The Ghosts have always been on the bleeding-edge of military technology, and Future Soldier's new setting transforms the veteran team into the ultimate killing machines. Optical camouflage allows them to move unseen through the battlefields, queuing up synchronised sniper assaults on four targets - the devastating signature 'Sync Shot' - to take out entire enemy squads without them ever knowing they've been engaged. Players can mark priority foes and order their execution directly from the new cross-com system, either using a number of fantastic augmented reality modes (such as the Magnetic visor that picks out metal objects such as guns and fuel tans), or while controlling a hovering drone. Sensor grenades map out hostiles in their radius and overlay them onto the HUD, meaning that strategies can be formed on the fly and initiated with full situational awareness. If knowledge is power, then the Ghosts are Gods.
In terms of armaments, Red Storm's new Gunsmith system lets players personalise a huge number of real-world and prototype guns, right down to your gas system of choice. This new customisation suite is both phenomenally powerful and easy to use, granting warfighters the suppressed tools they'll need for stealthy infiltration and the massive, noisy toys for when things go south. Armed with both sensational weaponry and advanced intel acquisition techniques, the Advanced Warfighters of the future are uniquely capable of dictating the flow of battle, engaging on their terms and dynamically alternating between sneaky stealth, balls-out action and any mix of the two. In the preview sessions we attended pre-launch, it was clear that these slick new mechanics offer something we rarely see in the shooter genre: genuine freedom.
So it hurts that much more when you discover that Future Soldier's campaign gleefully takes this freedom away at every opportunity, taking obvious cues from more mainstream games that focus on modern warfare instead of looking to where the series began. And then it's so delicious to see the multiplayer bring it all home.
In fairness, and right off the bat, I should point out that Future Soldier's lengthy singleplayer portion isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, and I'm doubtlessly influenced by my love of the 2002 original. I can recognise that several of the missions (a highlight being a Russian infiltration two thirds of the way through the campaign) do give the Ghosts the freedom to pick and choose their own engagements, revelling in their new tech and skills. A choice few levels grant us the breadth and width we need to pursue different paths and make the most of the new mechanics, while a slick new cover system allows players to relocate with ease.
But for every fantastic, player-driven segment involving choice, stealthy engagements and dynamically-evolving firefights, Future Soldier features three hyper-linear sections that completely bind your hands. Perhaps an insta-fail stealth section where the sync shot is relegated to a pattern-recognition minigame, a 'diamond formation' rail shooting encounter where you can only control your character's right arm, slow-motion breaches (ugh, really?), guiding a Predator missile onto target (seriously?) or yet another boring ride on a helicopter. Your stealth is frequently compromised by shooting galleries wherein foes automatically detect your team for dramatic effect, making veteran players scream, "why couldn't I just sneak out of the base rather than automatically blowing my cover and stealing a jeep for a pointless two minutes of rail shooting?" "Why is this ostensibly elite team always being ambushed and forced to wait while HQ sends them some air support, cowering behind cover like rookies? Aren't they supposed to be self-sufficient?" Future Soldier's internal logic is bizarre and somewhat broken, on a par with yet another convoluted, bitty and hopeless storyline that sees the Ghosts dealing with an inexplicable Russian coup. Again.
That said, the campaign does offer its share of high points. Sneaking onto a cavernous drilling ship at midnight makes for an exceptionally tense experience, and some of the later levels do offer plenty of opportunities to choose your tactics; featuring enough breadth to provide multiple routes to move through and vantage points to take advantage of. But by and large, Future Soldier's level design is incredibly linear, cramped and narrow-minded, and rarely gives you the wealth of strategic options you can feel, you can see, lurking just under the surface.
In many ways Future Soldier's campaign suffers from an identity crisis, and feels somewhat overdeveloped. It has arguably too many different ideas, too many set pieces and markedly disparate mechanics that never allow players to get into a rhythm or make full use of the fantastic core gameplay. In fact, the sheer number of rail-shooting set pieces 0r forced action scenes serve to make the more interesting highlights lose their impact, such as an enjoyable romp through arctic tundra with a hulking mortar-toting robot drone or a sequence where your Cross-Com goes down. These balls-out segments would have acted as a refreshing breath of fresh air had the campaign focused on core fundamentals, but surrounded by all of the silly popcorn shenanigans, just feel like yet another distraction.
This strange balance of limited freedom and incredibly linear level design also creates an odd sense of pacing, and sometimes makes it difficult to know when you're supposed to freelance or follow the script. As an example, I sneaked my way to an extraction point in one particular mission, only to hold position for a helicopter that never arrived. I tried again, and again, but to no avail. Finally, after getting bored and hunting around, it transpired that a single guard was hanging out nowhere near the objective, but acted as the critical scripting flag that spawned my getaway chopper. It's an awkward mix of forced stealth and action, of restriction and freedom, that rarely gels or satisfies beyond what you'd expect from a Call Of Duty title.
The Advanced Warfighter series steadily took the Ghost Recon series away from its sandbox strategy roots, and sadly, Future Soldier manages to distance it futher still despite technically giving us plenty more opportunities for strategic choice. It's solid and playable by conventional shooting standards, but a conventional shooter isn't necessarily what we wanted from what used to be a sumptuously tactical and cerebral experience. If you're happy with the status quo and with big explosions then you'll probably have a good time, but fans will likely tear their hair out in clumps.
Or, better yet, go straight to the multiplayer. When played with others, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier becomes a completely different game.
The integration of multiplayer lobbies directly into the campaign is a statement of intent, and once you've formed a team either online or via split-screen (hurray!), the campaign lives up to its potential. The linear parts are great fun when you've got some other soldiers whooping down the headsets, and the dynamic infiltration sections become infinitely more tactical when you can assign roles, designate targets, initiate Sync Shots and coordinate fields of fire with real people. It's a shame that there's no matchmaking for the campaign, but hey, you're going to want to know and trust your squadmates when they're all that stands between glorious success and mission failure.
The new Guerilla mode acts like a traditional cooperative Horde Mode, charging 4-man teams with holding positions against increasingly-dangerous squads of incoming infantry, communicating effectively and divvying up different weapons between waves. However, it's a shame that there's no weapon customisation or progression in this mode (it feels shallow and flat compared to Gears 3 or MW3's survival gametype), and the lack of matchmaking is a bizarre omission. You're unlikely to boot up Guerilla mode after a couple of briefly entertaining sessions - there's nothing to keep you invested.
The real multiplayer meat is to be found in the competitive arena, however. Though the three classes may seem somewhat restrictive at first, they're infinitely customisable as you gain levels, allowing players to adopt different combat roles and assist their team in different ways as they level up their builds. The Scout, for example, brings the long-range pain with sniper rifles and the ability to mask their position with optical camouflage, but the engineer can deploy drones and sensor grenades to bring key targets and enemy locations to their team's attention. For every strategy, there's an equal and opposite counter, such as shooting drones out of the air or cleverly using sensors and flanking tactics to blindside their helpless operators... or stunning them and prising enemy locations out of their Cross-Com using the Date Hack mechanic. The three-man fireteam setup in most gametypes encourages tight cooperation and communication, letting players spawn directly onto their teammates to reinforce key positions.
The gametypes on offer include a dynamically-changing objective mode alongside more hardcore engagements, that forces both teams to alternate between attack and defence, throwing them into random locations and facilitating markedly different tactics on the fly. The maps contain a pleasing mix of multiple routes and different engagement ranges, typically tight close-quarter environments and mid-range arenas, meaning that there's always numerous different ways to flank, push forward or dig in. And brilliantly, all of the cool toys from the singleplayer campaign can be used to devastating effect.
As you continually evolve your strategy to fit the situation at hand, drones menacingly hovering overhead, frag and flashbang grenades flying through the air, it's impossible to get sucked into the action; and the compelling class progression and gunsmithing will sucker you in for hours at the time. Put simply, this is some of the best modern military multiplayer we've seen in months, potentially, the very best of 2012 even at this early stage. It's unclear whether Future Soldier will manage to retain its player base towards the end of the year, however, and it's clear that some major DLC packs will be necessary to keep us interested over the coming months.
We've yet to discuss presentation, which is a bit of a mixed bag, to put things mildly. Some excellent special effects and visual flourishes (such as swirling sand or blinding snow while using the Magnetic Goggles) helps to lift a fairly mediocre graphical experience in terms of animations and texture-work. The art style is also somewhat confused, standing as an odd mix between a hyper-realistic war sim and Splinter Cell Conviction's in-game signposting, and never really gains an identity of its own.
Thankfully, Red Storm's sound design is absolutely peerless. As we've previously discussed in an in-depth interview, Red Storm spared no expense to ensure that every gun sounds absolutely, completely authentic at any range, right down to rattles and clicks that you'll rarely hear in the shooting genre. Headshots or hits result in a beefy, meaty stinger, acting both as an audio cue as well as a tremendously satisfying illustration of a job well done. If played through a decent sound system, Future Soldier is easily the best-sounding game of the year so far.
- Strong core gameplay, great guns and gadgets
- Sensational multiplayer
- Peerless sound design
- Dynamic choice between action and stealth...
- ... wasted by a narrow-minded campaign that prioritises rail shooting, brainless action and linearity
- Lack of matchmaking for campaign co-op and Guerilla Mode
- Hilariously dumb storyline and bizarre internal logic
The Short Version: A disappointingly linear, inconsistent and altogether too conventional singleplayer campaign spoils what should have been (and nearly was) a triumphant return to form for Ghost Recon. Thankfully, fantastic co-op gameplay, great gadgets and multiplayer helps to lift Future Soldier into contention, and will provide plenty of sticking power if you enjoy tight, class-based team gametypes.
If you enjoy gung-ho military shooters, Future Soldier will satisfy you over the summer, and its multiplayer will keep you glued to your controllers and headsets. It's just a shame that Ubisoft tried to follow its peers rather than focusing on what makes Ghost Recon unique.