"Hold up. They've got a turret."
Huddled around four screens in the recent Ghost Recon: Future Soldier preview event, a team of journalists surveyed the situation. Crouched motionless, with stealth camouflage making us indistinguishable from the woodland scenery, we beheld a large team of separatist Russian troops patrolling a key tactical position. Ghostly sight lines and icons indicated that all of my fellow players had each acquired a target and were ready to drop them in a synchronised sniper assault on my command... but as nominal team leader, I had access to an aerial drone. After patrolling the skies from above, I'd spotted a nasty machine gun nest tucked around the corner from our vantage point, one that would tear us to shreds if we advanced without due care and attention. I tagged it, making it visible to my comrades.
The plan changed. Instead of a frontal assault, we split into two teams, one of which took position while the other flanked through derelict buildings in order to approach the nest from the side. With new targets acquired (thanks in part to a well-thrown sensor grenade) I took down the machine gunner with a silent burst from my customised SMG while the lookouts fell to near-instantaneous sniper shots. Two more enemies died before the enemies realised the imminent threat, and with stealth compromised, the two teams swapped rifles for shotguns and light machine guns and converged on the survivors with brutal, almost terrifying efficiency.
And then an armoured APC smashed into the courtyard as everything went merrily to hell.
Many games include a cooperative element as an afterthought or rush job, but Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is simply better when played together.
Future Soldier's entire campaign is playable in full co-op as well as solo (on top of the wave-based Guerilla Mode), and it's clear that the action revolves around the same basic principles. You'll need a keen eye for stealth, positioning, intel and execution to succeed, but before all that, you'll need the right tools for the job. Ubisoft has put a huge amount of work - including liaising with military contractors and acquiring/disassembling real weaponry - to provide one of the most comprehensive and customisable arsenals we've ever seen in a shooter. The Gunsmith system allows players to assemble a massive variety of different boomsticks for different combat roles, using optional Kinect or PlayStation Move functionality if they happen to own the peripheral. Since stealth can quickly evolve into pitched firefights depending on how you handle yourselves, choosing a mix of silenced, precise and rapid fire weaponry tends to be the order of the day. Saved looadouts can be transferred between singleplayer and co-op, making the initially daunting interface much quicker to navigate with practice.
Our arsenal selected, we were thrust into a secret mission deep within the heart of Russia, which is caught in the grip of an ultranationalist coup. We were tasked with securing vital intelligence and destroying artillery for a loyalist general without ever revealing our own affiliation, subtly manipulating the conflict from behind the scenes. Once dropped into combat, it was clear that Future Soldier is opting for a much more tense and realistic experience compared to most shooters - even the GRAW sequels - that hinges on tight teamwork rather than ill-conceived lone wolf shenanigans.
Active camouflage (which Ubisoft believes will be 20 years away from practical battlefield application) automatically activates while crouched or prone, which lets players take their time surveying enemy positions and securing their own vantage points. The battlefields we've seen thus far appear to be pleasingly horizontal in terms of design, with wide approaches that encourage teams to assault or infiltrate from multiple angles. Enemies tend to start each encounter unaware of the players' presence, and patrol the area in an unpredictable manner, reacting realistically to sounds or the occasional flicker from an unwary ghost's camouflage. While in stealth mode, players can mark targets on their team mates' HUD, displaying both their position as well as a wireframe overlay that makes sniping through walls a cinch. The GUI automatically overlays targets with icons and incorporeal sight lines when a fellow ghost has them in their gunsights, thus making for an effortless way of coordinating synchronised sniper salvos. It's fun enough with the AI, but in a team with real people, this system provides the tactical depth we've been craving from the series since the original Ghost Recon.
Battlefield awareness is key, and Future Soldier packs some neat new additions to the traditional formula. Team leaders can directly control a hovering drone to detect and tag targets from the air, while all players can lob sensor grenades to expose enemy positions within a short radius. Some will doubtlessly rankle under the assumed leadership of the host, but working effectively as a unit and nominating a squad leader tends to make for a much more efficient combat experience.
It's possible to complete many areas without ever being detected by an enemy, often by ruthlessly exploiting a small slow-motion delay after your initial salvo. But if spotted, the experience changes dramatically. Enemy reinforcements push fast and hard, attempting to flank you and flush your team out from cover. Regular communication is an important (even essential) part of the action, and tagging enemies mid-battle can make the difference between a hard-won victory and painful failure. Ghosts are realistically fragile combatants despite their fearsome prowess, and can only survive for a few seconds once downed unless a teammate steps into revive them.
Of course, there are a fair few cooperative set pieces to indulge in. Smaller moments include having to stack up on a door to breach inside or boosting each other over tall ledges, but larger encounters force all four players to react under heavy fire. Distracting the aforementioned APC, for example, buys enough time for one team member to activate their X-Ray goggles and locate the vehicle's fuel tank - thus neutralising the obstacle with the minimum of fuss. Alternatively, players could seek out abandoned turrets to overwhelm the menacing transport with firepower, but their operators have to be defended from flanking attacks. With missions changing unpredictably, often between playthroughs, being able to coordinate tactics with other real players is an absolute godsend.
Thanks to the wide level design, dynamic AI and impressive set pieces, there's scope for teams to concoct any number of battlefield strategies - and the potential for Ghost Recon: Future Soldier to provide one of the most aggressively replayable cooperative campaigns on the market. Factor in unlockable challenges that grant weapon components for completing certain meta-objectives, and we've got a recipe for something very special indeed.
Teamwork will also extend into every facet of the competitive multiplayer experience... not to mention the horde-style Guerilla Mode... but that's another preview.
Ghost Recon: Future Soldier will release on May 24th for PS3 and Xbox 360. The PC version is slated for June.