After two years of delays Ghost Recon Future Soldier has been released, but anticipation and reality are rarely good bedfellows. Even the most incredible offering in any medium can fare poorly against the power of self-beliefs. I knew that going in, so I did my best to come at the game as impartially as I could. And I am glad I did.
In the near future, following the detonation of a dirty bomb that took the lives of a Ghost team, events are set in motion that will lead the surviving Ghosts around the world to hunt the source of the bomb. As the Ghosts begin to uncover more clues, they discover that the bomb was one part of a much bigger plot that will lead a country to civil war. The story is nothing you haven’t seen before: terrorists, insurgents, and a rebel army, oh my! It is clichéd and never really emphasized. If you are hoping for a deep connection to the characters, this ain’t the game for you — but that isn’t really the focus either. The story is just an excuse to throw you into some intense missions. Some are presented as fairly straightforward “A to B and murder anything that looks at you funny on the way” mission-types, while others are uniquely suited for the skill sets that the Ghosts can bring. Some missions force you into a stealth posture with alarms ending the missions, while others give you options. There is a good blend at work, with one exception: there are few things as aggravating as a stealth based game that suddenly introduces a time limit. It is an understandable inclusion to mix things up, and it makes sense that a military squad would need to occasionally rush to complete objectives, but it made me want to punch something cute. These limits are few and far between though, and they generally help keep the game from ever being bogged down in monotony, a risk all stealth games face. And make no mistake, Future Soldier is first and foremost a stealth game. At least until you have some friends to join you.
Coordinating a four person stealth attack is a thing of beauty, but it requires real teamwork. If you have a Leroy Jenkins in your party, you are doomed to the recesses of a standard shooter — which isn’t a bad thing, and if you do want to emphasize combat, doing it with other real people is the way to go. If you can get the team working as one, either as a stealth unit or a combat-first squad, it changes the way you approach missions, and those missions are also much easier with other humans helping out. Much, much easier. But even working with just one person is a good time, as the other two AI teammates will follow your commands easily enough. The ally AI is among the best around, and your AI controlled teammates will smartly follow your lead.
One downside to this co-op is that it is not drop-in/drop-out; you all need to be there from the start. That can be a problem on the longer missions, as someone leaving will push you back to the last checkpoint, and the checkpoint system is fairly unforgiving to begin with. That’s a fairly minor con to a major pro though. Each mission also has completely optional secondary challenges which unlock weapons, equipment, and customization options. Most of them can be done solo (and a few are easier alone), but you really need a coordinated plan with others for many of them. This should keep people coming back long after the campaign has been completed. But whether you play the campaign solo or with friends, the missions are fun and varied. The story is just sort of there, and more often than not you will have no idea why you are doing what you are doing, but the objectives are always clear. Besides, you do it for ‘Merica. What more do you need to know?
The controls are streamlined and just feel right. They will be familiar to anyone that knows the style, but the added tools are easy to use and add a layer to the common shooter style. The gameplay can also be tailored to your approach at the mission loadout, where you will choose your weapons and equipment. Each weapon you’ve unlocked can then be customized in the Gunsmith. From the stock to the trigger, the ammo to the rate of fire, there are over 20 million options — including things that will change how you approach the mission, like a bigger scope and whether or not to use a suppressor.
If you are playing this game on the 360 and have a Kinect, you can use it to design your weapon using hand gestures. It is an interesting addition, but not a major one.
All of the Future Soldier multiplayer modes have some form of teamwork required. You can go lone wolf and get some kills, but your team may still lose the match. There are three classes to choose from, each with their own leveling and unclockables (similar to Battlefield), so choosing the right team balance is important. In Conflict, two teams vie for a series of objectives that your team needs to take, then hold, in order to score points. Siege is a no-respawn mode where one team attacks an objective that the other is holding. Saboteur places a bomb at the center of the map with both teams trying to place it on the enemy base before it explodes. Decoy has attackers and defenders, with the attackers having three objectives to secure before the final objective appears.
The multiplayer is a solid and addicting addition, with sizeable maps and a fair amount of variety. There is a slight balance issue between ranks, and those new to the game will have to grind it out for a bit in order to become competitive, but that isn’t unusual. It isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, but it actually plays more like SOCOM than Gears of War, if that means anything to you. A few more game modes would have been nice at launch (more have been promised via DLC), but with plenty of unlockables and objectives rather than just deathmatch there is a lot to keep you playing for a long time.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Future Soldier didn’t quite live up to my lofty dreams that have been fermenting for two solid years, but Ubisoft did the next best thing by making the game satisfying and robust. If you are looking for a new shooter, Future Soldier is among the best of the year.