Ubisoft is perhaps best placed to open up a second front in the war on modern military shooters. Their third person, cover-based approach might be slightly removed from the heavy hitters in the world of elite videogame soldiering but it’s no less bombastic, explosive or thrilling.
Ghost Recon Future Soldier will be compared with the modern Call of Duty games, that much is inevitable. It’s a comparison that is actively chased too, this game might be mechanically different to Activision’s megalith but thematically it’s almost identical and the way it plays out makes it obvious that Ubisoft’s creative teams have played through the Modern Warfare games more than once. Elements of Future Soldier feel familiar but it’s not always a Call of Duty likeness showing through. There are clear comparisons to be made with the publisher’s own Splinter Cell: Conviction too, in both the presentation of the game and in one or two of the missions themselves.
Almost every mission requires a stealthy ingress. Use your drone and don’t be afraid of seeming timid. Better to hold fire and watch patrols from the drone than charge in and be torn to shreds.
Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt though. The presentational elements, inspired by Splinter Cell’s in-scene projection aesthetic, are explained away by the futuristic eyewear worn by your squad and occasionally provide key information as well as plenty of nonsensical set dressing. The flickering, microscopic text on some of the overlays does tend to distract sometimes though, when you’re scanning the scenery for distant movement of an enemy patrol for example.
The weakest points of Future Soldier are when it forgets itself and tries too hard to emulate its peers. The plot, in particular, quickly finds its way to a rebellion by a Russian splinter group via African arms deals and an attack on London seen through the lens of a tourist with a video camera.
So far, so Modern Warfare.
Regardless of how standard (read: tired, clichéd and generally overdone) these tropes are, or even whether Tom Clancy and Ghost Recon flirted with them first, they’ll be seen by the majority of players as very close to Infinity Ward’s recent narrative and they ruin any chance of connecting with the story in a personal, meaningful way – at least for those who have already connected with what is essentially the same story elsewhere.
Set pieces are underwhelming too. So much of Ghost Recon Future Soldier is about stealth and careful scouting, so when many of the game’s substantial thirteen missions end in unavoidable large scale firefights to make safe your escape, it makes you feel like all that precision and stealth during your ingress was a waste of time.
The now ubiquitous – and infuriatingly imprecise sequences – that have you waving about with a mounted machine gun on the back of a four-wheel drive or hanging out the door of a Blackhawk are as tired, tedious and out of place here as they are familiar from every other military shooter of the past five years. It feels like they’re only there because the developers thought they needed to be when, in fact, they only detract from the most accomplished elements of Future Soldier.
Ubisoft’s Signature Edition trailer.
This is a game which excels when it offers problems to solve and methods to solve them. The drone, airborne or on wheels, is a joy to use for marking targets that your team can take out or stunning groups of guards to give you an extra few seconds to deal with them. Above all, you’re usually presented with several options for making your way through an area. The most satisfying, and the most in-keeping with the game’s ideas, is to scout with your drone from a distance and then move in and deal with an area’s dangers quietly and methodically without raising alarm.
This freedom of choice, coupled with the excellent 4-player squad system is the game’s finest achievement. You can play each of the missions as a co-op squad but the ally AI is reasonably good, even if it is given a little more leeway by the game than human players receive. With human squad mates, the game really comes into its own. Teamwork is a huge advantage and coordination is the key to success.
You’ll also avoid the repeating dialogue that ally AI throws up, which can become annoying, and is often unrelated to events as they occur. Squad mates shouting about a panicked enemy being ready to bug out when you’re quietly and precisely picking off snipers in an adjacent tower block is jarring.
The fact that the game shines when allowing you a degree of choice makes the moments when that choice is taken away all the more infuriating. In particular, the closing stages of the game which culminate in what is literally a guided, on-rails experience, are incredibly poor. At times, during the final mission, the game completely changes the rules you’ve played under for around ten hours. It becomes a viable – and successful – option to simply run around groups of enemies that you have been taught to scout, identify and methodically clear in every previous mission.
Once you’re spotted, you can use the tag command to focus your AI squad on a particular target. Single out machine gunners and RPGs first, riflemen can wait.
Visually, it’s generally quite average, with some poor facial animations that often don’t synchronise with the dialogue. There are several moments when it looks really impressive but they are interspersed with some terrible cutscene animations and some oddly lingering moments with nothing much happening and no way to progress things. For a game which offers the opportunity for so much long range engagement from cover, the sight of rounds sparking off invisible boxes around the more intricate scenery elements is disappointing too.
The invisible barriers that occasionally crop up via sloped tent roofs or paint can lids and minor litter are disappointing but that minor hindrance to movement is more than eclipsed by the successes of the system by which you move between cover. Once you enter cover, an on-screen indicator appears to show the next covered area you’re pointed at and holding a face button quickly moves you to that position. It’s quick, easy and makes keeping your head down far more satisfying than in most shooters.
The style is distinctive, but rarely beautiful.
The four competitive multiplayer modes also do all they can to promote teamwork. Whether you’re transporting and detonating a bomb in Saboteur mode, being tricked by Decoy mode’s false objectives or playing the unforgiving Siege mode, with no respawns, your greatest enjoyment – and successes – will come through putting together a solid squad and working together. Conflict mode is the most traditional, with randomly placed objectives and points awarded that unlock items, it’s probably the least interesting but may well end up being the most widely played.
It’s almost always best to take the suggested load out before a mission but once you know what to expect it can be a lot of fun to go back with different options and tackle it another way, giving some replayability.
Guerrilla mode is the co-op wave based multiplayer. It sets you in scenes thematically related to missions within the main campaign and tasks you with assaulting and defending key points as waves of enemies approach. It can be played online with four or with two-player split screen and gives you phases of stealth, assault and hold, offering a slightly fresh approach on a now common multiplayer mode.
Kinect and Move support is limited to the quite brilliantly diverse Gunsmith section of the game. You can select every little detail of your weaponry and test it in the firing range using motion controls and, strangely only in Kinect’s case, voice control (Ubisoft has previously made excellent voice controls work in EndWar on PS3). This allows you to tailor and test your load out before taking it into missions, which then presents further options for how to approach the game. The standard, suggested, load out is often the most useful but it’s always nice to have a bit more choice. Although it’s also all the more disappointing when, at one point, your character pulls out a sidearm in a cut scene that he was never equipped with.
+ The stealth sections are brilliant.
+ Gunsmith is entertaining with a motion controller and heightens the feeling of choice.
+ Playing with a squad gives many missions an extra dimension.
+ Some enjoyable and imaginative multiplayer modes.
- Capable of looking quite ugly.
- Awkward dialogue and cut scenes that linger just a touch too long.
- The final mission is terrible.
- The narrative is tired and overly familiar.
- Set pieces feel unnecessary and jarring.
There’s a lot to like about Ghost Recon Future Soldier but, unfortunately, there’s just as much to dislike. If you don’t care about narrative, don’t need the latest and greatest game engine powering your HD shooters and can live with the confused juxtaposition of stealth and over-the-top action braggadocio then you’ll love it. If you want a tense, tight, stealthy experience then you’ll probably love around half of it and loathe when it robs you of that pleasure. The squad co-op elements are brilliant and the multiplayer is at least trying to be innovative but some terrible decisions throughout the campaign mode – particularly in the final mission – let this game down in a huge way.