it safe with the typical “A does absolutely everything” cover system that has become the industry standard since Gears of War showed everyone else how it was done. While the cover system on offer here doesn’t quite match up to Epic’s classic it’s still  smooth and satisfying . Whack A and your Ghost will slide nice and responsively into cover. Whack A again and you’ll roll or vault nicely over the cover you’re in, while holding A lets you pull off a roadie run for when you really need to get your ass back in to cover! Where the system does stand out is in the way you move from cover to cover. Whilst hiding behind an object like the wuss you are, simply look at another piece of cover using the right stick and a marker will appear there, after which you just hold down A and your guy will automatically charge forth from whatever object you’ve taken refuge behind to the new hidey-hole. It’s a pretty slick idea that lets you move from cover to cover quickly and efficiently. I most definitely approve. The only real flaw with the cover system is that getting away from cover can be a little sticky, which proves to be a bit irritating when trying to avoid the deadly frag grenades that inhabit multiplayer land, but I’ll get back to that later. The shooting itself is also slick and satisfying thanks to some seriously meaty sounding and feeling guns, though arguably many of them do have a bit too much recoil. The AI of both your friends and foes do let them combat down a little, though. Generally speaking the friendly AI of your three squadmates is solid, allowing you to leave them to their own devices without worrying about them getting in trouble, but occasionally they’ll refuse to move from spots, won’t line up sync-shots, which lets you mark four targets and take them all down simultaneously, or will sometimes go sprinting past guards while somehow still being in full camouflage mode and not getting spotted. The enemy, meanwhile, are a bit on the thick side. The levels usually offer a degree of freedom to move around and flank foes, lending a touch of tactics to the firefights, but the enemy pretty much never take advantage of this properly/ But they do make up for their lack of smarts by being very accurate, and given that it does not take much punishment to take you out, it’s advisable to keep your ass in cover, soldier! Regardless of these small problems, combat in Future Soldier is surprisingly fun and fluid, though perhaps the slightly quicker pacing of it and shorter distances involved won’t sit well with hardcore fans of the Ghost Recon games.

Where Future Soldiers campaign really shines, though, is in its pacing. These days most shooters have adopted the concept of making campaigns much shorter so they can make them for intense, with the recent Call of Duty games being perhaps the best example of this concept. But to me, this makes it feel more like the developers simply don’t understand the art of pacing and how much of a difference it can make. At nearly ten-hours long, Future Soldier boasts a campaign that is nearly twice the length of the average modern shooter, which, quite frankly, was almost enough to persuade me to give the game a full ten out of ten score! The developers get the mix of stealth, all-action gunfights, explosive set-pieces, vehicle sections, gadget usage and planning are almost perfect for a game such as this, although once again the long-time Ghost Recon fans might be upset that gun-fights get almost as much attention as stealth in Future Soldier, which is a justified complaint. At times stealth or full frontal assaults are mandatory, but at other times the game lets you choose how to tackle each group of enemies or section of the level, allowing you to choose whatever gameplay style feels like the most fun at the time. Hell, sometimes just leaving everyone alive and sneaking through is the best option, although for some unknown reason I always had the urge to take out everyone without being spotted, and would often restart checkpoints to achieve that end. What can I say, I like stealth and I like elaborate plans on how to take out all the enemies. And so each enemy encounter usually starts with recon of the enemy positions and then choosing how best to approach each battle, giving each enemy encounter a slight puzzle feeling as you work out the best plan. Mixing up the core gameplay is things like battling through snowstorms, sniper battles over the streets or Russia, utilising a Warhound robot to blow the shit out of absolutely everything and mowing down enemies with a minigun. These set-piece moments, however, are never overused, instead coming in at exactly the right moment to break up the basic gameplay and keep things interesting.

The entirety of the campaign can also be played in co-op, letting you and up to three mates tackle the missions together. This can be done by either getting three friends to join via Live, or you can get one person in via splitscreen and two in on Xbox Live. Sadly, though, there’s no option to search for other plays online, so you’re stuck with just playing with your friend. To most this won’t be a big deal, but it is a shame that you can’t search for other gamers and meet new people to play with. Regardless of this little problem, playing in co-op is heaps of fun. If planning an assault using a UAV drone on your own is fun, then  it with friends is just awesome! Timing shots to take out entire groups and coordinating assaults with friends is just so immensely satisfying. Or at least, it is until one of you gets spotted, ruining the entire well-planned assault and sparking an argument so epic that it makes World War II look like a mild tiff between neighbours. Still, if you’re lucky your friends might be smarter than your AI partners! Errrr…maybe.

Thrown into both the singleplayer and multiplayer mix is the Gunsmith mode, which is pretty much candyland for anyone that loves to play around with their guns, customizing each and every piece. And seriously, I really mean every piece of the gun. In between every mission in the singleplayer campaign you’ll be given the chance to access the Gunsmith mode and tinker with your gear. There’s a pretty sizable selection of weapons to choose from, ranging from shotguns to sniper rifles, and each of those weapons can have the optics, muzzle, barrel, stock, magazine, underbarrel, trigger, paint, side-rail and gas system changed, giving you, to put it mildly, a hell of a lot of room for customisation. By time you’re finished playing around with each aspect of the gun you really feel it’s your gun, made just for you and you alone. Want a 3x optical zoom instead of a plain red-dot on that ACR? Go for it? Want a trigger with increase sensitivity, laser sight, silencer and gas system that bumps up the rate of fire? Here you go! Or how about a drum magazine and grenade launcher so you can really lay down the firepower? You want that? Of course you do, who wouldn’t? And if all of that is a little confusing then you’ve a helpful disembodied voice that gives you advice on what weapons to take for each mission. Kinect functionality is also available in Gunsmith mode, letting you happily dismantle the entire gun by pulling apart your hands and then put it back together for inspection by closing your hands together again. You can also move the gun around and flick through the various weapon options with your fingers. It works surprisingly well, although like most titles with Kinect functionality added it there are moments where it can get a bit fiddly to use. Gunsmith does contain one irritating, problem, though: long load times. It can take quite a while for guns to actually load-up, leaving you to simply stare blankly at the menu for a while. This gets a touch worse when using Kinect, as well. Still, even with this flaw Gunsmith is utterly awesome! Especially since it’s also available in the multiplayer modes. Ain’t nothing quite like kicking someones ass with your weapon.

When it comes to looks, Future Soldier is a bafflingly inconsistent game. For much of the time it’s a positively fantastic looking game, exhibiting fantastic character models and highly detailed levels that look amazing and even have splashes of vivid colors, something which has become terrifying rare in this modern era of grey and brown shooters. And yet at other times the game looks unfinished and rushed with several levels showing a lack of background detail and flat textures. It’s almost like the developers ripped out a few levels at the last-minute and didn’t quite have the time to replace them properly, cutting corners to try to get them in for launch, which is a strange feeling to be getting given that they’d already delayed the game beforehand and so should have had plenty of time to polish the game to the max. And then there’s those horrible facial models and animations I mentioned earlier in this review. Thankfully they’re relegated to cutscenes between missions and so your sanity is relatively safe, but still, what the hell is up with those faces? And the lip syncing is almost as bad! Take all of this into account and it gives Future Soldier a slightly patchwork feel. On the audio side of the presentation, though, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is actually pretty impressive, boasting sound beautiful audio. Weapons pack a nice meaty punch and battlefields come alive. Hell, I’d even go as far as  to say that Future Soldier might be up there with the Battlefield series for its quality of audio, and to top it off there’s even a couple of great moments from the soundtrack as well as surprisingly good voice acting, even if the dialog is pretty useless.

Jumping out of the singleplayer, Future Soldier offers up its take on the apparently mandatory survival/horde mode. Named Guerilla mode it puts you and up to three of your chums/human bullet shields against 50-waves of enemies intent on blasting your head off. To try to differentiate itself from the other horde modes out there, Future Soldier offers a few different ideas. The first is that every ten waves is a stealth wave where you have to move position, usually just a few hundred feet away, and take out all the enemies in the new location without being detected. Sadly, though, this concept has a few holes in it: first of all there’s zero incentive to actually use stealth as just shooting them all works just as well, and secondly it’s extremely strange to be asked every ten waves to move back to the building you were just at ten waves before that has now, somehow, gotten re-taken by enemy troops, despite the fact that you’re just a few hundred feet down the bloody road. It makes the whole thing feel really shabby, like the developers weren’t even trying with it. The other idea that the Guerilla mode employs is that of wave streaks. Survive enough waves in a row and you’ll be granted a reward such as an airtstrike. The more waves you survive the more powerful the reward you gain. It’s a neat idea, but it somewhat ruined by the fact that’s it’s a bit too easy to hoard these rewards for the tougher waves. In short, then, Guerilla mode fails to impress, feeling more like a tacked on addition than anything else.

Happily, though, the competitive multiplayer offers up plenty of great, if flawed, action with the standard progression system everyone has come to expect, three classes to play as some pretty awesome modes to muck around in. On the class front you’ve got your standard Rifleman who uses assault rifles and LMGs to cause carnage on the battlefield. As you level him up you can gain access to a medikit and even an ammunition box to support your team, but really this class is just all about offense. The Engineer favors shotguns and SMGs for getting up close and personal, but also comes packing sensor grenades and, if you choose, a UAV. In short, he’s the perfect team support class, letting you spot enemies for your team and gain lovely XP in the process. As for the Scout class, well he gets sniper rifles and PDRs as his weapons, but also comes packaged with the lovely optical camouflage, although in multiplayer you can only use this while sitting still, until you unlock a later piece of equipment which lets you move slowly around with it active. All three classes also have access to deployable cameras which can spot and mark enemies, as well as the ability to data hack, a useful skill which can only be used on a stunned enemy. A successful hack will net you a bucket-load of XP and also reveal the enemy positions. It’s this ability to, like the singleplayer campaign, gather intelligence on the enemy where the multiplayer balancing needs some serious work, though. There’s an over-abundance of methods to spot enemies available to gamers with Engineers being able to take both sensor grenades and UAVs, Riflemen and Scouts having deployable cameras and all three classes being able to data hack! During some multiplayer games it can be near impossible to move five-feet without the “detected” message flashing up on your screen. It’s a shame, because it can often lead to any semblance of being a “ghost” being thrown out the window . Perhaps a future update might limit intelligence gathering, but at the moment the balance just isn’t there. Still, during games where only a few people are running as Engineers and using the gadgets, the concept works really well, enforcing the idea that all the game needs is a bit of rebalancing via an update. Until then, get used to most of the enemy team knowing your location

A few other problems also crop up in the multiplayer package. As mentioned earlier, grenades in Future Soldier’s multiplayer are freaking vicious. The slight stickiness to the cover system makes it very tricky to get out of the way of grenades quickly enough, which can be pretty annoying. Another problem that crops up is that it’s possible to lock teams into their spawn pretty quickly. There is a feature in place to try to stop this by moving to an alternative spawn point, but it never seems to work very well. Another possible flaw is that one of the upgrades that you can unlock for weapons is Armor Penetrating rounds, which essentially increase the damage your bullets do. Considering how little firepower it takes to put down a player normally, those who spend massive hours in the game and unlock these rounds quickly could have a massive advantage over those that don’t have them. Finally, the game has had server issues since launch.

But even with these problems the multiplayer is good fun. The pacing of the action is indeed quicker than the previous Ghost Recon games, but nowhere near as fast as Call of Duty, or perhaps Gears of War, if I’m looking for comparisons. obviously it’s the players themselves that often decide the pacing, and so at the moment there’s a considerable amount of people trying to play the game in a more run and gun fashion, but happily those people are getting destroyed by the more tactical team players who take their time and so things are starting to settle down as I write this review, allowing  the multiplayer to find its true personality and pace. Once you start finding groups of players willing to work together and utilise the great map designs to the fullest, games become a fantastic mix of back and forth action.

of course the Gunsmith mode, as I mentioned earlier, is also available in multiplayer, so everyone is running around with guns that they’ve built to suit their own playstyle, which is pretty sweet! There’s not enough parts to ensure that each and every weapon out there is unique to just that player, but it’s still extensive enough. Each time you level up one of the three classes you nab yourself an unlock token that can be used to purchase any new attachment you want for that specific weapon, though it should be noted that attachments unlocked for one gun don’t carry over to the next. Weapons and certain attachments/upgrades are locked until you reach a certain level, but  new weapons come a little bit too slowly, especially since it takes just a few games to get enough unlock tokens to completely kit out your starting weapons with whatever you want, by which point you’ll probably really be wishing you had a new gun to play with. Still, it’s a solid progression system that should keep you playing happily, even if it is just because you keep swapping out the trigger on your ACR. Seriously, just choose which one you want and stick with it!

 The modes available in Future Soldier play a big part in why the online is so enjoyable. The bread and butter of the online community is Conflict, a mode which has objects that must be captured and defended spawning around the map. These constantly moving objectives keep the action moving along nicely. To try to get rid of the lone wolf mentality, taking objectives is the primary way to win the game as they reward your team with many more points that simply getting kills, as well as in-game rewards such as intel on enemy positions and resupply points. That’s right, stop running off like a twonk and getting yourself killed. Yeah, I’m talking to you. Taking your team, teamwork and watching your corners are skills your definitely going to need for Seige, a game mode which has teams taking it in turn to defend an objective while the other team tries to attack it. The catch in Siege is that there’s no respawns, and when it’s just 6v6 multiplayer, that means you really can’t spare anybody, so teamwork is essential. It’s a cool idea for a mode, but one that doesn’t work quite that well because simply eliminating all members of the enemy team will also result in victory, so it usually just comes down to that rather than actually attacking or even defending the objective. Decoy is a rather unusual mode in which the defending team has three objectives to defend against the attackers, but only one of the objectives is actually the real one, with the other two being decoys. The catch is that neither team actually knows which one is the real one. And so hilarity and mayhem insue as everyone runs around like real idiots, which only goes to prove that even with all that tech, military intelligence still gets it bloody wrong! The final mode is Saboteur, which is pretty capture the flag but with bombs, because clearly being impaled by a pointy flag pole just wasn’t dangerous enough for the world of competitive gaming. It’s really a shame that there’s no straight Team Deathmatch mode on offer here, but the modes presented are still great fun to play, and there’s just enough maps to stop if from getting old too quickly, although a few more would have been welcome to keep things interesting. Ah well, inevitable DLC will sort that, I guess.

Right, so how did I feel about Ghost Recon: Future Soldier? Well, the simply said I loved it. Having said that, hardcore fans of the previous Ghost Recon games may very well feel betrayed by Future Soldiers shift to a more intensive action-game feel, to its more, dare I say this, Call of Duty approach. But accept Future Soldier as an entirely new beast, as a new game simply set inside the Ghost Recon universe, and it’s a great blend of satisfying stealth and fun cover-based shooting that packs a ten-hour campaign with superb pacing and a solid multiplayer offering.

The Good:
+ Stealthing it up like a pro!
+ Multiplayer is a blast!
+ Ubisoft know how to pace a campaign.

The Bad:
– Guerilla mode feels tacked on.
– inconsistent graphics.
– What’s up with those faces!?

The Score:

Graphics: 8
Outstanding in places, but fairly bland in others. It’s strange, but still, it’s a good-looking game in general

Sound: 8.5
Fantastic audio work, some nice soundtrack moments and solid voice acting.

Story: 5
Evil Russians, bombs and globetrotting carnage. Bland story with bland characters

Gameplay: 8.5
Too forgiving, but the mix of stealth, shooting and gadgetry is hugely compelling.

Lifespan: 8
A ten-hour campaign makes this one of the longest shooters in a while, and the multiplayer should keep you playing for a good while.

The Verdict: 8.5
What more can be said? The game is far from perfect, but the singleplayer is a masterclass in pacing and boasts considerable length while the multiplayer is a compelling mixture of tactics and mayhem. Sure, if you’re a hardcore Ghost Recon fan you may be disappointed by the change in style, but accept this as a change for the franchise and go in to it with an open mind and you should have plenty of fun.

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