NOTE: This review is also available at DPAD Magazine here
When the first previews for Ghost Recon Future Soldier came out, it looked like it was going to genuinely shake up the tactical shooter genre; while perhaps not the sequel to the genuinely great Star Wars Republic Commando that many wanted, rumours of Ghost in the Shell style micro-tanks, powered armour and more sounded exciting at a time when the gaming world was going crazy for modern warfare.
Now it is out, has it lived up to these expectations? Not quite. For one, it is not very futuristic. The invisibility and recon drone, the game’s main gimmicks, end up contributing little more to the stealth gameplay than anyone will have seen in Metal Gear Solid, while other futuristic technology feels lifted from any number of Mission Impossible films or Tom Clancy novels; X-Ray scopes, “smart” ammunition, a kind of up-armoured shed on legs armed with a grenade launcher which feels remarkably like Modern Warfare 3‘s assault drone. It’s futuristic but it at the same time feels very much the same thing that so many other games have done. It’s hard to get excited about the standard litany of Tomorrow’s World or New Scientist innovations in a game called Future Soldier when half of them have turned up in one called Modern Warfare. What’s more is that the weapons on offer are all straight out of every other shooter; Mass Effect 3, despite largely having a standard armoury, at least felt futuristic because instead of an ACR or a MP7 you were using a “N7 Sabre” or a “Collector Particle Beam”, and they looked different. Ghost Recon instead feels like someone put a bunch of sci-fi accoutrements on a modern-day story.
The story is similarly slight, uninspired and jingoistic stuff; Americans thump on about offences against their soldiers and modern global terror, a nuke is fired and prevented, weapons of mass destruction wander about the globe in the hands of evil Russians. What’s more, the game falls into the trap that so many modern games do; in trying to create the most exciting set-pieces possible, there is no sense of a campaign and every sense of a number of missions linked in narrative terms, but not in gameplay terms. You buzz around the globe, from Africa to India to Russia to a number of small fictional former Soviet states, things happen there and then you are off somewhere else. Compare this with Modern Warfare, where missions often flowed directly from one to the other, or intertwined chronologically – one mission would have you take a hill, the next defend it. You rushed across the countryside, seized a missile base and escaped over a number of levels. By contrast, in Ghost Recon Future Soldier, each mission is entirely self-contained to the point of predictability; if it has only been a short mission, and they are talking about escaping, then there will be more to do. Helicopters exist only to be shot down to introduce defences against waves of enemies. As a result it’s thematically appropriate; get in, complete the mission, escape, back to base – but it makes it hard to make this into a game which flows well because the “down-time” between missions is so short in real time terms. A five-minute cutscene must represent hours or days of time in the storyline. Instead, it feels like working through a list of missions which may as well be completely disparate.
However, the core of a game is the experience of playing it as much, if not more, than the story it tells – and Future Soldier is for the most part exceptionally fun to play. It draws on modern developments in augmented reality technology to make the world it depicts justifiably gamelike; rather than a traditional HUD with a weapon selector, objectives, ammo count, health etc., these things are holographically depicted. Syndicate did something similar, but GRFS refines the mechanic and makes a game which looks exceptionally stylish. This gamification of the game world continues with the “Ghost Score” and “Tactical Challenges” – each level rates your performance out of 100 based on how “correctly” you completed it (similar to recent Assassin’s Creed games rewarding roleplaying) and the lion’s share of the points come from completing increasingly difficult secondary objectives – from killing five enemies in one gung-ho spray from your mighty machine gun to beating an entire level (including a setpiece battle at the end) with only fifty shots fired. Your score and performance on challenges is linked to unlocking new weapons, ammunition types and gadgets to make replaying levels (or progressing through the game) easier.
The other gimmicks of the campaign are less interesting; the squad orders system, once a selling point of Ghost Recon games, is now simply “shoot this man.” Your squad follow you. By pressing a button, you highlight an enemy or up to three; press the button again and all die at once. It’s realistic but there’s no depth to it. Your AI allies find the best vantage points, and all that is required is timing. It’s vital to complete many of the challenges, and at times a neat, puzzle-like mechanic; but it’s an empty one and hardly counts as a “tactical” shooter. Meanwhile, there are sections of levels reduced to shooting galleries; not only are there helicopter and jeep rides with mounted guns, some escort missions have you moving along a rail shooting enemies as they pop up. This adds precisely nothing to the game of value and is exceptionally tiresome on subsequent runs through a mission.
A modern shooter is as much about its multiplayer as its single-player, and the multiplayer experience in Future Soldier is for the most part good. The range of maps is varied enough to be interesting, the to-be-expected experience-based progression is a good compromise between Call of Duty‘s constant parade of shiny things to unlock and Battlefield‘s incredibly long grind for decent vehicle parts and the weapon customisation, while not as ground-breaking as initial previews touted, does have a number of good features including customising fire rate, switching to burst fire, and specialist ammunition (although the most interesting parts are locked at the end of the level progression).
However, it is quite underpopulated; the main Conflict mode is the most popular, and while it is good the other modes look equally interesting but are much harder to find players in. Conflict is very much like the Killzone series’ rolling objective modes; areas of the map are highlighted, players fight over them for a few minutes and then the objective moves. However, while Killzone mixes in capture the flag, area control, area defence and assassination missions, Future Soldier only really has “hold area” modes. It is more interesting to play than most shooters but feels like it does not challenge expectations to any great extent. Similarly, the survival gametype, Guerilla, feels very familiar; while it does a good job of mixing in elements of the single-player, and has a fun upgradeable base mechanic, that is hardly enough to stand out nowadays when even games like Hunted: The Demon’s Forge, flawed as they are, offer customisable waves, and no survival mode is ever likely to match Halo‘s Firefight in terms of freedom to customise. It is also worth noting the game uses the Uplay system; it is a form of online pass whereby completing certain challenges in game gives points to unlock content in the multiplayer. There is currently a map and two weapons locked behind this, as well as most of the online functionality behind the online pass.
In conclusion, while Ghost Recon Future Soldier is enjoyable enough, enjoyable enough is no longer good enough in a genre as populated as modern tactical shooters. The futuristic gimmicks feel the safest, least interesting ones possible (one early interview concerning this game claimed players “couldn’t relate to more high-tech elements”, which was quite baffling given it was around the time that a marginal game called Mass Effect 3 was letting millions of gamers shoot lasers at giant space prawns) and the lack of the tactical elements that popularised Ghost Recon is highly visible and works against the game. If there were to be an example of a big-name game that embodies “safe, enjoyable but unremarkable”, Ghost Recon Future Soldier would be it. What is more, despite being competently executed in terms of game experience, the game’s servers and multiplayer are fraught with connection issues; many players have complained about issues with joining games with their friends, and in a heavily teamwork-based game not being able to get a group of known players together to co-operate is a major failing.