Aspiring game studios take note: Russian ultra-nationalists are the new Islamic terrorists – who were themselves once the new Russian ultra-nationalists. The international showdown between a swaggering fundamentalist Christian and a sociopathic fundamentalist Muslim is over, and now America can get down to squabbling over how best to settle the machismo-heavy bill. It’s passé to fax in a combat zone analogous to Iraq or Afghanistan – this is gaming under the Obama administration.
But in the great American fiction, there must always be a “Them” for “Us” to overcome, and without a credible new threat, Tom Clancy’s old whipping boys are vogue once more.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier takes place in the near future and involves a clichéd Russian para-military faction who seeks to overthrow the Federation and re-establish the nation’s superpower status. It’s up to the Ghosts, a super-secret squad of American military clichés, to save us all.
The premise might be about as predictable as the write-by-numbers literature of its celebrity-author endorser, but the game it props up is much more promising. This is no run-and-gun, spray-and-pray third-person shooter. A more measured tactical shooter, Future Soldier advances the Ghost Recon series with admirable additions and refinements. Players directly control Captain Edward “Kozak” Kachenko and have comprehensive command over his Ghost squadmates as they operate deep behind enemy lines.
Whereas in prior Ghost Recon games the player’s commands were limited to “Go here”, “shoot”, “don’t shoot” and so on, Future Solider affords the player the ability to designate and prioritise identified hostile targets for each member of the squad. The versatility and user-friendliness of the command system makes executing elaborate tactical takedowns painless.
Much of what makes the system work so well is the game’s impressive artificial intelligence. Not only do squadmates without direct orders assume tactically advantageous positions of their own accord, enemies react to any action with only the limited information available to them. No longer will a squadmate accidentally alert hostiles who’ll incongruously proceed to shoot at the player.
As the player is no longer grappling with the systemic shortcomings of AI, Ubisoft is free to design more elaborate challenges based on stealth, efficiency, information gathering, and timing. The mission structure is usually straightforward. The first, called Nimble Guardian, tasks the player to track down a contact in a hostile Bolivian city. Another, Subtle Arrow, requires the player to track a Zambian warlord and gather intel on a black-market arms deal before eliminating him.
Adding a substantial dose of realism and engagement is the animation and camera work. The animations of the four-man Ghost team are based on motion capture performed by four Navy SEALs. The result is a unique, believable performance for each character. As the team moves through doors, the camera pulls further out from the default third-person perspective, or into the first-person to put the player amongst the performance. When the player sprints from cover to cover, the perspective drops near to the ground and shakes as if a cameraman in a warzone controlled it.
Significantly less impressive is the Minority Report-inspired Kinect controls for Gunsmith. The feature itself is exciting. Players are able to disassemble any gun and customise the constituent components before reassembling it. Navy SEALs, Ubisoft assures us, take their weapons very, very seriously, and spend significant amounts of time tweaking them to work precisely the way they wish them to.
Many gamers take similar satisfaction in modifying settings to achieve a response that best suits their style of play. In that regard, Gunsmith’s 20 million possible combinations are a welcome inclusion. Its Kinect controls, alas, are predictably gimmicky and unresponsive. It appears that the final, happy union of Kinect and core gaming will have to wait for another title – or perhaps the next generation of Kinect.
In spite of – or perhaps due to – the variety available in weapons, the act of shooting itself seems to lack a truly tangible sense of power and feedback.
The game appears graphically competent but it’s far from the visual buffet we’ve been spoiled with recently by the likes of Battlefield 3. At no point does it feel like the Xbox 360 is struggling to render the various effects and locales – from Subtle Arrow’s Zambia to the bustling streets of Peshawar.
Short of confirming its existence, Ubisoft has remained quiet on the game’s competitive multiplayer, but the campaign will allow for cooperative gameplay for up to four.
First scheduled for release in 2010, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier has undergone significant delays. Without confirmation or elaboration from Ubisoft, the suspicion had been that critical development issues had been encountered – perhaps exacerbated by the remoteness of the three studios in Paris, Bucharest and North Carolina respectively. Certainly there is some final polish to apply before the game’s release here in May, but already it’s apparent that Ubisoft has a title that should satisfy gamers looking for a more considered and strategic military shooter.